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Bullshit jobs

Imagine having a job so pointless or unnecessary that you can’t understand how a person in their right mind could pay you to do it.

My current job title is Portfolio Coordinator, and everyone always asks what that means, or what it is I actually do? I have no idea. I’m still trying to figure it out. My job description says all sorts of stuff about facilitating relationships between partners, etc., which as far as I’m concerned, just means answering occasional queries.

Obviously, there isn’t enough work to keep most of us occupied, but—in a weird logic that probably just makes them all feel more important about their own jobs—we are now recruiting another manager. Maybe this is to keep up the illusion that there’s so much to do?"

I’m at a small college in Massachusetts training to be a high school history teacher. Recently I started work at the dining commons. A coworker told me on my first day: “Half of this job is making things look clean, and the other half is looking busy.”

For the first couple of months, they had me “monitor” the back room. I would clean the buffet slider, restock the desserts, and wipe down tables when people left. It’s not a big room, so usually I could do all my tasks in five minutes out of every thirty. I ended up being able to get a lot of reading for my coursework done. However, sometimes one of the less understanding supervisors would be working. In that case, I would have to keep the corner of my eye open at all times in order to make sure they would always see me acting busy. I have no idea why the job description couldn’t just acknowledge that I wouldn’t have much to do—if I didn’t have to spend so much time and energy looking busy, I could get my reading and the table cleaning done quicker and more efficiently.

The firm was a partnership, with each office managed by one partner. All of them seem to have attended one of three private schools and the same design school (the Royal College of Art). Being unbelievably competitive fortysomething public schoolboys, they often tried to outcompete one another to win bids, and on more than one occasion, two different offices had found themselves arriving at the same client’s office to pitch work and having to hastily combine their bids in the parking lot of some dismal business park. The Interface was designed to make the company supercollaborative, across all of its offices, to ensure that this (and other myriad fuckups) didn’t happen again, and my job was to help develop it, run it, and sell it to the staff.

I should have realized that this was one partner’s idea that no one else actually wanted to implement. Why else would they be paying a twenty-one- year-old history graduate with no IT experience to do this? They’d bought the cheapest software they could find, from a bunch of absolute crooks, so it was buggy, prone to crashing, and looked like a Windows 3.1 screen saver. The entire workforce was paranoid that it was designed to monitor their productivity, record their keystrokes, or flag that they were torrenting porn on the company internet, and so they wanted nothing to do with it. As I had absolutely no background in coding or software development, there was very little I could do to improve the thing, so I was basically tasked with selling and managing a badly functioning, unwanted turd. After a few months, I realized that there was very little for me to do at all most days, aside from answer a few queries from confused designers wanting to know how to upload a file, or search for someone’s email on the address book.

All these stories illustrate a growing phenomenon that David Graeber calls “Bullshit jobs” which is also the of his viral article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant and the name of a book where he deepens his researches about the topic.

Summary

1. What Is a Bullshit Job?

A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

2. What Sorts of Bullshit Jobs Are There?

There are 3 kinds of bullshit jobs:

  • Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.
  • Goons are people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them.
  • Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.

3. Why Do Those in Bullshit Jobs Regularly Report Themselves Unhappy?

“In my experience, this was psychologically exhausting and it left me depressed, having to go every workday to a job that I considered pointless. Gradually I started losing interest in my work, and started watching films and reading novels to fill the empty shifts. I now even leave my workplace for hours almost each shift without anyone noticing."

4. What Is It Like to Have a Bullshit Job?

“I was told that it was very important that I stay busy, but I wasn’t to play games or surf the Web. My primary function seemed to be occupying a chair and contributing to the decorum of the office. At first, this seemed pretty easy, but I quickly discovered that looking busy when you aren’t is one of the least pleasant office activities imaginable. In fact, after two days, it was clear that this was going to be the worst job I had ever had. I installed Lynx, a text-only Web browser that basically looks like a DOS [disk operating system] window. No images, no Flash, no JavaScript—just monospaced text on an endless black background. My absentminded browsing of the internet now appeared to be the work of a skilled technician, the Web browser a terminal into which diligently typed commands signaled my endless productivity."

5. Why Are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating?

The “Services” sector is now employing ~80% of the workforce (compared to ~40% in 1920).

From an interview with then US president Barack Obama about some of the reasons why he bucked the preferences of the electorate and insisted on maintaining a private, for-profit health insurance system in America:

“I don’t think in ideological terms. I never have,” Obama said, continuing on the health care theme. “Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs [filled by] people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?"

Since at least the Great Depression, we’ve been hearing warnings that automation was or was about to be throwing millions out of work—Keynes at the time coined the term “technological unemployment,”. Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.

6. Why Do We as a Society Not Object to the Growth of Pointless Employment?

Because we, as a Society, can’t agree on the definition of “value”.

“concerning the inverse relationship between the social value of work and the amount of money one is likely to be paid for it”

“Virtutum omnium pretium in ipsis est." - Epictetus

7. What Are the Political Effects of Bullshit Jobs, and Is There Anything That Can Be Done About This Situation?

Managerial feudalism induces cognitive dissonance.

“Universal Basic Income would mean millions of people who recognize the absurdity of this situation will have the time to engage in political organizing to change it, since they will no longer be forced to highlight forms for eight hours a day, or (if they insist on doing something useful with their lives) scramble around for an equivalent amount of time trying to figure out a way to pay the bills."

Why it’s important?

In one word: Waste. Bullshit jobs are a horrible waste of time, energy, and resources.

We all know that today, reducing waste should be our top very 1 priority.

Yet, as long as this waste is creating an elevated status for some people, we accept it.

Furthermore, one of the pillars of white-collar jobs is that the only limit is our imagination. Problem: there is fundamentally no limit to the Human imagination. Thus, there is basically no limit to the inclination of the services sector to create bullshit projects, jobs, and business.

Absence of meaningfulness leads to unhappiness. Unhappiness leads to unpredictable societal problems.

Now what?

If you believe that your job is bullshit (remember, bullshit jobs are jobs which the person doing it think it’s bullshit), maybe it’s time to either move on, or to use your paid time doing nothing to join or launch more fulfilling projects. Doing good is the only way to feel good.

How to start reversing the curve and put an end to bullshit jobs? My semi-educated guess is, like the author, that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the only solution, as these jobs, with government subsidies, are a kind of extremely wasteful UBI. After all, aren’t we automating things to work less?

But as we are far from seeing any kind of UBI soon I can only recommend one thing: entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship simply mean that you do what you think is meaningful, in your own terms, and make a living (or more) off it. Whether it be growing tomatoes, crafting software, or making jewelry. You have your own definition of value and you work for it, not to increase some arbitrary and pointless metrics.

Even if I’m usually not a big fan of overly verbose books (this one is), I vigorously recommend “Bullshit job” by David Graeber!

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Tags: entrepreneurship, programming, society, books

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