Bullshit Jobs

Man walking with brown satchel

My morning read through Hacker News brought up a familiar old topic - the concept of Bullshit Jobs - and pushed me back in the direction of anthropologist David Graeber’s quintessential 2013 piece in Strike magazine.

In his article, Graeber coined the phrase ’bullshit jobs’ and used it to describe an increasingly common strain of new service industry ‘careers’ that have been created over the past fifty or so years.

A brief history lesson.

Back in the early 1930s, John Maynard Keynes wrote about his vision of a fifteen hour work week. Keynes vision of a drastically reduced working week was based on his assumption that, in developed Western countries, technological advances would make it possible to reduce the working week without a resultant loss in industrial (and economic) productivity.

Given the advances made over the past 80+ years, Keynes was spot on, at least on that score. Technological innovation in manufacturing and the rise of computers should have given us more than enough opportunity to restructure the make-up of what ‘working for a living’ actually means. That hasn’t played out in practice and certainly not as Keynes foresaw it.

David Graeber believes that we have instead bought more fully into consumerism and abandoned the opportunity of more leisure time. He doesn’t believe, however, that this choice explains the’creation of a whole swathe of pointless jobs consisting almost entirely of tasks that the people doing them believe don’t need to be done at all.

Graeber goes so far as to call this phenomenon a scar across our collective soul, such is the profound mental, moral and spiritual damage it has inflicted.

Strong words indeed but is he correct in calling these occupations bullshit jobs or has the modern world just moved too far beyond the old agricultural and industrial archetypes of what ’real work’ is to allow us to judge it accurately?

What is real work then?

Am I less of a worker because I sit at a desk pecking away at a keyboard and sitting on conference calls from 9 to 5 each day? Graeber sticks his boot in particular into administrative service sectors like corporate law, human relations, public relations and (gulp) financial services as being the main culprits of his bullshit jobs hypothesis.

It’s quite clear that primary working class employment in domestic service and agriculture has been the main casualty of increased automation. Whether the people who previously worked those industries (and broke their backs for the cause) would consider that a huge loss is hard to tell.

If we need to keep the economy functioning as it should in a modern capitalist society then the people who would previously have found employment in those lost sectors need to find something else to do. Over the past forty years we’ve seen a larger push from successive governments to encourage working class children into higher education and then on towards the blossoming service sector.

I’m a product of this myself.

I was the first person in my family to attend university. I come from a staunchly working class family with two parents who worked (and continue to work) manual jobs. Their parents were the same. My parents worked damn hard to create an environment where my generation had the opportunities that hadn’t necessarily been available to them. A strong focus on education and no limit to the aspirations we could have, regardless of which ‘class’ we were born into.

Rural Northern Ireland in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s didn’t get cut along the same upper/middle/working class divides that may have been more evident in England but our own divisions have been well publicised. And they caused just as many worthy working class young people to miss out on opportunities that may otherwise have been available to them in a ‘normal’ society.

By the time I finished my A Levels in 1997, we were one year away from the Good Friday Agreement and there were still basic student grants and no tuition fees for university students. If that hadn’t been the case then maybe my perspective on this all would be somewhat different. Sliding doors and all that.

I studied Accounting and while I shifted over to a career in IT and analytics, it was the service sector that was always going to be my chosen path in life. The masterplan worked. All those years of studying and my folks working hard to provide the basis for this future had paid off as planned. What none of us could have known was just what the move into this kind of working landscape would mean for a generation like me in terms of job satisfaction and actually taking meaning from one’s work.

Full employment or bust?

David Graeber says ”it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working” and this quote in particular hits me the hardest.

Is this the realistic capitalist’s version of the old Soviet Union job creation mentality? Where everyone felt employment was “a right and a sacred duty” or is it more cynical in nature? Capitalism can’t exist and grow without people having money to spend. I keep my economics fairly simple these days. 2008 taught me that complicating things just makes the level of error brought on by guesswork increase exponentially. But it seems fairly simple in nature.

If companies need to sell more widgets or bobkins, they need to have enough people with cash on their hip (or credit at their disposal) to buy them. If robots have taken all the jobs and vast swathes of working class people are sitting unemployed then a problem occurs. No money, no buying. No buying, no growing capitalist corporations. And society crumbles.

So the government can’t just hand out free money to everyone and not have anything to fund it with. To do that they’d need to increase tax on the remaining workers and their employers, putting further pressure on these power (and money) hungry companies. No-one is going to vote for that (bar the unemployed who are more worried about shelter, food, healthcare etc. at this stage of Maslow’s hierarchy) so again, we have a problem.

Has the need for more and more consumers to pay for the consumer goods meant that this whole sub-strata of bullshit jobs was artificially created by the very corporations who profit from the growing level of consumerism in the first place?

So UBI by stealth?

What I’m saying is: are the middle classes already being fed a version of Universal Basic Income without anyone pointing out that’s what is really happening? Instead of giving the general populace a free lump sum to spend as they wish and not ‘work’ for it, middle managers are being given money to spend but have to keep up a level of societal pretence that the ‘work’ they go to each day actually has some kind of meaning behind it.

Are the increasing levels of workplace stress and growing anxiety epidemic in our society a symptom of people catching on that they are, in fact, part of this great Bullshit Jobs delusion? What if there really is nothing behind the curtain other than another set of Bullshit Jobbers carrying on their part of the illusion? The Great and Wonderful Oz is dead. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. And what does that mean for those involved in the deception?

A central tenet of the utopia a perfect Universal Basic Income is supposed to create is that it would free people up to create more great art, music and literature. More time to push the boundaries of our knowledge and learning and propel humankind to the next level of development. If this is UBI by stealth I fear we’ve greatly over-estimated what the results will yield.

The devil makes work for idle hands.

Graeber says ”the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger”. I’m not convinced it’s an outwardly planned policy but it’s difficult to argue that the thought of these bright, inquisitive, financially secure people with a lot of free time on their hands really does scare the bejaysus out of the ruling classes. That old Puritan work ethic allied with a maxim that “the devil makes work for idle hands” certainly plays along nicely with that.

Am I being too cynical and reading too much into potential subtext? Could it all be part of a giant masterplan concocted over cognac and cigars in mahogany panelled gentlemen’s clubs in Knightsbridge? It’s all a little too global in scope for that to be 100% reality so what other factors must be in play here?

If each corporation is but a small cog in the wider global economy then each department within each corporation is again another small cog at a greater level of abstraction. Same again for each team within each department. Multiply this by the number of middle managers involved in each of these cogs within cogs within cogs. If we assign an average degree of intelligence, penchant for corporate ladder climbing and overall ability to each of these middle managers then where would that take us?

Have a look around dear reader. This is where it takes us.

Team size is a proxy for size of managerial appendage.

This is a known fact. Please don’t debate it. We all know it.

Managing more people looks good on a CV. The more people you manage overall, the less direct reports you should have. They will then have a team under them. To pursue their own career growth they will want to grow that team which grows your team. Which makes your other reports uneasy and demand they get more headcount for their teams as well. Which grows your team.

Pretty soon you’ve a massively bloated org chart with a lot of pen-pushers sharing out the work that half of them could quite conceivably do and - hey presto - you have created a new sphere of Bullshit Jobs. Multiply this by the number of middle managers you imagined above and you see where this is going.

Maybe it isn’t a grand scheme to subjugate us. Maybe it’s just the natural end point of human nature in the middle management corporate landscape. Maybe that’s even more depressing than the UBI by stealth thought.

Can’t see the wood for the trees.

If these jobs are actually organically created then are they really not necessary at all? Is even that aspect of the Bullshit Jobs hypothesis a myth? The unfulfilled corporate drone may miss the overall impact of their work on the organisation at large but that doesn’t mean that the value they provide is completely negligible.

Before we contemplate what removing this vast swathe of jobs from a business, or indeed society at large, would achieve, we should consider G.K. Chesterton’s fence. In his 1929 book The Thing, Chesterton details a principle that ‘reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood.’

He uses the example of a fence whereby the modern reformer would remove the fence because he can’t see the need for it. The ”more intelligent” reformer requests that they go away and think about why it might be needed and, once that has been worked out, they can consider destroying it.

Let’s say we apply this to a potential bullshit job such as corporate law. We might have to consider that our own personal distaste for the practice of something which appears to offer little to humankind in general, may, in fact, have enough utility to the bigger picture as to make it worthy of keeping. Even if that’s beyond our immediate comprehension.

(I should point out that I’ve got no beef with corporate lawyers per se. My only interaction with them is watching Suits on TV so I’m not singling them out solely for destruction just yet.)

A paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules.

Maybe the final word on Bullshit Jobs should go to Joseph Heller who seemed to sum so much of the general feeling for them up in his classic 1961 novel, Catch 22.

“Just pass on the work I assign you to somebody else and trust to luck. We call that delegation and responsibility. Somewhere down near the lowest level of this coordinated organization I run are people who get the work done when it reaches them, and everything manages to run along smoothly without too much effort on my part. I suppose that’s because I am a good executive.

Nothing we do in this large department of ours is really very important, and there’s never any rush. On the other hand, it is important that we let people know we do a great deal of it. Let me know if you find yourself shorthanded. I’ve already put in a requisition for two majors, four captains and sixteen lieutenants to give you a hand.

While none of the work we do is very important, it is important that we do a great deal of it.

Don’t you agree?”

The more I see, the less I know.

I don’t know if I’m any the wiser after going through all of this.

Maybe the general takeaway is that we create our own value in our work. Just because it’s not always apparent to either ourselves or those looking on from the sidelines doesn’t mean there isn’t some value when we consider a bigger picture.

Or maybe we’re all just hamsters on a wheel. Constantly racing round and round so we can get the bigger TV, the holiday abroad and the new BMW to sit at the front door.

Either way, life is what we make of it and if the worst that happens in our working lives is that we can’t quite pinpoint why we do it beyond the money, there are a few billion other people on the planet who would swap with us right away. I think this could be the very definition of a First World Problem.