Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit JobsMy favorite passage from David Graeber’s latest book, Bullshit Jobs, came in his description of normal human work patterns:

[M]ost people who have ever existed have assumed that normal human work patterns take the form of periodic intense bursts of energy, followed by relaxation, followed by slowly picking up again toward another intense bout.

Graeber, who is an anthropologist and a professor, goes on to note that this is the “traditional student’s pattern of lackadaisical study leading up to intense cramming before exams and then slacking off again” — a pattern he calls “punctuated hysteria” – and argues that this is what humans do if allowed to follow their own devices.

I have always worked best like that. Another aspect of that pattern is the assumption that people will do their job if you let them do it as they see fit instead of looming over them and micromanaging them. I’ve always found that to be true most of the time as well.

But unfortunately the modern world of work doesn’t follow that pattern. And, even worse, it includes not just the time-wasting meetings and trainings that infect even good jobs, but a large percentage of jobs that are completely unnecessary. That is, bullshit jobs.

Graeber defines a bullshit job as:

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.

In writing about these jobs, Graeber challenges a lot of preconceptions. First, many, if not most, of these jobs are in the private sector, despite the myth that this sort of thing only occurs in government work. Companies really do pay people good money to do useless things or even to do nothing.

Secondly, these jobs are not the ones that get cut when some company is cutting expenses. Those are all too often the jobs where people are actually doing what the company is supposed to do.

Third – and maybe worst – people hate having these jobs. They’re soul-sucking experiences. That’s true even if no one is standing over you making sure you look like you’re working. No one really wants a job where they sit at a desk and surf the web all day.

Graeber divides bullshit jobs into five types: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box-tickers, and taskmasters. Flunkies are obvious to most of us. Goons are those who aggressively push people around, a category that includes corporate lawyers and telemarketers. Duct tapers are hired to keep systems that don’t work right running, a substitute for actually fixing the system. Box-ticker is probably self-explanatory, and taskmasters describes a lot of middle management, at least in my experience.

Graeber points out that these jobs are proliferating. He also points out that the jobs in which people actually do something useful – particularly those that provide care to others, a major category – pay less well than the bullshit jobs, in part because people who don’t have them think that doing real work is its own reward. This often is applied to teachers, for example.

As he says, “All this is genuinely perverse.” He goes on to point out that we’re not working fifteen-hour weeks:

because we have invented a bizarre sadomasochistic dialectic whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures, and, at the same time, the fact that our jobs come to eat up more and more of our waking existence means that we do not have the luxury of … “a life.”

Graeber doesn’t like to make policy suggestions in his books in part because he is suspicious of policy. But he does think the idea of universal basic income might be part of the solution, assuming it is structured in such a way that all of it doesn’t immediately go to landlords who raise the rent by the same amount. It’s an interesting idea.

While I’ve had plenty of jobs that included bullshit components – usually unnecessary meeting or paperwork – I’ve only had one job that actually fits into Graeber’s definition. And even it wasn’t a bullshit job on its face; it was just the circumstances that made it so.

I worked as a part-time secretary during a one-month special legislative session to the most unimportant state representative in the Texas Legislature. He was the most unimportant member because he had been elected to fill a vacant seat for the special session and then defeated in the primary election to select a permanent representative for the district.

I think I typed two letters for him and I don’t think either of them had anything to do with state business. He was so unimportant that even the lobbyists didn’t bother to call on him. Only the beer lobbyists made a visit and they were just being polite and calling on everybody.

However, nobody bothered to supervise me or even ask much of me, so, since I was going to summer school, I did my homework. And made As.

A year of that job would have been soul-sucking, but treating it as a one-month stipend to help me pay for college worked nicely.

I can think of jobs I’ve had that shouldn’t have to be necessary, but are – particularly the time I spent working in affordable housing. But that’s another kind of problem.

Graeber brings a lot of creative thought to anthropology. His previous book on bureaucracy, The Utopia of Rules, is a worthwhile companion to this one. (I wrote about it here.)

I find the combination of jobs doing pointless work and the necessity of doing all kinds of unpaid labor to satisfy bureaucracies that control necessities in our lives rather depressing.

One of these days I’ll write an actual utopian story in which there are neither bullshit jobs nor bureaucracy. Of course, I’m sure no one will want to publish it, because it’s not “realistic.”

But I need to invest the time in figuring it out, anyway. There’s got to be a better way to do things than the way we’re doing it right now.

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Bullshit Jobs — 18 Comments

  1. A lot of bullshit jobs are executive positions created for the relatives or girl/boyfriends of the CEO. I remember a lot of these in the film industry: the head honcho’s son’s girlfriend was given an office, a secretary, and a position as a “developer” and paid three times what those of us who actually worked made. All she did was gossip on the phone for the four or five hours a day she turned up, and order people around to fetch food and so forth. Her secretary also worked for another developer, and her job for that second developer, a guy, was to read the newspaper every day and clip out likely stories to be developed. (Invariably murders or scandals)

    The second in command’s son was a “producer” who arrived every day in his rolls about eleven or so, made phone calls in his huge office to set up lunches, then drove off into Beverly Hills for said lunches, after which he seldom returned. His name was all over a couple of shows but his secretary did all the work.

    • Graeber writes specifically about the film and TV industry, but the bullshit jobs go farther than just places for friends and family. He suggests that the phenomenon leads to all those pointless meetings and serious discussion over ideas that are never going to get developed.

      But what he’s really addressing is an even bigger problem: the number of jobs that aren’t patronage or nepotism, but are in fact supposed to be real work, in which what the person does (if they actually do more than surf the web) is completely useless. That’s why he includes in his definition that the employee thinks the job is bullshit.

      He also thinks this work is proliferating, possibly to make sure we’re all kept busy instead of going to the 15-hour work weeks that would likely be sufficient to meet all our needs.

      • Oh, yes, the “keep busy” mindset.

        I lost my first and only full-time position because it completely zoomed past me that it was absolutely critical to be producing Visible Busy at all times, even when I’d finished my actual work. When I was hauled into the boss’s office to be told my work was unacceptable, the boss made a point of telling me what good work I did when I was actually working, but that it was Completely Unacceptable that I was not finding work for myself to fill the requisite hours completely. Because all those odd little scraps of confetti time “added up,” never mind that I couldn’t bring them together and make a lump of useful size. It would’ve been better for me to go back to my desk at the end of the day and go through the motions of working for those two or three minutes I had left after my public-facing shift was done. Which struck me as colossally stupid.

        And that black mark made it impossible for me to get full-time work again. I was able to do some part-time work in my profession, but I did well only if the bosses had a laid-back attitude about Visible Busy. When I got to a place that was adamant about being Visibly Busy every minute, even if you had no real tasks to do and it was total makework, things went pear-shaped again.

        Worse, I ended up internalizing a sense that I’m lazy and not a good worker, so I never really feel like I’ve accomplished enough, even when I hate being stuck sitting with nothing to do. I have real problems figuring out what is a realistic expectation of how much I should be able to accomplish in a given period of time, with or without interruptions.

          • Making a mental note to reserve a copy as soon as I get through the current batch of conventions.

            The library already has a fairly long hold queue on it, and I do not want to have my number come up while I’m on the road, and end up having to pay a fine for failing to pick it up because I was out of town and too busy to call and ask for an extension.

  2. The only time I had a bs job was also a temporary one, and alas it was in the admin of the MTA (NYC etc. transportation system), as assistant to a nabob who was also in a very highly paid slot of do nothing but roll in at 10 or 11, go at noon for a bibulous lunch, return about 2 and go home again about 3:30. The entire department was like this. They were all white men, who had been in the navy in WWII, who were friends before the war, before the war, and after the war. This network was throughout the MTA. They hired each other on in one capacity or another and ran the system into the ground. Need I say that this corpulent, red-veined wheezing fellow also thought he could seduce me? As in all my jobs at that time working temporary gigs I wrote a lot of what became my first novel.

    • Yep, that pretty much fits the definition. His was probably a bullshit job, too, but he might not have acknowledged it. You were there to make him look important — i.e., be a flunky. This is the classic image of these jobs, because it was the public sector, but in fact the private sector is crawling with them.

    • Using a bullshit job to write a novel is great. I consider that essentially a form of patronage of the arts. It would be nice if people were just paid directly, but you know how that goes.

      But Graeber points out that in many of these jobs you are not allowed to do your personal stuff on work time (because that’s “theft”), even if you don’t have anything to do. Also, a lot of the jobs he sets out involve doing things; they’re just things that don’t or shouldn’t need doing. So you’re busy all day doing something pointless, which sounds like one of the lower rungs of hell to me.

      • Yah — I was lucky since most of my temp jobs were in hot shot legal firms, as temp assistant to someone not quite important enough in the food chain to have his own full-time, hired by the firm with benefits, etc. assistant, or as fill-in for the really important fellows’ assistant on vacation or maternity leave. It was word processing at that time, with all the big court dox done in the word processing pool. My job was to do smaller things for my attorney, and particularly do his phone. In summer, later in the week, these guys would head for their country clubs’ golf tournaments, calling in periodically for their messages.

        I had scads of time to write. Periodically the office manager would come around with overload work from somebody else’s attorney or something in case I had nothing to do. But they’d see me typing away and go, “O, I see you’re working.”

        The attorneys I worked for knew what I was up to. Their attitude was of total approval. They got what they needed — I was very conscientious about that — and they thought I was smart doing what they did all the time — double billing of a sort. Also, as they were writers themselves, they respected someone writing a novel.

        This isn’t possible now, I don’t think (haven’t done that sort of work since the 1980’s), in the way offices are set up and how few people actually have assistants any longer. Another thing the personal computer and the company IT networks have accomplished, this cutting severely of staff across the board in whatever industries still exist.

      • That was waitressing back in the day. If there were no customers, heaven forbid we take a load off our feet. We were supposed to scrub the windows and cabinets, fold napkins, and otherwise be busy or “it would put the customers off.”

      • The “theft” thing — that was one of the things that got thrown at me — that daring to do something of my own, even just scribble a few notes, rather than complete makework, was “stealing time” from them. As if the makework were somehow valuable, just by being “their stuff,” never mind that it was completely useless and meaningless busywork.

        I got along so much better at places where it was enough for me to be available to help people as they came in, and wasn’t expected to fill the intervening time with busywork.

        • That “theft” thing never made sense to me at all. It’s that mindset that the employer owns you for a certain amount of time. The very idea shocks me.

          • Exactly. It was explained to me that your employer is buying those hours from you — except those hours don’t actually leave your day and become part of their day. They’re still in your day, but you’re expected to exist totally for your employer during that time, even if it means doing tasks that produce nothing but Visible Busy.

            Pay for time makes complete sense for assembly-line type work, where the line controls the workers’ pace of work. It works OK for jobs where the employee is doing tasks offsite without a set schedule (like when I was an enumerator for the Census Bureau). But for office jobs, it is a very poor fit.

            One of my WIP’s (currently stuck and looking for beta readers) includes a side thread about an Idiot Boss who’s trying to supervise software engineers like they’re clerks. Strict time discipline, etc. The actual engineering lead is finding ways to work around IB and keep him in his office, not in the cube farm, but it’s not perfect.

  3. I had two bullshit jobs, both temping. For one, I took over for a vacationing secretary for two weeks. My sole job was to type up dictated notes from geological engineers. It took up maybe an hour of my eight-hour day. The engineers were always surprised at how fast I turned their dictation around, and I delicately asked how long it took the other secretary. “Two, three days, usually.” So someone was clearly padding out her bullshit job. She had it pretty sweet, actually–low responsibility, her own office with a window that looked out over some woods. I spent my lunch hours wandering through the forest like Hansel looking for Gretel. And I wrote a huge chunk of what became my first novel. I would have loved to keep that job, if for no other reason than I would’ve sort-of gotten paid to write.

    The other bullshit job was subbing for another vacationing secretary in a community college. She was there eight hours a day, but in summer there was literally nothing for her to do. The professors were all gone. I checked in with a supervisor person by phone every morning and sat at a desk reading all day. Unfortunately, she had no computer and I had no laptop at the time, so I couldn’t write. Really, the college could have just put up a sign that said, “Office closed until (date) for vacation.” That was a dull, dull week, but at least I got paid.

  4. Middle management, in some companies, has become where good employees go to die. The staffing services company that bought the little instructional software firm I worked for had a typical approach to this that warred against every instinct and vestige of common sense most folks possess.

    I’d been part of the management team when they bought the company. It was a nearly flat organization structurally, and all managers were working managers, keeping our hands in the work our staff did. I was the quilter who took all of their subsystems and stitched them together. Our test-bay lead still tested components, our programming manager still produced code.

    This was a sore point with corporate: managers should manage, not do the work. In their minds, there was no such thing as a working manager. Sometime after the purchase when they’d beefed up the staff and increased the number and size of the development teams, they hired on a brilliant programmer who became integral to the systems we produced. Naturally, to reward him for his great work, they promoted him to management and, against, all logic, insisted that he stop producing code. Since he hadn’t been “raised” in the culture of the smaller company and was less sure of himself than he appeared, he gave in and stopped producing code.

    Turns out he was a terrible manager of people. He was unhappy and his staff was unhappy and he spent hours in my office begging to know why my team was so well-intgrated and happy. I told him I thought it was partly because we were literally working side by side and they knew I understood the work and its issues and had their backs and i didn’t micromanage simply because I had nothing else to do.

    “I can’t do that,” he told me. “The execs made it clear that they don’t like working managers and that working managers will not be rated as highly as pure managers and will never rise higher in the company.”

    I just told him that he really needed to decide what made him happy—management or coding—and then do that. He eventually quit because he just couldn’t handle the stress. To its credit, the company recognized the problem and created a tech track for promotions and raises that did not force good workers into management positions.

    Still, this is normal for corporate America—reward a skilled, sometimes irreplaceable employee by putting them in a position in which they can’t use the skills that contributed so much to the company in the first place.

  5. A lot of middle management jobs are completely unnecessary as well. Most skilled people don’t need managing or can manage themselves as a group. I worked in a group that put out four publications. We had a managing “editor” who never did any hands on management and mostly just got underfoot. He got injured and was out for months and we did just fine without him. Of course, he got paid better than any of the people doing the real work.