Bill Hicks had a bit in his act, which went a bit like this:
Boss: ‘How come you’re not working?’
Employee: ‘There’s nothing to do.’
Boss: ‘Well, you’re supposed to pretend like you’re working.’
Employee: ‘Hey, I got a better idea. Why don’t you pretend like I’m working. You get paid more than me.’
This features in ‘Bullshit Jobs’, David Graeber’s book on the pointlessness of much modern work.
By some measures, up to half of people think their jobs have no meaning, that it wouldn’t matter if they didn’t do them. For many of the rest of us, the time spent doing the meaningful part of work is increasingly eclipsed by the other stuff. The meetings, the emails, the group pressure to sit and look busy, when all you are really doing is surfing the net.
Graeber’s own work is important. People are desperate to be useful. When they feel like they are not, they quickly become miserable.
‘The trend towards pointless jobs is more than just a tale of capitalism going wrong’, he argues. ‘Profound psychological violence is being done to large chunks of the population.’
Graeber describes the shift that saw employers measure time — how long people spent doing work — rather than the work itself.
This led to employees realising it does not pay to be efficient. It earns no prizes, as per the Hicks’ joke.
Some places of work are efficient, of course, but it seems increasingly unusual. Work slows to the pace of the least able person in the office; doing things fast is seen as evidence that you aren’t trying.
More and more workers feel obliged to ‘play a game of make believe’, not of their own invention, one which they can’t possibly win.
Into Graeber’s list of bullshit jobs fall ‘HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people (very familiar in academic contexts) who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees’.
But even ‘proper’ jobs are infected.
Of a 40-hour week, most of the meaningful stuff could comfortably be done in 15 hours, but bosses hate this idea, which means that ‘huge swathes of people in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul,’ he writes. ‘Yet virtually no one talks about it.’
The swathes of people who hate their pointless jobs find it hard to admit to the fact, even if it leaves them empty and depressed. Staff are confused too, because they can’t tell if their supervisors are aware of how little actual work is occurring, or whether they genuinely think the tasks they make underlings undertake matter.
The book is by turns funny and sad, but it also makes the reader angry. There is no sensible reason why life should be like this. Critics of Graeber generally fail to engage with the point. They can see that government departments might fall prey to bullshit, but insist that proper entrepreneurial companies couldn’t possibly, despite the evidence all around them.
So they end up insisting that what look like bullshit jobs are a function of the economy becoming more complicated. That the seemingly stupid jobs are actually clever folk administering complex global supply chains, or expedited frictionless convergences, or some such other piece of obvious bullshit. This stuff isn’t even good for the large companies that might defend it.
One of the author’s case studies works for a big accountancy firm, hired to help a bank sort out its PPI problem. He writes: ‘The accountancy firm was paid by the case, and we were paid by the hour. As a result, they purposefully mis-trained and disorganised staff so that the jobs were repeatedly and consistently done wrong.’
Graber lacks a solution to all this, but thinks it should at least be part of the economic discussion. Underlying his research is the feeling that bullshit jobs exist partly out of fear of what folk might do if they weren’t at work.
That’s puritanism, as HL Mencken described it: the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.