My perspective - The pointlessly employed


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

Neepawa Banner & Press

Maybe it was because Mike Rowe’s words about the war on work were still fresh in my mind, or maybe it was the title, but I clicked with interest on a story from the Economist. “Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism”— this had to be good.

The piece was a question and answer with David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, who in 2013, wrote a viral essay about “bullshit jobs”. This essay was recently expanded into a book. As we look at the problems facing the developed world, could it be that the type of work we do is playing a role?

According to Graeber, a “bullshit job” is one that even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist. If these jobs, or their industry, were to vanish overnight, it would make no difference in people’s lives and in some cases, the world might even be a better place. The problem isn’t isolated, Graeber points to surveys which have found that 37 to 40 per cent of workers say their jobs make no difference.

In an era where corporate cultures are driven by efficiency and lean operations, how can so many people feel that their jobs are so useless? Graeber explains that the “lean and mean” ideal most frequently only applies to the workers actually making or doing things. In many cases, he says that the same executives who pride themselves on downsizing on the shop floor use the money saved, at least in part, to fill their offices with “feudal retinues of basically useless flunkies”.

It’s a problem we see across industries; for most managers, managing more people means more prestige and often, more money. For example, in health and education, Graeber explains, “managers now feel they need to each have their little squadron of assistants, who often have nothing to do, so they end up making up new, exotic forms of paperwork for the teachers, doctors, nurses… who thus have ever less time to actually teach or treat or care for anyone.” Sound familiar?

The interesting thing is how people respond to feeling that their job is pointless. Graeber noted that most don’t relish the fact that they are essentially getting something for nothing. Instead, the pointlessly employed report high rates of depression and anxiety. He noted that these would “magically disappear the moment they were given what they considered real work”. It’s not so much that people want to work, it’s that they want to feel they are having a positive impact on the world around them.

It’s an interesting truth that Graeber points out, there is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much someone’s work directly benefits others and remuneration.  While I would argue that there are large pockets of rewarding, helpful, well paying jobs, in broad strokes, this  holds true. Health care aides are more useful than marketing managers, but I know which title tends to be better paid.

Why don’t we see this as a major social problem, Graeber wonders? I can’t help but agree. If half the workforce is making good money doing jobs that really don’t need doing, imagine the other things they could be doing with their time? In many ways, it’s a different side of the war against work Rowe talks about.

If many of the “bullshit” jobs disappeared, few would notice.  Certainly far fewer than would notice if we lost all of the cleaners, auto workers, teachers and nurses. Yet most people chase a “bullshit” job, why? Because we created an environment in which recognition and prestige are, in most cases, completely unrelated to the job’s necessity in the smooth functioning of our society. It’s a big problem that’s easier to ignore than solve.