Episode 39: Your Job Isn't Real: We Talk Bulls**t Jobs!
We are indoctrinated into the Cult of Work before we know what a job is. As early as preschool (and probably before that, now), we are given tasks to perform with no inherent value. Some of what we do as children is PLAY, which is great, but other stuff is task-based. We are told to make puzzles and build stuff with blocks. We are taught to mimic labor early so that the upcoming years of mimicked labor as an adult don’t feel as ridiculous. By age six, we are expected to spend an entire day performing tasks, some of them are necessary (Like LITERACY and MATH), but many are just to occupy our time because parents are at their jobs. We’re taught that our time needs to be structured in order to participate in the spoils of society. You need to be in a constant state of busyness, or, at the very least, you need to pretend to be busy. Except during recess and lunch (sort of), your time is determined by an arbitrary bell that brings you between tasks.
In this, we are becoming little laborers. Education is vital, but education doesn’t have to, nor should it, look the same as work. But our education system isn’t just about education. It is about bringing kids under the umbrella of citizenship. That’s a noble goal, but what does citizenship actually look like in our society? For most adults, it means performing whatever task you need to perform to earn enough money to live, regardless of that task’s benefit or harm to society. Our schools are filled with arbitrary processes and numerations. Kids take dozens of standardized tests with no application to their education or personal fulfillment. These tests are used to quantify performance based on metrics that nobody except the testmakers and lawmakers give a shit about. Then, if kids are lucky enough, they study and pay for take a few tests that they fucking hate (SAT and ACT) administered by a powerful company for the benefit of no one except the company and overworked admissions departments. All the while, students are learning that they must contend with punishing bureaucracy in order to do things that they don’t even like.
When students get into college, they sometimes get a dose of an academic life with purpose. The much-maligned liberal arts degree provides an outlet for intellectual curiosity, and a passionate learner could take advantage of the beauty of the imagined existence. Of the examined life. This, however, does not last long. In the job market, the lucky graduates who don’t end up working shit jobs are often slotted into one of a variety of careers that provides nothing to the collective. They learn that much of their time isn’t spent in useful labor or creation, but in killing time until the work day ends, in demonstrating that most important skill: appearing busy. And those that work some admin jobs where they feel busy most likely perform redundant tasks unnecessary to the function of organizations.
In my first job outside of teaching, a university admin position, I learned very quickly that my job was absurd. I had my own office, and I started my day by checking emails for thirty minutes and then thinking about when I could leave for the next 7.5 hours. The actual duties of my job could have been performed in 45 minutes per day, from home. I spent 45 hours per week there. I received bonuses based on almost nothing. I knew the names of six different forms. The purpose of each form could have been condensed into one, but that would mean removing five different offices from the process of completing forms. I wouldn’t have had to schedule 5-minute meetings with secretaries of various Deans and upper admins if I didn’t have those other forms. I even created a few forms. They were just word documents on my computer that became some a magic spell once I printed them out. We had things notarized regularly. That took a huge portion of time. I had a bullshit job, but to people who believe in the myth of the goodness of work, I was awesome. I had the trappings of the professional class. Business cards. A title. An office that I could retreat to, shut the door, and tell my front desk person, “I’ve got something I need to focus on.” I spent many hours writing poems and submitting manuscripts to publishers. I actually wrote two collections of poetry at my job, but I spent little time doing work and still did everything I needed to.
WHY did I need to be there?
Our Laptopjobian friends probably know this well. Most remote work falls into the bullshit job category, because the world would function perfectly fine without them. Food, energy, and culture would still exist without most people sending emails and filling out forms.
Did you ever have a classicly bullshit job, brother?
There are theories.
Part II: John Maynard Keynes Diversion
A quote that we anti-work lovers often tout is attributed to John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist who spearheaded the movement in the post-Depression West towards government policy influencing free markets. “Keynes advocated the use of fiscal and monetary policies to mitigate the adverse effects of economic recessions and depressions.”
Keynes was a member of the UK’s Liberal Party all of his life, and he was virulently anti-Communist. I don’t fault him for that, because when you see what his vision of Capitalist progress was, it looks a lot a Leftist dream. He was also queer, having had many male lovers in his youth and adulthood, though he married a woman. He once said that his only regret in life is that he didn’t drink more champagne, but ironically he worked too hard and too long.
Keynes saw that work was a means to some end, mainly that we should eventually work less. Specifically, he predicted that by 2030, we would be working about fifteen hours per week because our needs would be met. This theory flies in the face of die-hard capitalists, who try very hard to limit leisure time among workers, and when they do allow leisure time, it is almost always with caveats. Keynes’ prediction came around a time when socialists, anarchists, and striking workers had won the right to only work 8 hours per day.
Keynes was a capitalist, but mostly because he believed that Capitalist markets were the best avenue to provide society’s needs. His 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” predicted a future without job toils, since we would have figured out the major issues that prevented worldwide affluence.
“Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”
The great tragedy is that Keynes was completely wrong. Rather than using our incredible technological advancements to free ourselves from unnecessary labor, we have decided to work more. Some of Keynes’ ideas from the essay were accurate: healthcare and technology have advanced, and we are much better at producing shit and curing and treating diseases. The thesis of the essay was off though. He didn’t take into account that capitalism moves towards continuous growth in all sectors, not just those necessary for survival. Continuous growth in all sectors requires continuous labor, regardless of whether that labor is essential to societal function.
We have also transformed what Keynes would describe as leisure into arms of production. Your hobbies, passions, and free time must become grifts if they are to have value in our marketplace. Keynes was wrong not because his prediction wasn’t sound, but because he misunderstood the fundamental political landscape that necessitates capitalism: Workers must have less power, less time, and more responsibility. The late 1970s in the US saw the backlash to worker gains of the previous half of the twentieth century. Bosses got more control and Ronald Reagan, the ultimate boss, oversaw a dissection of labor rights in the name of freedom.
Part III: Graeber’s Theory
David Graeber was an American Anthropologist and anarchist activist who was one of the premier left-wing thinkers of our time. He died in 2020 of necrotic pancreatitis, which his wife attributed to COVID. Graeber wrote several books and pamphlets including Debt: The First 5,000 Years, and Fragments of Anarchist an Anthropology, and of course Bullshit Jobs. He was a leading voice in the Occupy movement, and he is credited with coining the phrase “We are the 99%.”
I DIDN’T KNOW that Graeber conducted ethnographic field work in Madagascar with anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. Sahlins is famous for introducing the theory of the original affluent society in 1966. The original affluent society, according to Sahlins, was that of hunter gatherers, who satisfied all of their material needs with the least amount of labor. This is in opposition to contemporary industrial societies, which desire much and therefore must work a whole lot to obtain what they want. Sahlins’ theory is all over Graeber’s work, because the original affluent society theory directly opposes the need for a work-hard culture. The key, according to Sahlins, was to work as little as possible to have the things you need. Then you can spend the rest of your time doing stuff you actually like. It doesn’t say that working to obtain things is unnecessary. It says that work is a means to an end.
Let’s talk about bullshit jobs.
Graeber identified what Bullshit jobs are in an interview with Vox: “Bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist. That’s the bullshit element. A lot of people confuse bullshit jobs and shit jobs, but they’re not the same thing. Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful. In fact, in our society, often the more useful the work is, the less they pay you. Whereas bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely pointless, and the people doing them know this.”
Just to be clear, there is a distinction between shit jobs and bullshit jobs. Your shit job is often useful and underpaid/underappreciated. For instance, you could have a shit job working as a produce picker in Florida. The average wage of a Floridian produce picker is $10 per hour. You literally do the work of bringing humans sustenance. It is difficult manual labor, and people think you’re garbage for doing it. OR, you could have some vague administrative laptop job that pays anywhere from $60,000-$150,000 per year. Your work adds no material value to the world because you sit behind a screen, send emails, and work to maintain the mechanism of a company whose goal is profit generation, but you’re considered important.
David Graeber’s book identifies FIVE Bullshit jobs.
Flunkies: exist to make people in power feel better about themselves
-receptionists, administrative assistants, and door attendants, are created because those in powerful positions in an organization see underlings as badges of prestige.
Duct tapers: solve problems that fix mistakes that contend with unnecessary obstacles rather than address the root issue
-like programmers who repair shoddy code and airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive. These positions are created because organizations sometimes find it more difficult to fix a problem than to deal with its consequences.
Box-tickers: exist to make companies seem legitimate to other companies.
-“Newsletter” writers within companies.
-survey administrators and corporate compliance officers, exist because many large organizations see paperwork attesting to the fact that certain actions have been taken as more important than the actions themselves.
Goons: in-house corporate lawyers is the best example. Patent trolls. Apple sued Samsung over a patent with a phone with rounded corners. They DO nothing.
-Goons are hired due to a dynamic of one-upmanship (if our rivals employ a top corporate lawyer, then so, too, must we). Goons, like lobbyists, telemarketers, and PR specialists exist to fight fellow goons hired by other companies.
Taskmasters: watch over and manage people who don’t need management. Overpaid cheerleader.
-all middle management and most admin. “Leadership professionals.”
Specific employees can have a combination of one or more of these bullshit jobs.
Obsession with working 40 hour weeks compels people to complete absolute bullshit tasks.
The most premier Bullshit Jobs examples, according to Graeber: “Corporate lawyers. Most corporate lawyers secretly believe that if there were no longer any corporate lawyers, the world would probably be a better place. The same is true of public relations consultants, telemarketers, brand managers, and countless administrative specialists who are paid to sit around, answer phones, and pretend to be useful. A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all.”
On the morally corrosive impact of bullshit jobs: “the truth is that a lot of people are being handed a lot of money to do nothing. This is true for most of these middle-management positions I’m talking about, and the people doing these jobs are completely unhappy because they know their work is bullshit.
I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.”
When asked if it is necessarily a “bad thing” that the jobs now are more useless and boring than dangerous and difficult: “Well, you could also just replace them with no jobs. Great economic thinkers like John Maynard Keynes were predicting that technology would advance such that we would achieve a 15-hour workweek by century’s end, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we just kept inventing bullshit jobs.
But what if we just accepted that technology can perform a lot of the essential tasks and just worked less? What if we just spent more time doing what we actually want rather than sitting in [an] office pretending to work for 40 hours a week?”
When asked if we need to “burn it down and start from scratch”: “You can never start from scratch, and most successful revolutionaries have deep traditions to draw on. But I do believe we have to start thinking imaginatively about systems that are fundamentally differently organized. Shifts do happen in history. We’ve been taught for the last 30 to 40 years that imagination has no place in politics or economics, but that, too, is bullshit.”
From a Guardian Review of Bullshit Jobs:
“As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for. Our economies have become “vast engines for producing nonsense”. Utopian ideals have been abandoned on all sides, replaced by praise for “hardworking families”. The rightwing injunction to “get a job!” is mirrored by the leftwing demand for “more jobs!”
Graeber believes that “people are not inherently lazy: we work not just to pay the bills but because we want to contribute something meaningful to society. The psychological effect of spending our days on tasks we secretly believe don’t need to be performed is profoundly damaging, “‘a scar across our collective soul’”.
Part IV: Creation, Efficiency, Labor
Graeber seeks to transform our understanding of what work is. Obviously, Fat Guy, Jacked Guy is ON BOARD with this, because we think the conception of jobs and careers is, in itself, bullshit.
On the idea of Creation vs. Reshaping: Most work can’t be said to “create” anything. Most work is, instead, a matter of maintaining and rearranging times. Consider a coffee cup. We “produce” it once, but we wash it a thousand times. Even work we think of as “productive” like growing potatoes, forging a shovel, or assembling a computer could just as easily be seen as tending, transforming, reshaping, and rearranging materials and elements that already exist.
On the perversion of modern work values: Our society has reached the point where the social value of work is usually in inverse proportion to its economic value. Meaning that the more one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it. And many people have come to accept this situation as morally right.