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Liffguard

Bullshit Jobs

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Has anybody else read the essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs and the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber? I really recommend fully reading both, but the TLDR summary is that a huge number of the jobs that exist today either serve no meaningful function or are actually actively pernicious. That, if these jobs simply vanished tomorrow, not only would the world not get worse, it might actually get better. And also, that the existence of these jobs isn’t an aberration but rather a fundamental part of how our system operates.

There’s a notable difference between a bullshit job and a shit job. A shit job is useful, but unpleasant; low pay, long hours, dangerous conditions etc. A bullshit job is pointless, but can often be well-paid and prestigious. One of the claims of the book is that, with a few notable exceptions (e.g. doctor, pilot), the more useful a job is to society, the less likely it is to be well-paid.

Neither the original essay nor the later book are particularly scientific, I’ll admit that straight up. He cites a few polls and a large number of individual testimonies, but there isn’t any rigorous large-scale study. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that Graeber is on to something. Have you ever read something that just struck such a resonant note that it made your whole mind ring like a bell, and you sit back in stupefied “oh my god it all makes so much sense.”

One of the reasons the argument resonated with me so strongly is that it examines why holding a bullshit job is so soul-crushing. After all, if you’re being paid to do basically nothing, surely that’s an absolute win? Graeber looks into how the loss of autonomy and usefulness can be so destructive to our mental health even when supposedly gaining value for nothing.

Graeber also goes into a lot of speculation about what has brought this state-of-affairs about. One idea is that mass-unemployment caused by automation has already come about a while ago, but instead of actual unemployment it’s simply led to mass make-work. Another is the concept of “managerial feudalism,” in which managers at various levels measure their importance by the numbers of underlings they have, so they acquire retinues of lackeys for corporate-political reasons.

So yeah, anyone else read the essay or book? Does anyone else have any thoughts on the phenomenon? Does anyone disagree that it even is a real phenomenon?

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I read the article and perused the book (I found its lack of scientific rigor annoying). I'm definitely convinced by the theory, though I think Graeber slightly exaggerates the phenomenon. I agree that automation probably eliminated a huge number of jobs already, and the internet is slowly killing much of the remaining ones. Now, there are two ways of looking at it, the bright side, and the dark perspective.

Bright side: in developed societies we're actually getting close to eliminating work. As crazy as this sounds today (in 2019), we can speculate that about half of the jobs currently existing will be lost to automation within two decades (2018 study + 2019 OECD report) which should free much of humanity from labor and allow us to pursue more exciting stuff (or at least to work as much as we want without any pressure). Conceivably we could have a society in which we only work about 15h/week.

Dark perspective: most of us are becoming useless. In a world where neo-liberalism is the dominant ideology unproductive humans are burdens for society. Hence they will be left to fight for scraps, and the 80%-ish of humanity will have to be kept busy with "tittytainment," as formulated by Brzezinski as early as 1995. Or of course, since we have global warming, they could just be left to die.

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The time I spent a few years back working as a cleaner in T-Mobile's UK office convinced me of that. Obviously I didn't know exactly what everyone was doing but it seemed fairly obvious that at least 80% of jobs there were entirely and only about interacting with people from other offices who were there only and entirely to interact with them. I honestly thought and still do that I preferred my shitty cleaning role to that.

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I haven't read these particular works, but I've heard the concept before and I totally agree. For me, the worst thing in a job is boredom. It makes me want to die, literally. I used to fantasize about being in a car crash on the way to work rather than having to go sit at a desk and pretend to be busy for 8 hours. Luckily I am doing something now that is actually engaging (and no one counts how many hours I work), but that's not going to be available to everyone.

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no meaningful function or are actually actively pernicious

the concept has made the rounds in fiction and should accordingly be considered apodictic.  coupland's generation x develops the idea of mcjobs, and arthur clarke's childhood's end posits a future in which all the BS jobs are eliminated (to wit: supporting idlers "was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stock-brokers, and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another," or so), which is more famously taken up as parody in adams' golgafrinchan episode.

 

graeber's lack of quantitative/inductive warrant is not really a demerit, if the case is qualitative/deductive.

Edited by sologdin

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I’m gonna have to censor my use of bullsh*t for the time being, for the rather appropriate reason that I’m posting from work and the internet filter scans for profanity.

37 minutes ago, sologdin said:

coupland's generation x develops the idea of mcjobs, and arthur clarke's childhood's end posits a future in which all the BS jobs are eliminated (to wit: supporting idlers "was considerably less of a burden than providing for the armies of ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks, stock-brokers, and so forth, whose main function, when one took the global point of view, was to transfer items from one ledger to another," or so), which is more famously taken up as parody in adams' golgafrinchan episode.

Interestingly enough, Graeber actually discusses Adams in the book. Partially to acknowledge Adams’s point, but also to disagree with his inclusion of hairdressers as a job useless to society. In fact, one of the central theses of the book is that “caring work,” – i.e. any job that involves looking after other humans, even in small trivial ways – is very much the opposite of a BS job. Hairdressers make your hair look nice, and that’s useful on its own. But they also provide friendly conversation, and a local social hub, and maybe a little bit of primping and pampering.

Hence, I would also disagree with Coupland’s inclusion of “ticket collectors, shop assistants, bank clerks” as BS jobs (though I will absolutely agree about stock-brokers). Their job is not just to “transfer items from one ledger to another.” They provide a human interface and, in a well-run organisation at least, the ability to apply human social skills and human discretion.

Similarly, "mcjobs" - if we're talking about actual mcdonald's workers and their equivalents at other companies, are far from BS. They're preparing and serving food to people, that's a useful social function. They might be sh*t jobs, in the sense of unpleasant and underpaid, but they're not bullsh*t.

One of the examples used by Graeber was a recent strike by London underground station attendants/ticket sellers. Many people suggested that their jobs were useless because technology had rendered them obsolete. You can just buy from a machine or swipe your card at the barriers. The workers responded with a statement (paraphrasing because I can’t find the exact quote right now).

“How to use the new automated underground stations. Please don’t get lost. Please don’t suffer a medical emergency. Please don’t be a lost child. Please do not be harassed or intimidated by another passenger. Please don’t misplace luggage. Please don’t travel during any unexpected train disruptions. Please don’t require any help or assistance in any way.”

Jobs are not BS because they don’t provide an economic return on investment. They’re bullsh*t if they serve no social value, and yet the holders are required to pretend otherwise.

Edited by Liffguard

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Not all jobs are 100% BS either, many have some value.  I had a job in the past where 99% of the time I felt like my job was BS, but for that 1% of the rest of the time I was the most important person on the project site, because the whole place had ground to a halt unless I could fix what was wrong, and every moment I didn't fix it we were losing money.  But yeah, that kind of job is pretty soul sucking.  You feel worthless most of the time, but your bosses don't care because they know they absolutely need you for that 1%, and so can't give you other important work since you'd just have to drop it to go fix the broken system. 

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imilarly, "mcjobs" - if we're talking about actual mcdonald's workers and their equivalents at other companies, are far from BS. 

i see the distinction.  coupland thought of mcjobs as dead-end, low pay, low prestige, low dignity--but they may in fact be absolutely required for society to function.  (the shop assistants and bank clerks bit is clarke, by the bye--that's an interesting bit, a vision of the future wherein war, capitalist accouterments, and other waste is eliminated.)

the salient critique of graeber, i think, is located in his apparent acceptance of a market instrumental rationality in designating hairdressing (or any other arbitrary aesthetics management industry position) as allegedly 'useful' when it is of dubious objective rationality, to use frankfurt terms.  were we feeling merciless under those principles, we might fold any luxury item into the category of lacking objective rationality: jewelry, weapons of mass destruction, religion, all accursed shares.

Edited by sologdin

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27 minutes ago, sologdin said:

the salient critique of graeber, i think, is located in his apparent acceptance of a market instrumental rationality in designating hairdressing (or any other arbitrary aesthetics management industry position) as allegedly 'useful'

He himself doesn't though. Or rather, he only does because the hairdressers themselves do. As soon as we start trying to decide from the outside whether something is useful or not we start running into the problem of value judgements. And since there can be no objective value judgements, he sidesteps the issue by largely trusting in self-reporting. If the person actually holding the job thinks it's bullshit, then it probably is. And if they don't, then he's willing to trust their judgement.

Within the confines of the testimonies he received, there were very few blue-collar workers who thought their jobs were bullshit. Shit maybe, but not bullshit. The bullshit reporters were overwhelmingly white collar professionals, and disproportionately from the financial and legal sectors.

Edited by Liffguard

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disproportionately from the financial and legal sectors.

am not surprised. 

the self-reportage axiom might be brushed against the grain a bit; we can imagine a scenario wherein vigilantes shooting undocumented migrants at the border conceive of themselves as providing a socially necessary service; industrialists manufacturing playgrounds out of radioactive materials might think that they are making the world a better place.

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4 minutes ago, sologdin said:

disproportionately from the financial and legal sectors.

am not surprised. 

the self-reportage axiom might be brushed against the grain a bit; we can imagine a scenario wherein vigilantes shooting undocumented migrants at the border conceive of themselves as providing a socially necessary service; industrialists manufacturing playgrounds out of radioactive materials might think that they are making the world a better place.

If one is looking for an example of a bullshit job , look no further than the person hired to wield a Sharpie and draw fake hurricane paths on a weather map.

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So far I see but one actual example of bullshit jobs: stock broker. Are there any more? I'm not entirely convinced that there are so many bullshit jobs. You have the feeling that there are lots of them, but very few people would admit to having one. 

Technically I suppose it could be said that I have one myself. I count costs, handle quality issues, manage projects... But all I ever accomplish is moving bits of data around, call meetings and send emails. Yet people depend on me. Does that make it a non-bullshit job? 

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1 hour ago, maarsen said:

If one is looking for an example of a bullshit job , look no further than the person hired to wield a Sharpie and draw fake hurricane paths on a weather map.

I'll have you know Jared Kushner does SO MANY useful things for this administration.

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39 minutes ago, Erik of Hazelfield said:

You have the feeling that there are lots of them, but very few people would admit to having one.

Graeber's entire work is based on the fact that on the contrary, many people feel alienated by the uselessness of their job and are very willing to talk about it.

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1 hour ago, Erik of Hazelfield said:

So far I see but one actual example of bullshit jobs: stock broker. Are there any more? 

Technically I suppose it could be said that I have one myself. I count costs, handle quality issues, manage projects... But all I ever accomplish is moving bits of data around, call meetings and send emails. Yet people depend on me. Does that make it a non-bullshit job? 

It sounds like you're shaping an improved world and delivering something to someone, so stop selling yourself short!   If one is in the private sector there's much better chance of meaningfulness built in to the job.  Businesses in danger of going out of business tend to stay lean and remain in touch with the joys of survivalism, like having jobs that deserve to exist.   It's beauracracy that's more guaranteed to be unjustifiable once you zoom in on a department to see what they're contributing.  But if the private sector is growing jam packed with do-nothing posts too, that's troublesome in the sense we may have no useful direction to go in with a modern economy, no choice but to spin our tires in the mud of uselessness.

48 minutes ago, DanteGabriel said:

I'll have you know Jared Kushner does SO MANY useful things for this administration.

See, now there's an example of a bullshit job in the world of comedy- - taking someone's real joke and turning into a Trump "joke" in the style of latenight shows that have willingly given up on the art of jokewriting to please the rabid half of the nation.   The comedy writers are on record about how useless and unfulfilled they feel working in this new era of unfunny monologues that have degenerated into Trump madlibs.  Just take the setup for a joke and instead of plying your craft as a writer simply fill in the blank with a Trump administration "punchline."   It leaves the writers feeling hollow, because their job has become one of the bullshit ones after having a long tradition of being one of the arts.

20 minutes ago, Rippounet said:

Graeber's entire work is based on the fact that on the contrary, many people feel alienated by the uselessness of their job and are very willing to talk about it.

Yeah, it's to our shame that we hide deadend jobs away as the new virtue (protecting that person's employment status & income level at the cost of lifelong uselessness and soul death).   There should be another, better virtue we trot out:  what if thriving became our thing, like that damn Kaiser Permamente spokesperson bitch keeps telling us to do:  THRIVE.  Well?  What if people could call out their job as useless and we had a different societal option besides terminating the employee?  What if it became common practice for our society to refurbish and retask dead end jobs and turn them into fuelers of renewed growth and development.   Identify things that actually would be Useful, and attach deadend job people to those tasks. Take wasted positions and use that same salary to fuel our ascent instead of standing on the deck of the titanic playing on like the band as the ship sinks.  Eh.   Pipedreams of greater competence. 

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2 hours ago, Erik of Hazelfield said:

So far I see but one actual example of bullshit jobs: stock broker. Are there any more?

The entire advertising industry, for a start.

2 hours ago, Erik of Hazelfield said:

Technically I suppose it could be said that I have one myself. I count costs, handle quality issues, manage projects... But all I ever accomplish is moving bits of data around, call meetings and send emails. Yet people depend on me. Does that make it a non-bullshit job? 

Do the projects you manage have worthwhile goals? If so, and your job makes the projects more efficient, then it's at least partially not bullshit.

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I have not read this particular author but, as Solo mentioned, it’s not particularly new.  Much of the modern labor market is viewed skeptically because most of us are so far removed from specific, tangible, necessary output. 

I even recall posting in 2009 that one reason that unemployment could jump very high is that many, many jobs are not strictly necessary for basic life.  Whether finance, arts, entertainment, consulting, non-criminal law, research, fashion, grooming, realtors, restaurants, etc, etc.  Many fields look like luxury pursuits that could be halted if consumers really had to cut back, either discarded or done by people for themselves.  These jobs depend on disposable income and a willingness to spend on things not immediately necessary.  Also many jobs in necessary fields are themselves not particularly necessary, e.g. the legions of customer service, administrators, account execs, project managers, sales people, etc, etc. 

And this is something widely felt, not just when recession threatens those jobs, because most workers feel disconnected from tangible outcomes.  A highly developed capitalist economy with educated workers moves increasingly toward micro specialization, and the people move increasingly upstream (design, strategy, business management) or downstream (sales, customer service) of the actual production that is increasingly fulfilled by machines.

The under-pinning of all those BS jobs, especially middle-management — the original reviled BS job — is that they are handling the ambiguous complexity of many micro specialists interacting.  They are facilitating complex human interactions, e.g. collaboration, flow of information, engaging relationships with customers, etc that machines cannot do well.  That’s just not particularly satisfying to our brains.  The more we can automate the basic production, the more people move into these BS roles around the actual production.  And the wealthier we become through expanding productivity and technology, the smaller the % of total economy made up of basic necessities.

This is a long way from hunter gatherers who only produced immediately tangible outcomes like food or tools.  The trajectory will only continue, and people will continue to struggle with job satisfaction.  Many drop out and switch to artisanal crafts instead (which are still a luxury good and unnecessary), most others create a self-narrative that is more satisfying, while others find their fulfillment outside of work instead, e.g. friends, family, religion, social tribes, etc.

It’s just another facet of post-modernism.

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8 hours ago, Liffguard said:

He himself doesn't though. Or rather, he only does because the hairdressers themselves do. As soon as we start trying to decide from the outside whether something is useful or not we start running into the problem of value judgements. And since there can be no objective value judgements, he sidesteps the issue by largely trusting in self-reporting. If the person actually holding the job thinks it's bullshit, then it probably is. And if they don't, then he's willing to trust their judgement.

Within the confines of the testimonies he received, there were very few blue-collar workers who thought their jobs were bullshit. Shit maybe, but not bullshit. The bullshit reporters were overwhelmingly white collar professionals, and disproportionately from the financial and legal sectors.

I have never known a stylist who though his / her work was bs.  I have met quite a few stylists though, who have, shall we say, truly OUTSIZE beliefs in how important they are. But the rest of them -- well a good stylist is a treasure beyond belief, and we do treasure them immensely.  Just like having met quite a few editors who opinion of their worth is preposterously OUTSIZE -- a truly good, talented editor is a treasure beyond belief too.

And I sure don't think their work is bs.

But I had already figured out in childhood that all those low status 'unskilled jobs,' from infant care to laundry, to farming, to cooking, etc. were anything but unskilled.

 

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8 hours ago, The Mother of The Others said:

See, now there's an example of a bullshit job in the world of comedy- - taking someone's real joke and turning into a Trump "joke" in the style of latenight shows that have willingly given up on the art of jokewriting to please the rabid half of the nation.   The comedy writers are on record about how useless and unfulfilled they feel working in this new era of unfunny monologues that have degenerated into Trump madlibs.  Just take the setup for a joke and instead of plying your craft as a writer simply fill in the blank with a Trump administration "punchline."   It leaves the writers feeling hollow, because their job has become one of the bullshit ones after having a long tradition of being one of the arts.

I admit it was a cheap and easy joke to make. I don't have the energy to attempt something as ambitious as your Dennis Miller Tries to Write for Reason shtick.

The Trump administration is full of punchlines. Almost everyone who was not a joke or a grifter or on the verge of exile from the competent regions of the party in 2015 has been turfed out one way or another.

Edited by DanteGabriel

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