On Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs and the wrong way to live and work. With an easy alternative.
Hey, you know the way you’re working and living now? Working full time to service a mortgage or pay crazy rents, or passing both your salaries to the bank to meet the demands of your lifestyle? It doesn’t have to be that way.
You know how a lot of jobs are bullshit, or involve a large degree of shitty tasks that take you away from the core work? All the stuff that makes you angry or distracted but which demand participation? You know that person in the office who always brags about how busy she is, sends emails at 10:30PM, and makes a song and dance about capacity and resourcing? She doesn’t have to work like that.
You know how it seems managers spend so much time dreaming up targets and metrics and reviews, and nothing seems to change or improve? That they don’t provide effective leadership so much as make work for other people? And how they’ll willingly hire more people to do that inane work? It doesn’t have to be like that either.
Let’s face it: bullshit jobs are a reality. The workforce that services our public and private organisations is not geared to efficiency or effectiveness or even meaningful value. Since Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory came out, thousands if not millions of people have nodded in agreement and bemoaned the stupidity of a system that creates so much wasted time and unhappiness.
And yet the phenomenon of bullshit jobs lingers — because of denial (both executive and personal), and because structurally there’s no incentive to change the causal factors. Ego, perception and secret shame are strong social drivers in maintaining the status quo, especially in people who believe the rhetoric of their positions. And the economics and structures of companies, let alone their culture, doesn’t just change overnight when those at the top believe it’s working efficiently. They hire PR consultants to present a rosy picture instead.
There’s many things wrong with modern society that we can’t see or get a grip on, but which occasionally intrude on our everyday perception. We have incompetent and lying and even inhumane governments who pass the buck on accountability like it’s a joke. We’re facing major environmental problems that encroach on our future. We have social isolation and a pernicious decay in our mediated democracy. And all the other societal problems? Take a number.
Let’s just agree for now that our society is unequal and unfair, and that how we distribute and control money doesn’t make us better or happier people. That the cost of living and housing is excessive and yet perversely necessitates this treadmill of work, at the cost of our mental and physical wellbeing.
But none of these problems are so entrenched or endemic that they can’t be acknowledged, discussed and acted on — if only there’s enough will and consensus to make that happen. And none are so isolated that they mightn’t tip over into other areas of the problem-ecology.
Likewise, the way we work now — and the way we spend the majority of our waking hours occupied or dis-occupied with unnecessary procedures, admin, meetings, zoom discussions, metrics and reporting, and in some cases all the insane exertions to appear very, very busy — this is a colossal waste of time and energy. Bullshit jobs are a jarring and alienating dysfunction in a time when serious and hardworking jobs (teachers, nurses) are underpaid and under-recognised.
Do you remember the old promise, the gloried optimism of Keynes when he said that technology and automation would lead to a 15-hour work week? Remember how first computers and then online tools and productivity apps were meant to help us work more efficiently? Well in effect those technology companies figured out how to claim more of your time in the name of sharing and faster processes — but in the end they’ve created more distractions and complex systems that create specialised problems needing specialised staff which weren’t required before.
And yes there are companies that demand all your time, who extract as much attention and thought as they can. They might throw in the chef kitchen and foosball table or gym, but what they’re also doing is taking 70 hours of your weekly life in a setting where work feels like home and there’s no reason to even be home any more (if you can afford the inflated rent), because your smartphone is always-connected to the hyperactive hive mind. They might even have a subtly coercive practice of monitoring your online activities so they know when you’re not ‘working’ or keystroking with the hive. Metrics matter, after all, and manager must appear busy.
Take a look at your work inbox right now. How do you feel when you hear the ping of a new message? If you’re using Teams or Slack or whatever, does it eat away at your focus and attention, all those notifications and questions and silly emojis? Do you stress or worry when you log in in the morning? Do you still think about these things before you go to sleep? You do realise your inbox is full of other people’s priorities, right?
Any wonder it feels like you can’t keep up with the tide of useless emails, distractions and demands on your attention? Or the number of shitty jobs someone else is too lazy to action; or how jobs seem to be less and less about doing and more about seeming. It is not all for the best, and it is certainly (not much of it) in your interest to be across it all.
[For all you digital productivity nerds and techtopians: There is no, and will not be, a productivity revolution. There will be a social re-think about what it means to work and give one’s best attention and skill, as value. And this shift in perspective will join up the other inequities that our society condones in the name of economics and commercialisation and debt-leveraged drudgery.]
It doesn’t have to be like this. Just because technology has evolved and iterated itself into our work and personal lives on almost every level, that doesn’t mean we should be enslaved to it. You do not need that latest device or platform (which hoovers up all your personal private data). You do not need to make your busyness conspicuous and pitiful. You do not have to buy into a collaboration system that’s so expensive and complex it requires two of you to engage with.
The alternatives are not always easy or visible, but they are possible. There is already so much waste and alienation in capitalism (or ‘the economy’ as we call it in Australia) — why worsen it by tacitly condoning the system as the only model for life and work. Let’s think bigger.
I believe our society is already rich enough to pay for a universal basic income regardless of status or work. I believe that it’s in the pro-industrial government’s (and media’s) interest to deflect and deny this idea at all costs. Because: profit and perception and tax structures that favour the greedy status quo. But that all people can be looked after and guaranteed a basic level of financial security and freedom — right now — if only there was enough clamour for it — this is not just a nice idea but a covert reality.
At its simplest, a job should be something that helps you get by. So the question becomes: what amount of work is sufficient to get by on. Forget about the mortgages, forget about the cost of living for a moment. And then also ask yourself: what amount of work feels like a healthy balance to you, truly? What would be the minimum hours to do your core tasks effectively — without distraction or unnecessary process? If you didn’t have to attend multiple meetings or teambuildings and workshops. And of that time, how much would it take to feel you’ve made an honest contribution, in balance with all the other demands and interests of your life?
Ask this question without attaching shame or concern for the team spirit.
What would your hours be?
I had a great teacher in High School. Let’s call him Des because he was the kind of educator you eventually got to know on a first name basis. He was a very good Match teacher, but alas I still failed that year (I had an, er, capability issue). Nonetheless, he had a very soft way of imparting ideas that was almost radical. On the annual Bathurst 1000 touring car race: “What a fantastic waste of energy.” He also espoused a very basic picture of what a decent work-life balance could be: 6 hours of meaningful work a week and a hobby. That’s all you need.
Don’t get me wrong: he was a committed and hard-working teacher. But he also imparted a very simple vision of what satisfying work could be. Enough work to make a contribution; enough time to engage in personal improvement or projects; and time to perceive and engage with the world.
Now this won’t work in our current society. Wages may be high, but a 6-hour work week won’t cover the mortgage in our housing market. Also, in Australia we have a reactionary right-wing government that’s hypercritical of slackers and benefits-claimants of all kinds — and with a sympathetic Murdochist media, no UBI will be given fair consideration. Pro-business, anti-people seems to be our MO.
But, in an effort at reframing how we perceive and value ‘work’ and meaningful living, I’m willing to make a concession to the vision.
Let’s set the baseline for meaningful employment at 10 hours a week, with all the same benefits and conditions as full-time work. What if that becomes the norm; what if that creates more balance and more jobs. What if that takes the pressure off, and give us some headroom and clarity to deal with all the other problems facing us. 10 hours a week, and a hobby.
Sure, you can still work a 40-hour work if you want. But let’s not penalise or castigate those who want to work less because they want to live better or have more control over time spent. The existing norms are arbitrary and always have been. And the truth is that most office- or computer-based jobs can effectively be done in 15 hours a week, or fewer.
What if we make a collective and a consistent push for better work-life balance. More time for parenting or caring for elders. More time for art and creation or volunteering. More time to explore new business models and ideas or to change careers. Or to build a house cheaply. More control over our attention in ways that are healthy and bonding — because it’s also possible we’ve got the work-life balance all wrong — that we need to focus on mental wellbeing and fulfilment first, and then allocate the hours for employment and the satisfactions that brings. So we don’t compromise one with the other.
More time to simply make a better, fairer society without having to phone it in — even if that does mean less money. Maybe there’ll be some genuine trickle-down effect on house prices.
Maybe if we have more meaning in our work, there’ll be less bullshit about working. Des may’ve been a bit cheeky, but I don’t doubt he was also being a total realist and a total humanist about the matter.
10 hours is just antagonistic enough to inflame the populist shock jocks and commentators, get them riled up and spread the idea. Because there’s nothing more irritating to a chauvinist right-winger than a worker reclaiming his time.
10 hours can be your minimum or your maximum. The hobby is for you.
You can have a laugh and say it sounds like semi-retirement or full-time fantasy, but anyway, the idea’s been planted.
Related: Why working one day a week is the secret of happiness (The Guardian)