On microwork, Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs and the wrong way to live. With an easy alternative.
Hey, you know the way you’re working and living now? Working full time to service a mortgage or crazy rents; passing your salary to the bank to meet the demands of your lifestyle; and credit cards to stay afloat? Where the compensations are few and the pressure never seems to lift? 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 your work? All the stuff that makes you angry or distracted but which demand participation? You know that person in the office who brags 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 middle managers spend much of their time dreaming up targets and metrics and review processes, and but nothing seems to change or improve overall? How they don’t exemplify effective leadership so much as make more 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 for efficiency or effectiveness or even meaningful labour value. Since David 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 there’s no structural incentive to address the cause — let alone name the causes (and how could executives possibly agree it’s real in the first place). Ego, perception and secret shame are strong social drivers in maintaining the status quo, especially in those who believe the rhetoric of their positions. And so the economics and structures of companies, let alone their culture, doesn’t change; when those at the top believe it’s working efficiently. They hire expensive consultants to present a rosy picture instead — all swish powerpoints and strategy jargon.
Bullshit factors itself in somehow, embeds into the everyday contours of unnecessary meetings and obfuscatory processes and language.
There are many things wrong with modern society that we can’t quite see or get a holistic 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 wealth doesn’t make us better or happier people. That the cost of living and housing is truly 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 our greater 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, petty admin, meetings, zoom discussions, metrics and reporting, and in some cases all the insane exertions to appear very, very busy — is all a colossal waste of time, energy, and erodes our wellbeing. Bullshit jobs are a jarring and alienating dysfunction in a time when serious and hardworking jobs (teachers, nurses) are underpaid, under-recognised and -incentivised.
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 and hacks 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 collaboration 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. At your attentional expense.
Some companies want to break down the perceptual barriers between work and life (whatever that means to you: private time, personal development, time to have a life). They might throw in the chef kitchen and foosball table, but what they’re also doing is taking 70 hours of your 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 rents), because your smartphone is always-connected to the hyperactive hive mind and ready to be buzzed. They might monitor your activity so they know when you’re not ‘working’ or keystroking with the hive. Metrics matter, after all, and managers 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, does it eat away your focus and attention, all those notifications and questions and silly emojis/GIFs? Do you stress when you log in in the morning? Do you still think about these things before you go to sleep? Do you realise your inbox is full of other people’s priorities?
Any wonder you can’t keep up with the tide of useless emails, distractions and demands on your attention? Or the number of shitty tasks someone else is too lazy to action properly; 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, that tide of useless information.
[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. The conversation around value needs to change, if we can only tear away from our obsession with house ownership and cars.]
It doesn’t have to be like this. Just because technology has evolved and iterated itself into our personal lives on almost every level, doesn’t mean we should be enslaved to it. You do not need that latest device or platform hoovering your private data for better targeting and on-selling. You do not need to make your consequent busyness conspicuous and pitiful. Sadface.
If anything, working from home in the Covid era has shown that greater flexibility is possible, and that a re-assessment of the value and nature of work is well overdue.
The alternatives aren’t 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 — or even smaller — and also ask why remuneration as a reflection of work-value is so unevenly applied.
For starters, 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 deny this idea at all costs. Because: profit and perception and tax structures that favour the greedy status quo. But consider that all Australians 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. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Graeber ended his book with a soft argument for a UBI.
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 and sustainable balance to you, truly? How many hours minimum to do your core tasks effectively — without distraction or unnecessary process? If you didn’t have to attend multiple meetings or teambuildings and strategy workshops. And of that time, how much 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 maths teacher, but alas I still failed that year (I had an, er, capability issue). Nonetheless, he had a very soft and subtle way of imparting ideas that was almost radical — even if they took years to properly land. On the annual Bathurst 1000 touring car race: “What a fantastic waste of energy.” He also espoused a very simple picture of what a decent work-life balance could be: 6 hours of work per 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 a meaningful or sufficient relation to work could be. Enough work to cover the bills and make a contribution to society; 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 middling and stagnant, but a 6-hour work week won’t begin to cover the mortgage in our housing market. Also, in Australia we have a PR-minded right-wing government which is hypercritical of slackers and benefits-claimants of all kinds — and with a sympathetic Murdochist media, no UBI would be given fair consideration. Pro-business and anti-people seems to be our national 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 a 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 baseline, 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. Ten 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 their time and attention. The existing norms are arbitrary and always have been; Graeber is quick to point out how different work and production was before Industrialisation. And the truth is that most office- or computer-based jobs can effectively be done in 15 hours a week, or fewer. Ask yourself the question.
A recent piece in the Guardian took a humorous look at research showing why working one day a week is the secret of happiness.
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 satisfaction/rewards they bring. 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 — I haven’t done the economic sums. And maybe this will jump-start a conversation around all the other problems that tie in with our cost of living, increasing inequality and punitive welfare approaches.
Yes this depends on a UBI to work; but there’s no other forces working to lower our cost of living either, no alternatives to the ‘greed’ model. Ten hours a week is also just antagonistic enough to inflame populist commentators and conservatives, get them riled up and spread the idea. Because there’s nothing more irritating to a status-quo apologist than a worker reclaiming his time.
With more meaning and overt value in our work, there’ll be less bullshit about working, less pressure, more lifestyle.
Ten hours can be your minimum or your maximum. The hobby is for you.
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. You can have a laugh and say it sounds like ‘semi-retirement’ or full-time pipe-dream, but anyway, the idea’s been planted — give it a few years to simmer.