Nonessential Workers of the World Unite!

One of the first things I did after finishing my undergraduate degree in media studies was watch the whole industry of journalism collapse in on itself like a rotting shack held together by ivy. In the late 2000s newspapers all over the world were publishing stories about how they’d sacked most of their journalists and staff photographers as their advertising revenue evaporated into what we now know as ‘the cloud’. Even cadetships – the impossible greyhound-lure of the newspaper industry – were no longer being offered.

That was disconcerting but not nearly as disconcerting as my day job. At the time I was employed by the chancellor’s office of the university. My task was to call people who had graduated two or three years earlier and ask them whether they had found work in their chosen field. After several weeks of interrupting people halfway through their shifts at Safeway and Officeworks I was suitably discouraged and willing to apply for anything that had even a vague connection to what I’d studied.

I ended up applying for a part-time job right back at my old high school as a ’multimedia technician’. Astute readers will note that this job has nothing to do with the media but it did have the word ‘media’ in the job-title and, as I didn’t remember burning any bridges with the teaching staff, I figured I was in with a chance.

I landed the job but, as it turned out, my main responsibility was going through the classrooms before school started and checking to see if the DVD players and the data projectors worked. I shared an office with my former outdoor ed teacher and used one of his wildlife documentaries to test the AV equipment. Years later I can still hear the yodelling soundtrack on the DVD menu for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man echoing in my mind.

I soon realised that there wasn’t much for me to do after my tour of the campus. My shift only lasted until midday but, once I’d made my rounds and fixed what needed to be fixed, the rest of my time was more or less unaccounted for. After a couple of weeks of mounting guilt I went back to the deputy principal and confessed that I didn’t do much. ‘That’s okay’, he told me, ‘we don’t pay you very much’.

 

Bicyclops and the Best Job Ever

By coincidence one of the things I did to pass the time was lurk on an online forum called Something Awful. Calling it a forum doesn’t quite do it justice – the site was a forerunner of the social networks that ended up siphoning off all that newspaper ad revenue – it predated myspace, twitter, facebook and reddit and the dregs of its users ended up draining into the cesspool that is 4chan. Happily it also gave us Dril and a the guy who’s spent the last six years doxing Russian assassins.

At its peak the site had more than a hundred thousand active users. Most of the so-called ‘goons’ were white, male, American computer nerds. So when someone started a thread about which goon had the best job the responses that came back provided a weird cross-section of geeky male aspirations. They ran the gamut from the typical (IT support) to the exciting (firefighters), the laudable (NASA engineers), the prurient (pornographers) and the sacred (soldiers).

However one particular response stood out. A user, probably called ‘Bicyclops’ and probably represented by an anime avatar, chimed in to brag that he was being paid a respectable salary to do absolutely nothing. A post count in the tens of thousands lent credibility to the claim. Having baited his hook several other users demanded a full explanation and the story that unfolded was equal parts tragic and hilarious.

According to Bicyclops he’d been working for one of the larger US telecom companies when the 2008 financial collapse occurred.  His office was shut down but, as far as Bicyclops could tell his title had placed him just above some arbitrary threshold in the corporate hierarchy so instead of being laid-off with the rest of the staff he was simply reassigned to a different office. Once there he immediately fell through the gaps in the org-chart.

After several weeks spent staving off boredom he finally combed through his paperwork and found a job reference number. When he called up a neighbouring branch and got in touch with his opposite number the response he got was telling. After confessing that he didn’t know what he was supposed to be doing there was a long pause on the other end of the line. ‘Oh my god’ the person said at last, ‘So it happened to you too?’.

Following his explanation Bicyclops admitted that his wasn’t actually the best job. In fact it wasn’t even a good job. Despite the lack of supervision he still felt trapped in a sort of corporate purgatory. He turned up late and went home early but struggled with the guilt that came from collecting a paycheck for nothing. The only thing that stopped him from quitting was his anxiety at the prospect of having to look for another job in the middle of a global recession.

At the time I could relate to the feeling of being stranded in a pointless job – turning up to work each day dreading the prospect of filling the time before I clocked off. What I didn’t realise at the time was that my reaction ran counter to some basic assumptions about how humans beings behave. A lot of classical economic theory is based on the notion that the average person is rational and narrowly self-interested. By that logic Bicyclops and I should have been thrilled to find ourselves getting paid to do nothing. Instead we were miserable.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

In 2013 anthropologist David Graeber published a short, off-the-cuff article for Strike Magazine entitled ‘On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’. In the article he puzzled over why massive productivity gains and constant corporate downsizing over the last fifty years hadn’t resulted in mass unemployment or a drastic reduction in working hours. In his book Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren (1931) John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by the turn of the 21st century, the average person would be working 15 hours a week. Instead we’ve found ourselves working longer and longer hours. What went wrong?

Graeber’s conclusion was that while many productive jobs had been automated or off-shored to the Global South the vacuum of work in the anglosphere has been filled by a corresponding increase in entirely bullshit jobs – work that offers no social value or productive purpose. Such statements invite a range of objections about what is and isn’t ‘valuable’ work so, rather than attempt to objectively define a bullshit job, Graeber’s approach was to let workers judge for themselves. Thus he classified bullshit jobs as;

“Any form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

When the Strike article was published Graeber’s evidence was mostly anecdotal but shortly afterwards Britain’s YouGov market research agency polled local attitudes towards work using Graeber’s terminology. The results that came back were damning:

“37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. Half of British workers (50%) say their job is meaningful, and 13% are unsure. Men (42%) are more likely to say their jobs are meaningless than women (32%).”

Graeber’s initial article didn’t delve into the emotional impact of working a bullshit job but, unlike traditional economists, he assumed that pointless work took a substantial psychological toll on the people that did it. ‘How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour’ he wrote ‘when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?’.

The immediate surge of interest generated by the piece prompted Graeber to look deeper into the phenomenon. While researching his follow up book – Bullshit Jobs; A Theory Graeber collected hundreds of testimonials from people across a wide range of industries but the common thread running through all of them was a chronic sense of despair and helplessness. One of the testimonials he quotes at length is the story of Eric, a 21 year old history graduate, hired by a design firm to manage a content-management system that no one in the company used but one senior partner insisted on maintaining.

Like Bicyclops Eric ended up pushing the limits of workplace conduct in an effort to get himself fired – coming in late and going home early and growing his hair out until he looked like a roadie for Tool. But none of the managers cared and, when he tried to resign, he was offered a raise to entice him to stay. Eventually Eric burned himself out. He left without giving notice and spent the following six months living on a squat in the countryside growing vegetables and recovering his sanity. Graeber points out how Eric’s reaction runs counter to conventional wisdom.

“If ‘minimax’ (minimise cost, maximise benefit) assumptions were correct people like Eric would be delighted with their situation. He was receiving a lot of money for virtually zero expenditure – basically bus fare plus the amount of calories it took to walk around the office and answer a couple of calls. Yet all the other factors (class, expectations, personality and so on) don’t determine whether someone in that situation would be unhappy – since it would appear that just about anyone in that situation would be unhappy. They only really effect how unhappy they are”

Lost in Ad-Land

By the time I left my first office job at the school I’d already chalked up the experience as a false start. I felt sure there was more to the world of adult work than solitaire and Something Awful. From tech support I found my way into the field of design – starting with graphics and logos and then gravitating towards the pseudo-scientific world of websites and applications.

Design gave me a peek into a wide range of industries and business models. For entrepreneurial folk intent on starting their own small business a logo designer is often the first person outside their immediate family and friends to provide a sense-check on what they’re trying to do. Often my role as a designer amounted to gently prodding the client to properly consider their aim – to specify which customers they were targeting, who they considered their competitors and what they would do differently.

Although I did encounter some suspect business models (usually from real estate developers and motivational ‘life coaches’) there was usually some genuine service being provided. In the small to medium business world truly bullshit jobs seemed to be quite rare. One example that I remember came from a friend living in Beijing who explained how he was sometimes offered pretend office temp work. He explained to me that having western employees was a sign of prestige for many mid-level Chinese companies. To that end specialised recruitment agencies had cropped up to hire out laowais by the hour. When a company wanted to impress prospective clients or rival firms they would wheel out their anglo employee to attend a meeting or sit somewhere conspicuous for a short time and look busy. Often the ring-ins never even found out what the company actually did. It’s more or less the flip-side of that scene in The Big Short where Ryan Gosling’s character singles out his ‘quant’.

I dismissed that situation as a cultural quirk and forgot all about it – until I began working in the advertising industry. I’ve already written about the bullshit world of banner ads (See Banner Blindness) but one of the many strange features of ad agencies is that they often depend on a contract with one cash-cow client. Every few years that contract comes up for renewal and, if it falls through, the agency can see their main revenue stream dry up overnight.

When that happens the whole team dedicated to that account usually gets shown the door but an empty office is not a good look when you’re trying to attract other high-profile clients. That was the situation I found myself in a few years into my design career when an agency purge stranded myself and handful of other survivors in a mezzanine office above a room full of empty desks.

In a bid to restore their cashflow the agency went after a lucrative contract with Tourism Australia and, when the day came to show their marketing executives through the office, we suddenly found ourselves at full strength once again. A dozen or so people had been brought in to occupy the ground floor and, through some strange sorcery, they actually looked like our former colleagues – fashionable twenty-somethings with visible tattoos and expensive headphones.

Admittedly our Potemkin office was a one-off affair but our day-to-day work was also rife with bullshit. One of the challenges of working for an advertising agency is determining which tasks are real and which tasks are make-work designed to keep employees occupied until billable work is available or feedback has been gathered. Much like law firms, advertising agencies expect their staff to track how they spend each day down to 15 minute intervals but the tasks they assign are often vague and pointless. Increasingly much of the paid work done by agencies is not even for public consumption – instead designers and artists are employed to give makeovers to various forms of ‘internal communications’ (mostly powerpoint presentations and PDF documents) which are then used as disposable props by the people that commission them and largely ignored by their intended audience.

It was this sort of work – decorating reports – that convinced me to move ‘client side’. I wanted to fix things. Then, as now, the internet was a nightmarish junkyard of badly designed apps and flakey websites. Amid such a backlog of work prettying-up powerpoint presentations seemed like an exceptional waste of time. My assumption was that companies that provided actual services or products had no reason to keep their own staff in the dark and no incentive to generate mindless make-work to tide things over. I knew that corporate work culture could be stifling but I figured dealing with a bit of bureaucracy would be a small price to pay for a job where everyone was working towards a common goal.

Those reading this between pointless corporate zoom meetings are already laughing but, in my defence, I was brought up to believe in the natural superiority of the private sector. For the last fifty years neoliberalism has insisted that government institutions are bloated and wasteful while private firms are lean and efficient – relentlessly striving to extract greater profit while reducing their expenses.

What Do People Do All Day?

I was still willing to believe that rhetoric long after it became obvious that it wasn’t the case. In the corporate world I often heard the accusation that certain people did nothing or a particular manager was just running down the clock in order to qualify for a hefty redundancy payout. I heard people say that specific teams or entire departments were largely useless or that one or two people within them carried the majority of workload. Most of all I heard people wonder aloud what certain people actually did at the company. Initially I thought they were being facetious. Over time I began to ask myself the same question but, in the beginning, these gripes were all new to me – I’d never heard anyone refer to a co-worker as ‘dead wood’.

For at least the first year I spent in the corporate world I withheld judgement on the subject. There did seem to be a few Bicyclopses in my office but, ultimately, I believed that the system functioned as advertised – after all, what were all those ‘restructures’ that everyone was always fretting about if not opportunities to purge of underperforming staff? But, as I found out, ‘restructures’ are not the same as ‘downsizing’ and very few people lose their jobs when they occur. Instead the outcome of most corporate restructures is a superficial redistribution of staff under different managers. The GM of marketing might net a few people from the public relations department one year and then lose a few people to the treacherous GM of Internal Comms a year later. Rather than being attempts to streamline an organisation restructures are more like palace coups in which various high officials of the corporate pyramid overthrow one another for a greater share of the plebs.

Indeed increasing one’s ’head count’ is the overriding goal of most corporate middle management as it generally equates to higher salaries and higher status within the organisation. Naturally this doesn’t result in a very efficient workplace and it also lends itself to a lot of pointless grandstanding. Once I was on the other side of the fence I was able to see where all those elaborate power point presentations I’d worked on previously ended up – ten layers deep in a Dropbox directory that no one had visited since the Rudd government. But still we commissioned more of them. As Graeber pointed out in Bullshit Jobs:

“If the ongoing importance of a manager is measured by how many people he has working under him, the immediate material manifestation of that manager’s power and prestige is the visual quality of his presentations and reports.”

This obsession with head count dovetailed with other perverse incentives – creating weird situations where staff were recruited or transferred from other departments before anyone had even thought of anything to do with them. Likewise yearly departmental budgets had to be spent in order to justify their continuance – leading to pointless projects and temporary staff hired at obscene hourly rates for no discernible purpose.

Despite the chaotic atmosphere most people clung tenaciously to their jobs despite the confusion. Others gave up and quit. One former colleague hoped to get closer to the ‘real work’ by joining a consulting firm and found herself assigned to one of Australia’s ‘Big 4’ banks. There she discovered that the project she had been contracted to work on had been suspended while the bank awaited the outcome of another round of restructuring. She waited for instructions for more than a week and then, after growing impatient, offered to help out another team nearby. When word got back to the consultancy she was reprimanded. In the eyes of her manager, announcing her availability constituted ‘rocking the boat’. Based on this she concluded that her primary job was simply to be billable – not to render any particular service or offer any expertise. She quit soon after.

Meanwhile I persisted in my role as a ‘User-Experience Designer’ within a department called ‘Innovation & Disruption’ reporting to someone with a title like ‘Head of Customer Experience’. The small part of my job that wasn’t bullshit mainly consisted of finding ways to reduce the number of call centre staff – arguably the only people within the organisation doing any real work. Call centre agents work under immense pressure and surveillance – the time they spend on and between calls is carefully tracked, recordings are reviewed by managers and pay is often tethered to customer satisfaction surveys that only reflect the policies of the company at large.

My job was to help to automate those customer service interactions or design applications that would allow customers to ‘self service’ (generally through an application called MyAccount). This tendency to reduce the ‘frontline’ staff in favour of ‘back office’ staff is a key part of the bullshitisation of the workforce. It’s worth quoting in detail Graeber’s account of how corporate attempts at scientific management went awry.

“…the pressure on corporations to downsize and increase efficiency has redoubled since the mergers and acquisitions frenzy of the 1980s. But this pressure has been directed almost exclusively at the people at the bottom of the pyramid, the ones who are actually making, maintaining, fixing, or transporting things. Anyone forced to wear a uniform in the exercise of his daily labors, for instance, is likely to be hard-pressed.

When managers began trying to come up with scientific studies of the most time and energy-efficient ways to deploy human labor, they never applied those same techniques to themselves—or if they did, the effect appears to have been the opposite of what they intended. As a result, the same period that saw the most ruthless application of speed-ups and downsizing in the blue-collar sector also brought a rapid multiplication of meaningless managerial and administrative posts in almost all large firms.

The end result was that, just as socialist regimes had created millions of dummy proletarian jobs, capitalist regimes somehow ended up presiding over the creation of millions of dummy white-collar jobs instead.”

Box-tickers, flunkies and duct-tapers

While compiling testimonials for his book Graeber established a rough taxonomy of Bullshit Jobs. Among them he found box-ticking jobs which exist only to satisfy some external criteria that the organisation otherwise ignores. In addition there are flunky jobs which are just there to make people feel important (think doormen and bored receptionists) and task-master jobs which exist to provide a layer of management over people that don’t particularly need it. The category most familiar to me was one that Graeber labelled ‘duct-tapers’ – people employed to solve a problem that ought not to exist in the first place. Obviously a lot of non-bullshit jobs involve fixing and maintaining things but others seem to be the result of some form of negligence. In Graeber’s words;

“There will always be a certain gap between blueprints, schemas, and plans and their real-world implementation; therefore, there will always be people charged with making the necessary adjustments. What makes such a role bullshit is when the plan obviously can’t work and any competent architect should have known it; when the system is so stupidly designed that it will fail in completely predictable ways, but rather than fix the problem, the organization prefers to hire full-time employees whose main or entire job is to deal with the damage.”

In my experience this definition applies to the vast majority of corporate software and web development projects. When not duct-taping systems together digital project teams are usually occupied by endless estimation sessions, planning meetings, retrospectives and other empty rituals of project management. Tasks that should take days end up taking months and tiny decisions are subject to weeks of vacillating discussion before being deferred up the chain of command or, worse, to something called a ‘steering committee’.

One former colleague of mine was driven to the verge of breakdown by circular discussions of, in her words, ‘one fucking dropdown menu’ on a form used by only a handful of people each year. At some stage it became apparent that her entire role had been created so that her boss could delegate someone to represent him on the project team. For this she received an annual salary close to $200k. Even that wasn’t enough to compensate for the all-consuming pointlessness of the enterprise and she quit after three excruciating months.

Generous salaries don’t always go hand in hand with bullshit jobs but, in some industries, it seems to be understood that hazard pay should be provided to anyone dealing with large volumes of bullshit. A game familiar to many corporate employees is to estimate the monetary cost of a particularly pointless meeting – that is to say the combined hourly rate of everyone in attendance. Exact salaries are almost always unknown but even low-ball estimates produce dizzying totals. The Harvard Business Review even provides a handy online calculator.

Based on the results of a handful of studies on social return on investment Graeber concluded that there was an almost inverse relationship between the value of your work and the amount of compensation you’re likely to receive. Researchers at the University of Chicago calculated that the most valuable occupations were those that had ‘spillover effects’ into the wider economy. These included medical researchers who add $9 of overall value to society for every $1 they are paid. As expected, teachers and nurses are also a net positive for society. The least valuable professions were those associated with the financial sector, who, on average, subtract a net $1.80 in value from society for every $1 of compensation.

Underpinning this situation is a perverse sort of logic that tells us that the social value of a given job should somehow be its own reward. Those who decide to be teachers or social workers are sometime said to be following a ‘vocation’ – a spiritual calling altogether distinct from a ‘job’ which is bundled up with material considerations and suggests some sort of entitlement to a living wage. As Graeber sums up:

“As a result, there is a sense that those who choose to benefit society, and especially those who have the gratification of knowing they benefit society, really have no business also expecting middle-class salaries, paid vacations, and generous retirement packages. By the same token, there is also a feeling that those who have to suffer from the knowledge they are doing pointless or even harmful work just for the sake of the money ought to be rewarded with more money for exactly that reason.”

Cat Memes and Candy Crush

As well as recording the mental toll of meaningless work Graeber’s book also examined the social implications of relegating vast numbers of people to jobs with long stretches of downtime but no real way to make use of it.

“The most common complaint among those trapped in offices doing nothing all day is just how difficult it is to repurpose the time for anything worthwhile. One might imagine that leaving millions of well-educated young men and women without any real work responsibilities but with access to the internet—which is, potentially, at least, a repository of almost all human knowledge and cultural achievement—might spark some sort of Renaissance. Nothing remotely along these lines has taken place.”

In the early 1900s Bohemian writer Franz Kafka took up a clerical position at an insurance agency in Prague. Kafka’s father dismissively referred to his son’s position as a Brotberuf, literally ‘bread job’ – just to pay the bills but alongside his day-to-day tasks Kafka managed to pen a number of novels and short stories that took aim at the absurdities of modern beaurocratic systems. Before work came to dominate our lives hundreds of other writers, artists and musicians managed pursue similar creative urges in amongst full time work.

Over the last twenty years monitoring software and the shift to open plan offices have put workers under increasing surveillance while email and smartphones have allowed companies to blur the lines between work and home life. These changes have made it increasingly difficult for people to ‘repurpose’ their time at work or find time outside of it to do that things that interest them. These changes also seem to have narrowed the range of cultural expression. The necessity of being ‘on call’ but only vaguely focused on the task at hand favours mediums that are short-form and easily interruptible. Graeber points to YouTube rants, cat memes and Twitter controversies. I would add listicles, reddit threads, mobile games and podcasts. For people under closer surveillance there’s even browser plugins that make social media look like something more legit. MSOutlookit makes reddit look like outlook, a Chrome plugin called ‘decreased productivity’ turns every site into a discrete wall of text and somebody in Japan made a Firefox extension to camouflage twitter so it looks like Slack (a corporate chat program). If Kafka were alive today it’s likely the only thing he’d be publishing would be tweets.

Distractions may help alleviate the stress of bullshit jobs in the short term but, in the long term, the effort required to maintain a pretence of productivity tends to wear us down. Borrowing a term from clinical psychology Graeber referred to this sense of alienation as one of ‘scriptlessness’. While we all share some sense of what it means to commit fraud or succumb to laziness or mooch off someone else we lack a common understanding of what it’s like to be forced into those same behaviours. Under such circumstances we’re left wondering how we should feel and that confusion, in turn, prevents us from reconciling ourselves with the situation.

Early on in his thesis Graeber makes an important distinction between bullshit jobs and shit jobs. Cleaners, truck drivers and those who work in factories or underground all have to endure conditions that are either unpleasant, stultifying or dangerous or some combination of all three – but most would acknowledge that the work is necessary. Despite being essential these jobs are often poorly paid and subject to fierce surveillance and micromanagement. Workers at an Amazon ‘fulfillment centre’ in Melbourne’s south-east have described the job as a psychological ‘hellscape’ in which every second of every shift has to be accounted for. In less strict environments blue collar workers usually come up with ways to make the most of the situation – one of which is simply to extend the time spent ‘on the clock’ so that low hourly wages starts to converge on a fair level of compensation for the work being done. As Graeber explains.

“The “art of skiving,” as it’s sometimes called in England, may be highly developed and even honored in certain working-class traditions, but proper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk. In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing, what one can say about what one is and isn’t doing, who one can ask and what one can ask them, how much and within what parameters one is expected to pretend to be working, and what sorts of things it is or is not permissible to do instead. This is a miserable situation. The effects on health and self-esteem are often devastating. Creativity and imagination crumble.”

Shirking from home

Some white-collar workers have clawed back some semblance of work/life balance by working from home. Well before the pandemic forced thousands of employees back to their kitchen tables many large companies were already offering their staff more flexibility how they worked. The option of ‘remote working’ was becoming a standard bullet point on the ‘why work for us’ section of most corporate job advertisements. Some companies even built this assumption into their office space calculations – reducing their square meterage to the bare minimum and replacing assigned seats with ‘hot-desk’ policies which obliged staff to play a silent game of musical chairs each morning.

But for those working from home the ‘working’ part was often in inverted commas. Although expectations differed depending on the workplace the unspoken assumption for many in the finance industry was that staff on their WFH day weren’t obliged to do much more than field calls and reply to the occasional email. These arrangements sometimes stirred up resentment among those unable or unwilling to follow suit but the grumbling often had a whiff of hypocrisy – coming from people that didn’t seem all that productive themselves.

Truly scientific studies into workplace productivity are few and far between but research undertaken by management consultancies and industry bodies suggest that most of the hours we spend at work aren’t particularly productive. The time-tracking software company RescueTime analysed 185 million working hours fed into their system and concluded that the average US ‘knowledge worker ‘ – those who work with information – was productive for only 2 hours and 48 minutes a day. A survey of almost 2,000 British workers conducted by marketing agency Invitation Digital reached roughly the same conclusion.

Despite an awareness that this is the case most companies have resisted calls to reduce the working week or the length of the average working day. Given the sorts of bullshit jobs discussed earlier this reluctance makes sense. Reducing working hours would require an admission of wasted effort from the very people who have staked their status and their salary on retinues of staff and the pretence of an overwhelming workload.

In addition it seems as if the cult of work itself ends up discouraging most of us from finding purpose outside of work. In 2015 a study was conducted by Stanford University on employees at a Chinese travel agency called CTrip1. The researchers split the company’s call centre staff into two groups – one of which they assigned to work from home. The goal was to find out whether remote working helped or hindered productivity. Nine months later, when the results revealed that the WFH group had been more productive, the company extended the offer to their entire staff. Some agents jumped at the opportunity but more than half of the original experimental group decided to return to the office. In various ways they reported that they had been too “lonely.”

Graeber encountered encountered that same form of Stockholm Syndrome in his research.

“…most middle-class people now spend so much time at work that they have few social ties outside it; as a result, much of the day-to-day drama of gossip and personal intrigue that makes life entertaining for inhabitants of a village or small town or close-knit urban neighborhood, insofar as it exists at all, comes to be confined largely to offices or experienced vicariously through social media (which many mostly access in the office while pretending to work).”

COVID Normal

The current pandemic has obliged governments all over the world to publicly divide the workforce into essential and non-essential workers. Obviously we’ve all understood that distinction on some level in the past but the value of essential work has never been reflected in our cultural attitudes or in the wages that those workers receive. Previously the only reminders we ever got about the necessity of certain jobs was when the people doing them went on strike. The pandemic and the ongoing lockdowns have given us the perfect opportunity to reevaluate what matters and what we want to be doing with our lives.

If the first step is admitting that most of us are engaged in non-essential work then the next step is to recognise that a large percentage of that work is entirely bullshit. If Britain’s YouGov survey results hold true for us that number is in the vicinity of 40%. When you include all the non-bullshit jobs that indirectly service the bullshit economy that figure climbs higher still. The longer the pandemic lasts the more apparent this situation will become. Right now the Australian government is quietly extending ‘Job Keeper’ subsidies moratoriums on mortgage repayments and insolvencies. In doing so they’re hoping to forestall any dramatic changes to the economy.

Some of these measures are undoubtedly necessary to cushion the impact of the pandemic. But they’re all based on an assumption that we want to go back to the way things were. The one thing all political parties seem to agree on is that creating more jobs is, a priori, A Good Thing. There’s never any debate over the quality of those jobs or their value to wider society. The economic trends that were accelerating before COVID all pointed towards greater casualisation of the workforce. More and more people were being nudged out of permanent positions and into the precarious ‘gig economy’. But many of those gigs only existed because members of our professional managerial class were too starved of free time to actually live their lives. While we’re trying to work out how to beat Covid we should ask ourselves what happens next? Do we want to go back to spending most of our waking hours on swivel chairs? Do we want to go back to outsourcing our dog-walking and household chores to strangers on Fiverr?

As more and more jobs are automated and COVID has put entire industries into hibernation we shouldn’t be worried that we’ll somehow run out of things to do. There’s a massive amount of work that needs to be done. In addition to cleaning up an almost geological layer of plastic we still need to decarbonise our economy and prepare for the climate shifts that have already been set in motion. We need to rebuild the communities that were burnt out in our last seasonal inferno and we need to provide homes to the tens of thousands of people that currently on public housing waiting lists. We need to reorganise our infrastructure and our commerce around a plague that may take years to run its course and we need to bolster our education system and our media outlets to reduce the number of people that think the disease itself and the vaccine we’re pinning our hopes on aren’t both part of some vast conspiracy.

If we do find a vaccine the greater tragedy might be that, after all this misery and stagnation, we find ourselves back competing with one another for the same bullshit jobs building a world none of us really want.

Notes:
David Graeber – Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
RescueTime Blog – The State of Work Life Balance in 2019
Nicholas Bloom, James Liang, John Roberts, Zhichun Jenny Ying – Does Working from Home Work?
Rani Molla – Office work will never be the same
Taylor Wofford – Fuck You and Die: An Oral History of Something Awful
James McElroy – Losing the Narrative: The Genre Fiction of the Professional Class
Kristin Dombek – Imagine this paragraph being twenty years long.
Made in China Journal – Bullshit Jobs: A Conversation with David Graeber
David Graeber – On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant