Aristotle opined that work makes one a worse person, given how much time it would take, robbing commoners of the ability to focus on their social and political obligations. This view shifted throughout Northern Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance with rising expectations that all citizens get their hands dirty at least some of the time, culminating in the US in the so-called Protestant work ethic. We work full time because it’s just what we do. You’re likely reading (fine, skimming) this article at the office – whether actual or virtual – during a week when as per usual you’ll log 40 – 60+ hours on the clock because you have an important job. You’re a CPA cranking up for the busy season, an attorney with more than a full caseload, a consultant assisting clients with myriad challenges, or a banker helping finance & facilitate growth. Maybe you’re a business owner or executive, the sort that these professionals advise, and you produce something daily. Now think about the org chart and ask: are all the people on your payroll truly necessary?
This is what David Graeber forces us to face in his clarion call of a book, Bullshit Jobs defined as roles that “were they to disappear, would make no difference whatsoever.” He instructs that there are five types of bullshit jobs: flunkies (badges of prestige for the boss); goons (hired simply to keep up with competitors’ headcounts); duct-tapers (who Band-Aid rather than solve problems); box-tickers (bureaucratic paper pushers); and taskmasters (superfluous supervisors who generate busy work). Bear in mind, through survey responses it’s workers – even managers – themselves who’ve reported that they take up space at work. As nonsensical as it seems, companies of all sizes bulk up staffs to the detriment of the bottom line. Graeber tells us this is due to the boneheaded notion that, in order to be a real company, there must be at least three levels of command lest it “wouldn’t be a corporation but just some kind of hippie collective.” Such sharp sensibility and British wit are peppered throughout, and there is clear glee evident in broadsides he takes on bloated middle management. [As I type this, FedEx just announced its cut of 10% of manager and director teams and doubtless among the surviving underlings there was much rejoicing.]
The book takes a sobering, serious tone as well. Graeber, a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, hammers home the perversion that “the more your work helps and benefits others, and the more social value you create, the less you are likely to be paid for it” (think bus drivers, street cleaners, farmers, gardeners, tailors, school crossing guards, and the like). We move up the chain, cash heftier paychecks, and contribute less and less to the commonwealth. He theorizes that the meteoric rise in the use of social media can be partly blamed on surplus employees, many well-paid, and “the scattered, furtive shards of time they have at their disposal in workplaces… when there’s nothing for them to do.” So, they feel bad about being unworthy slugs and go to Twitter and Instagram for… comfort? Graeber’s style tends toward dense with meandering sentences that – while packed with eye-opening statistics and meaningful perspective over 285 pages – can be taxing, commanding rereads. And that’s just fine. Because if the extra effort prevents his audience from hiring another assistant to the assistant manager, surely it will have been worth it.
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