Bullshit Jobs and the Labourisation of Work

Three days ago I changed my job title on LinkedIn. The title change was part of a broader restructure at work, and was accompanied by a new role description which was really just a superficial tweak to the old one attached to a larger portfolio of accounts. There was no real increase in responsibility, and no extra money. I updated LinkedIn mainly because I was updating everything else – my email signature, business cards – and the people I work with on a daily basis check LinkedIn. I was not prepared for the wave of pro forma congratulations I got. Some of them came from colleagues and peers; most of them came from friends, excited that I had apparently received a promotion.

Given that I was receiving no extra money and there was no increase in authority or duties, it stung mildly to be congratulated. This was exacerbated by the fact that I had pushed back against the new role title because I quite liked the old one. I’d done nothing, in fact, except lethargically resist a change I didn’t care much about. I was updating my profile because not doing it would raise more questions. I’d toggled every available setting to make sure this change would not push itself on my friends’ feeds – to no avail. Without my consent, the program had decided to breathlessly share my vapid non-achievement with 300-odd connections, and did so in a way that made it look like I had taken another important if incremental step towards my best self or dream career. It was total bullshit.

Personal Accumulation and Bullshit

The vacuousness of LinkedIn got me thinking about Dardot and Laval’s notion of ‘personal accumulation’ – or “personal optimisation”, as this piece puts it – which I discussed last week. They argue that we relate to ourselves now as a Marxian capitalist is assumed to relate to capital – we want our personal capacity to accumulate at a rate faster than everyone else’s so we can remain competitive. In a “marketplace” so crowded by the terminally anxious, any activity that can be framed as an achievement should be. LinkedIn just automates that framing for you.

The problem is that it offers no way to tell the regular chaff thrown up by life in the office apart from achievements meaningful to the poster (say, the award of a Masters or a serious promotion with more money and responsibility). Because it makes no such distinctions, it’s effectively contentless. Linkedin “content” puts me in mind of the definition of bullshit arrived at by Princeton emeritus Harry Frankfurt, which I came across for the first time not too long ago:

“When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” (Frankfurt, “On Bullshit”, 2005)

My point is that nobody cares what posts on LinkedIn say, because they so often have so little to do with the ‘actually existing’ world. A post could start with “Lorem Ipsum Dolor Sit Amet” and people would still like it, because what matters is the signal you send to the audience. It reminds me of the joke app “Binky” – which exists because “all we want from our apps is to see new stuff scroll up from the bottom of the screen. It doesn’t matter what the stuff is”. LinkedIn is to Binky as a Trump tweet is to an Onion headline: essentially a self-parody.

Frankfurt’s idea of “bullshit” immediately puts me in mind of David Graeber’s notion of “bullshit jobs”. In 2013 the activist/scholar (or should that be “activist-scholar”?) wrote an article in Strike Magazine that went pretty much immediately viral. He eventually expanded the idea into a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, released in 2018.

Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit Jobs is not Graeber’s best work (and I loved Debt: The First 5,000 Years). Its major primary source is a collection of self-reported examples of apparently pointless work, solicited through Graeber’s large Twitter following. The book does almost no work to address the complexity of using self-reported, self-selecting sources, despite the enormous interdisciplinary literature on such topics.

Graeber’s working definition of a bullshit job is this:

“a bullshit job is a 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.” (BJ, 9-10)

Graeber’s justification for his uncritical acceptance of self-selecting respondents is that “if the preponderance of those engaged in a certain occupation privately believe their work is of no social value, one should proceed along the assumption they are right” (BJ, 11). There’s no effort to address the contingent cultural (or even social) factors that might lead to a given person thinking their job is pointless. I can think of quite a few off the top of my head that might have been illuminating – class, education, gender, the entitlement these things bring, cultural expectations of reward for effort or meaningfulness… and so on. Saying that a job is bullshit if the worker thinks it is bullshit seems like a canny attempt to capitalise on the article of faith among young leftists on the internet that the victim who speaks should always be believed. Graeber’s formulation of this prominent piece of groupthink strips it of its gendered and sexual baggage, in the process making it accessible to aggrieved, (mostly) young, (mostly) white, (mostly) men who might normally struggle to articulate a marginalised subject-position in the face of a resurgent and potent identity politics.

I think it’s possible to read the frustrations motivating Graeber’s sources in a different way. Rather than assuming that an ephemeral but hegemonic ‘system’ has created pointless job descriptions because it can’t figure out how to make a Universal Basic Income work, I think it’s possible to read the anger as a response to work that doesn’t live up to a system of meaning shared by Graeber’s twitter followers.

Teasing out the Cultural Logic of the ‘Millenial’ Work Ethic

Warning – assumptions follow. I want to talk about ‘Millenials’ and the tail end of ‘Generation X’ (or, if you must, the “Xennials”). I don’t think it’s controversial to say that they grew up in a culture that implied they would tread a standard progression from child to adult, one that came with pre-determined milestones of success: get a university education, get a good job, buy house, marry, procreate, accumulate wealth, retire in self-sufficiency. It’s fairly common to say that that much of the anger and resentment felt by this group of twenty-to-thirtysomethings is based in the fact that what was implicitly promised has been placed beyond their grasp by a volatile labour market in the throes of apparently permanent and traumatic change. The world that they were promised, in short, is now impossible. The skills they have attained are useless. The goalposts never stop moving.

OK, assumptions done. If you agree with everything you just read, then the next step makes sense. What if Graeber’s sources just signify that contemporary office work does not conform to many workers’ sense of what meaningful employment “should” look like in the early Twenty-first Century? We can ask all sorts of questions about where they get their assumptions from – parents, university, each other – but the main thing I’m driving at is that rather than ask structural questions about the utility of certain kinds of jobs, we can use Graeber’s source material to uncover a cultural logic of work in the contemporary moment.

Graeber describes five kinds of bullshit jobs: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters (BJ, Chap. 2). The two things they have in common is that none of them produce any “real” (read: physical or lasting) output, and they all rely on the input of other people: they exist either to do someone else’s bidding, to fix someone else’s mistakes, to cajole or convince someone else to do something, or to oversee others. This is a deadly combination in the significance stakes – how do you know you’re having an impact when your only metric is a subjective, mobile, and fraught reading of other people?

So, for example, there is Ben, a ‘taskmaster’ who can’t see the impact he has on his subordinates:

“I have a bullshit job, and it happens to be in middle management. Ten people work for me, but from what I can tell, they can all do the work without my oversight. My only function is to hand them work, which I suppose the people that actually generate the work could do themselves.” (BJ, 51)

Or an anonymous ‘duct taper’, who can’t even behold or reach the people they impact:

“I was given one responsibility: watching an in-box that received emails in a certain form from employees in the company asking for tech help, and copy and paste it into a different form. Not only was this a textbook example of an automatable job, it actually used to be automated! There was some kind of disagreement between various managers that led to higher-ups issuing a standardization that nullified the automation.” (BJ, 43)

Or Judy, a ‘flunky’, who can’t see the value of her work to someone else because she doesn’t value it:

“I was an HR Assistant. My job took, I shit you not, one hour a day—an hour and a half max. The other seven or so hours were spent playing 2048 or watching YouTube. Phone never rang, Data were entered in five minutes or less. I got paid to be bored. My boss could have easily done my job yet again—fucking lazy turd.” (BJ, 34-5)

Or Ophelia, another ‘flunky’, who is caught in the grip of total misrecognition:

“My current job title is Portfolio Coordinator, and everyone always asks what that means, or what it is I actually do? I have no idea. I’m still trying to figure it out. My job description says all sorts of stuff about facilitating relationships between partners, etc., which as far as I’m concerned, just means answering occasional queries.” (BJ, 32)

I’m not saying that these people’s jobs are good. The experiences they describe sound as awful as Graeber says they are. But there are reasons to suspect that this testimony doesn’t do what Graeber says it does. The thing that leaps out at me isn’t that these jobs are bullshit, even if the people in them resent the fact that the job feels pointless, and fails to excite them or fill their paid hours of employment. For example, Judy admitted that her job was the only full-time job she’d ever had, so she has no better jobs to compare it to except the Platonic ideal in her own head. Where did that imagined job come from? What factors contribute to the sense in some of these testimonies that a job shouldn’t be drudgery? How does it relate to the neoliberal Kool-aid of ‘find a job you love’?  My job description is very similar to Ophelia’s, and while I agree that, as in most job descriptions, the language is infuriatingly indistinct (and perhaps bears some similarities to Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit above), it’s not that hard to figure out what it means. What leaps out at me is that some of the people in these jobs have a radically different set of ideas about what a job should be to the people who write those job descriptions. To illuminate this misrecognition I want to turn, again, to Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition.

Bullshit is just another word for Labour

Last week I talked about Arendt’s notion that Labour – the realm of metabolism, maintenance, and consumption – had colonised and supplanted Work, the realm of craft, fabrication, and use. Arendt describes the work of Labour as both futile, in that it will never end, and necessary, because to be without its products is to die. I argued that the logic of the market that Neoliberalism extends to all spheres of human activity essentially makes everything into Labour. I think it’s possible to read Graeber’s sources as reports of people who expected to be Working, but found themselves Labouring instead.

Consider the example of Hannibal, a ‘box ticker’ who describes the reports he writes as “pure, unadulterated bullshit”:

“I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point during their allotted meeting time, but the team I wrote it for was very happy with it nonetheless” (BJ, 49-50)

Graeber calls such reports, which matter more for their attractiveness than their content (cf. LinkedIn), “the high rituals of the corporate world”. (BJ, 49). They are necessary to the functioning of the business world, but utterly futile, as they will never be read. They are consumed at the point of production. They are the output of Labour, not Work.

I think many of the people who supplied testimonies for Graeber’s book looked forward to being engaged in paid activity that produced something lasting, but found themselves in a ‘service’ or ‘knowledge’ economy that cares more about the ‘soft skills’ of maintaining the metabolism or ‘life process’ of a network of relationships than the hard skills of fabrication. I think perhaps this is a reason the ‘side hustle’ or ‘passion project’ has become such a keen presence in the lives of the urban, university-educated middle classes. A hobby offers an outlet for Arendtian Work: it allows for the creation of something discrete and permanent that will outlive its creator. This analysis also points to why the role of Director is often so desired. The duties of such a position can be thought of in Arendtian terms as Action: Directors navigate the political plurality of speaking and acting in the workplace, and through it, direct others to Labour. Because they are not Labouring, they are not Bullshit Jobs.

I have to ponder this more, and this blog post is already too long. And besides, I have to go to work at one of my side hustles. So no conclusions today.

Featured image by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

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