- An anthropologist is calling out a whole series of sectors containing what he’s termed bullshit jobs.
- His latest book, Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, establishes a framework for five types of jobs that don’t matter.
- An Australian experts agrees that a lot of employees probably spend a lot of their time doing stuff that adds no value to a business.
Would anyone notice, or care, if your job didn’t exist anymore?
At first glance, we can all come up with great reasons why we would be missed, including those uplifting jokes dropped during a coffee break.
But are we really making a difference?
Looking at the work done by others, most can quickly give examples of jobs that really didn’t add much to the smooth running of the business.
Filling out forms to prove that you’ve been working, copying pasting when a simple program could do it, calling a travel agent to make a flight booking rather than just using an online form, and being a manager when those being supervised are doing roles that don’t need supervision.
David Graeber, an anthropologist and a professor at the London School of Economics, has a theory that there are five basic types of bullshit jobs.
He wrote an essay in 2013, called On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.
He called out sectors including financial services, telemarketing, corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.
The article caused a stir and many sent Graeber references to jobs they considered absurd or pointless.
He saved 124 of these and then added to this database by soliciting examples via his Twitter account.
From this, he established five types of jobs that don’t matter. He outlines them in his latest book, Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, due for release in Australia this month:
These are the type of jobs whose reason for existence is to make others feel important.
Today these include, receptionist, doorman and those people who organise meeting rooms.
In the past, these people would be retainers, wearing uniforms, opening doors and standing around looking dignified.
“Throughout recorded history, rich and powerful men and women have tended to surround themselves with servants, clients, sycophants, and minions of one sort or another,” writes Graeber.
“You cannot be magnificent without an entourage.”
Not the actual gangsters, work hard at creating and growing a business of sorts, but those who have an element of aggression in their roles.
Graeber names soldiers (because if no-one had them they wouldn’t be needed) plus lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers and corporate lawyers as having a negative impact on society.
“I think most anyone would concur that, were all telemarkers to disappear, the world would be a better place,” he writes.
“But I think most would also agree that if all corporate lawyers, bank lobbyists, or marketing gurus were to similarly vanish in a puff of smoke , the world would be at least a little bit more bearable.”
The term duct tapers comes from the software industry and refers to those who try to make two systems, designed separately for different tasks, work together.
These people are there to solve a problem that shouldn’t exist in the first place. They are often underlings who undo the damage done by their managers.
“Cleaning is a necessary function,” writes Graeber. “But cleaning up after someone who makes a completely gratuitous and unnecessary mess is always irritating.”
He points out that women have traditionally be duct tapers, who have been soothing egos, calming nerves and negotiating solutions to the problems created by their husbands.
He tells the story of a tester at a small company who was required to proofread research reports written by a star statistician who couldn’t write or express himself.
This tester spent his entire time trying to convince the star to rework every report he produced.
Creating work to show everyone that something is being done.
“The most miserable thing about box-ticking jobs is that the employee is usually aware that not only does the box-ticking exercise do nothing toward accomplishing its ostensible purpose, it actually undermines it, since it diverts time and resources away from the purpose itself,” writes Graeber.
As an example, he points to the large companies which maintain in-house magazines and television channels, supposedly to keep employees up to date but really only exist to give senior executives a warm feeling when there’s a favourable spin-story about them.
“Such venues tend to reward their writers, producers, and technicians handsomely, often at two or three times the market rate,” he says.
“But I never talked to anyone who does such work full-time who doesn’t say the job is bullshit.”
These create work for others to do. But if they suddenly disappeared the work would still be done.
Graeber recommends hunting for these among middle management.
“It is especially difficult to gather testimonies from taskmasters,” he writes. “Even if they do secretly think their jobs are useless, they are much less likely to admit it.”
However, he says being forced to supervise people who don’t need supervision is a fairly common complaint.
And then there’s the other type of taskmaster who make up work for others to do.
He recommends to be wary of any document containing the phrase, “strategic mission statement”, or overuse of the words, quality, excellence, leadership or stakeholders. These could mean a bullshit work creator is getting closer.
Australian human resources expert Aaron McEwan, the Practice Leader in Australia and New Zealand for Gartner, says Graeber’s work fits with research which finds companies are obsessed with getting culture right.
Many employees end up doing a lot that doesn’t add value to where they work.
Companies want culture to drive growth and productivity but also reduce the risk of events such as the banking royal commission.
To do that they tend to focus on the role of leaders in communicating culture and role modeling it so that employees which then know how to act.
“But what our research found was that those two things don’t do much at all if anything,” says McEwan.
“The thing that drives culture the most is removing processes or structure to make sure it’s got the right budget, make sure there’s approval systems, all of those kind of bureaucratic mechanisms.
“The link back to this idea of bullshit jobs is essentially the same idea that if you actually looked at what employees do, they probably spend a lot of their time doing stuff that adds no value.
“And a lot of it actually gets in the way of them behaving the way that the organisation wants them to behaving.”
Take for example, customer centricity, which is one of the more common cultural things that companies are trying to build.
“We’re sitting there asking our employees to act in the best interest of the customer, to always think about the customer, but then we get them to fill out multiple spreadsheets and justify their time and make them go through levels of approval that actually prevent them from delivering customer service,” he says.
“So unless we change those things and impower them to behave in a way that delivers customer, delivers service to the customer, talking about it remodeling it isn’t really going to do a lot.”
McEwan, an analyst who employees people to create reports, is careful in what he says.
“You can imagine somebody who’s job is to create reports based on sales for data,” he says.
“Now you can make an argument that, that’s valuable, right? But it is a job that exist purely to provide intel to managers, to then manage their work horses. I would argue that’s probably adding very little value to customers.”
The Gartner research also finds that changing customer expectations is the largest cause of disruption, a bigger force than technology change.
“So you’ve got companies that are obsessed with being faster but at the same time, the amount of unnecessary work is increasing which is actually slowing us all down,” he says.
“So I think the bigger issue is not that some jobs are bullshit. It’s like everybody’s got a pretty big chunk of their job that is bullshit.
“And if we could remove that, we would probably have not only more productive and efficient employees but arguably employees that are happier, more engaged and more likely to be delivering value.”
The robot apocalypse
McEwan says the coming of the machine, the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) could well save us from pointless work.
“Could this automation future of AI and machine learning actually rescue us from bullshit jobs?” he says. “The optimist in me says it probably can.
“So if we can successfully automat the bullshit, which is the stuff that is most automatised, then we can focus on work that is value adding and meaningful and enjoyable.
“If I’ve got like a fitness tracker or an Apple watch that’s connected to the internet of things to my office and it’s integrated into my diary and calendars, then I’d never need to fill out another time sheet again. Because that data would be collected in real time. So you would already know what I’m working on and what I’m not working on and where I’m at in value.
“If automation promises us a future where the bullshit in our work is eliminated I suspect we will embrace that future.”
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