Killing time: Why your job achieves nothing

Technology and automation were supposed to liberate us. Instead, the opposite happened. Corporations invented more meaningless jobs for people to pour long, precious hours into. It’s a soul-crushing experience that isn’t useful to society and actively hurts it in certain cases. With mind-numbing boredom and increasing dissatisfaction, is there a way to stem the tide of bullshit jobs?

Project managers, HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, and corporate lawyers. What do these jobs have in common?

Depending on who you ask, they are all entirely pointless

Existing to make superiors feel important, duct tape over temporary problems, and even harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, roughly 50% of professions are not only meaningless, but also inflict on us a “profound psychological violence”.

This is all according to anthropologist David Graeber, presented in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

While these jobs obviously offer salaries, and maybe some bonus benefits or a good work-life balance, Graeber believes the people working them know it’s bullshit, secretly believe their job shouldn’t exist, but are obliged to maintain the charade to feed their families.

Graeber asks, “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?”

The pandemic led to mass layoffs among those roles more likely to be built on bullshit. The mask slipped from the face of middle management and staff realised they could manage themselves just fine, alone and from home.

HR expert Aaron McEwan argues the point: “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”.

Australia’s politicians claim to have a “laser-like mission” to create jobs for Australians. 

But, first they ought to ask what jobs they should create.

Capitalism breeds bullshit 

A free market was created to eliminate inefficient, redundant jobs. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicated automation would lead to a 15 hour work week. Yet somehow the opposite has occurred.

Graeber believes there’s enormous political pressure from political parties to create jobs, no matter how useful they are: “We accept the idea that rich people are job creators, and the more jobs we have, the better. It doesn’t matter if those jobs do something useful; we just assume that more jobs is better no matter what.”

Bullshit jobs tend to present in well paid, white-collar office positions. They’re particularly rife in finance, more so than in the making or selling of products.

But there’s meaninglessness even in more social fields like health and education. Higher ups have assistants and administrators who, rather than making the overall workload more efficient, create new types of paperwork for doctors, nurses, and teachers.

In 2018, it was discovered doctors spend 10 hours or more a week on administrative tasks, instead of helping patients.

Even within roles that have a purpose and a quantifiable output – think design, architecture, sales, real estate – only 45% of an employee’s work is spent doing their main duties. It’s modern capitalism that demands workers spend 40 hours a week in an office, no matter what.

Graeber doesn’t provide a solution to the bullshit job problem, but suggests implementing Universal Basic Income would be a step in the right direction. “Instead of your wage being dependent on your work, you just give everybody a flat rate and have them decide for themselves how they want to contribute to society.”

It might sound communism-y to some, but UBI has proven effective time and time again, as well as reducing poverty and providing health benefits. 

Giving notice

The pandemic did one thing right: exposing jobs that served no meaning.

With an average of one manager per 4.7 workers, excessive corporate bureaucracy cost companies USD $3 trillion worldwide.

GE’s Durham plant employs 300 technicians, but has a single plant manager. Despite substantially cutting down managerial roles, the plant is more than twice as productive as its sister plant GE Aviation.

Not so in the Fortune 500. Managers constitute 20% of staff and 17.6% of the US workforce overall. 5-6 subordinates per manager is a readily accepted norm.

Prioritising a better work-life balance and intolerant of strict managerial styles, Gen Z is likely to tip the scales as they enter the workforce..

Netherlands-based Buurtzorg has the highest client satisfaction rating of any other healthcare organisation in the country..

The founder Jos de Blok felt the hierarchical structure of medical care was hindering doctors’ and nurses’ duty to patients. He disrupted the current model by building a system based on freedom, functionality and trust.

Buurtzorg uses a network of 1,000 organised and independent teams tasked with finding new patients, hiring, firing, and tending to current clients.

Staff absenteeism is also 30% lower than the average and Buurtzorg’s overhead costs are 67% lower than its competitors.

The idea of overthrowing hierarchy in exchange for a more democratic workplace is growing, with at least 220 companies adopting ‘holacracy’ – a holistic approach that focuses on the human and incorporates automation and self-management principles. 

Californian company Convert implemented a holacracy by recruiting a certain type of individual: “You want people who are going to thrive in this environment. They have to be either natural, lifelong learners or want to learn and have a sense that things can be better.”

The automation trap

91.5% of businesses use AI on a daily basis, with 50% of enterprises planning to spend more on AI in 2021.

But Graeber doesn’t believe AI (or automation) will help us beat the bullshit. For him, automation is partly responsible for the creation of bullshit jobs over the past 30 years.

In Graeber’s essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, technological innovation in the US between 1910 and 2000 drastically reduced the number of domestic servants, industrial workers, and farmers.

At the same time, professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers tripled.

In essence, automation killed productive jobs and replaced them with bullshit ones.

But this is where Graeber gets it wrong: he doesn’t account for the widespread growth of technology companies or fledgling startups.

Theories abound about how new, innovative technology can cut bullshit jobs, such as using blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to provide a decentralised market across various industries.

One field that’s moving very rapidly is the generation of human-like text.

Jasper AI was launched in February 2021 with the goal of producing advertising copy, blog posts and more.

While Jasper can’t churn out an in-depth philosophical thesis or scientific paper, it does one thing right: write text as if it was written by a human.

Newspapers have press releases that are lightly edited with a little added spice to draw in the eyes. But with Jasper, editors can knock out what would have taken an hour into a few minutes.

Jasper isn’t likely to cause mass unemployment of writers anytime soon, but it will give them the option to write routine copy much faster using the right prompts.

But many middle management jobs involve writing memos or reports justifying corporate decisions. With text AI like Jasper, automation can mimic a writing template and employees can fill in the blanks with correct verbiage.

Many philosophical thinkers go as far as to predict how automation can bring about an economic utopia if all jobs were automated.

Stephen Hawking said the biggest hurdle would be wealth redistribution: “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared.”

Given how deeply entrenched we are in capitalism, you’ve got to wonder how likely that reality is. 

Startups against bullshit

Startup work tends to be meaningful and can have far more impact than big corporations’ established, slow, and hierarchical nature.

People found and work for them because they want to do something differently or create something meaningful.

In QuickShouts CEO Chase Hattie’s words, “Startups are the most progressive businesses around, they encourage creativity, individualism and are void of hierarchy. Those who work in startups are some of the most talented people in their respective fields…. It’s not just a job for those who work at startups, it’s a mission.”

Since the employee count in startups is smaller, workers can put on different hats from their assigned roles and dip their toes into important, meaningful tasks that keep the startup afloat.

Even more fundamentally, startups just don’t have the funds for pointless positions.

If – say – an assistant has an interest in learning how to brand, write code, manage social media, or simply move up the command chain quickly, the lack of strict hierarchy enables them to do so, but budget constraints mean there’s no doing it without a good reason.

In corporate jobs, employees can spend long, agonising hours literally doing nothing, and no one is the wiser since you’re just another cog in the machine.

With startups, employees are thrown right into the deep end and individual performance gets noticed.

eVisit CEO Bret Larsen highlights how dream projects can come to life in mere weeks or days: “Results [at startups] are usually immediate – whether you’re implementing a marketing campaign or launching products there’s not a lot of red tape you have to cut through to get initiatives pushed through.”

With over 60% of startup employees being happier than FAANG and Microsoft employees, thousands of folks are leaving big corp jobs for something smaller.

9 out of 10 people are willing to make less money in exchange for a more meaningful job. 

Even Americans would take a 23% pay cut as long as their job had consistent meaning.

But most companies fall short as “meaningful” is a difficult concept to quantify on paperwork.

Meaningful management

Founders and business owners can cultivate meaning by making all employees “knowledge workers”, and leveraging meaning multipliers on every level.

Knowledge workers are employees whose job is to “think for a living” and includes software engineers, doctors, lawyers, and more.

Knowledge workers are more likely to consider their job meaningful compared to employees who handle repetitive tasks. But when even the chance, all employees will turn all work into knowledge work.

You can turn all work into knowledge work by allowing employees to provide valuable insight into how businesses can improve their operations.

By engaging employees and asking for their feedback and recommendation, business owners not only get a chance to improve company processes but also have employees feel like their task is meaningful.

Employees also experience the term “meaningful” differently.

10% of the oldest workers are 17% more likely to find meaning in their work compared to younger employees. Women are also 7% more likely than men to find their work meaningful.

Business owners can leverage meaning across different age groups by having older employees provide mentorship to younger employees.

Corporations are drowning in bureaucracy and hide bullshit jobs better than anyone else. While AI or automation may not stem the tide of bullshit filling the workplace, startups provide a refreshing solution by cutting the red tape.

Startup founders can’t afford bullshit jobs due to the sink or swim nature of their company, and the difficulties they’re facing in attracting talent. 

Rapid innovation, reliance on individual performance, and more cut through the bullshit and provide employees meaningful work.In the words of business mentor Pushpendra Mehta: “Reignite your purpose and passion and transform your life for the better at a startup.”

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