Bullshit Operations Specialist: your corporate dreams are bullshit.
By Alana McConnell (she/her), illustrated by Yi Jong (she/her)
“Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one secretly believed did not need to be performed – that was simply a waste of time or resources, or that even made the world worse?”
When I was a kid, I told my mum I wanted to be an animal rights activist, and she gently revealed to me it wasn't a real job. I then changed to surgeon, then actor, and then landed on author. The future was full of endless possibilities and jobs seemed fun and exciting. Now, as an adult, the reality that most jobs are indeed quite meaningless and take up a majority of your waking life, and your ability to stay alive in the world is dependent on them, has replaced that hopeful idealism I once had.
I can say with confidence that no child when asked what they want to be when they grow up has said anything along the lines of a customer services consultant, account manager, client liaison, or product operations executive. A child wouldn't know what any of these meaningless terms are, nor would most adults. These jobs, along with a huge list of others, can be defined as bullshit jobs, found predominantly in the corporate world. The list of these jobs are endless, and for many people, these jobs are considered to be reputable, commendable and a sign of success and stability.
A bullshit job is a term coined by revolutionary anthropologist David Graeber in his controversial, and hugely popular, essay for STRIKE! On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013). After the essay was published, translated into multiple languages, and shared feverishly around the internet, polling agency YouGov tested the hypothesis about bullshit jobs and found that 37% of people when asked if their job made a meaningful contribution to the world said no. This was even more than what Graeber imagined, and it proved that what Graeber wrote in his essay was actually just voicing what so many of us really think about our jobs.
Let's break down exactly what Graeber means when he says bullshit jobs. In his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs, Graeber’s working definition of 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 is not the case.
If we go right back, a few hundred years ago when industrialisation began in the 1800s, factories needed to be tended to all the time. It was normal for people to work 10-16 hour days, and it was also the norm for children to be working these hours in unsafe and harsh conditions. In the United States, Henry Ford popularised the idea of the 40-hour workweek, becoming law in 1940. This was instituted to create more productivity as wages increased, and was in line with the decrease to 5 working days instead of 6 in 1922.
In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the century, technology would have advanced so quickly that developed countries would have fifteen-hour work weeks. He was clearly wildly inaccurate. But it wasn’t as if his thinking was wrong. He was correct in the swift development of technology, which in reality could make the fifteen- hour workweek a possibility. What he didn’t know was that instead of the amount of work being reduced, new and unnecessary jobs were being created. The reason why Keynes' prediction did not come true is partially due to that niggly buzzword we like to call consumerism.
Over the course of the last century, the number of workers in farming, working as domestic servants, and in industry, decreased sharply. The amount of professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service workers tripled, growing from one-quarter to three-quarters of all employment. So productive jobs have become automated, but instead of that resulting in a huge reduction of working hours where humans are free to spend their time how they want, explore their hobbies, and enjoy pleasure, we have created new jobs to keep us busy. We have seen the creation of whole new industries like financial services and telemarketing, the expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. To quote Graeber, “these numbers do not even reflect all those people whose job it is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter a host of ancillary industries like dog washers and pizza delivery men that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones”.
A general rule that Graeber makes when he examines the way our workforce is structured is that in our society, the more obviously someone’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Of course, there are a handful of exceptions – doctor springs to my mind – but the rule holds up. If nurses, garbage collectors, teachers, and social workers all disappeared, the results would be catastrophic. But if research consultants, chief strategy officers, and assurance associates vanished, nothing would change, or as Graeber even suspected, the world would improve markedly. This creates a toxic political culture of resentment, where those in largely pointless jobs resent those who actually do something useful, and they feel like it's outrageous when they demand good salaries and decent benefits like health care and paid leave. Think about how those who work in support work and home care are paid nearly minimum wage when they are helping the most vulnerable people in society. Or how nurses are having to constantly go on strike to demand to be valued and seen. It seems insanely backwards to me that the harder it is to understand what someone actually does for a job, the more revered it is generally.
I have always loved writing, even as a young kid in school, English was my most loved subject. Even now, being paid an actual salary with benefits to write about things I care about, speaking out about truth, and connecting with other people, is one of my ultimate dreams. The more I have tried to pursue writing as a young professional, I have realised almost all of the writing jobs you see advertised online are some form of copy or technical writing, alongside corporate jargon like B2B and SEO-optimised landing pages. Everything I love about writing, from self-expression, transforming experiences, and creativity, has completely vanished. All the life and soul of writing had been squeezed out of the craft due to promotion, profit, and of course economic benefit. Even using the term “copy” reduced the role to just being an anonymous cog in the machine, creating something that is not distinctly yours, but instead being used to promote some distant business or a company.
Currently, I have four jobs. I write for Debate as a feature writer, I do photography and writing for business promotion, I work in a restaurant, and I teach sexuality in schools. My work is rewarding, exciting, unstable, unpredictable, and varied. I have so many different passions and I want to find a job that aligns with them, which didn’t use to be such a big ask. Sometimes I am working 10 hours a week, and other times I am working 60. Sometimes I go weeks with all my work drying up, which results in inevitable anxiety and money troubles. I find myself longing for that one stable salaried 9 to 5 job, chances are it would be the type of job I have been critiquing in this article. I long for it because that’s what so many people around me have, that’s what is considered to be the gold standard, and it’s been fed to me that it’s a sign of success. When I tell people about my jobs, there are polarising responses. But with some people, I feel ashamed, because lots of people associate four jobs with someone being unsuccessful, poor or a failure. We associate a salaried job with fortune and being on an hourly wage as unfavourable. When the little but insidious voice in my head tells me “maybe you should just apply for an administrative role or a copywriting role, that would get people off your back”, I shake that feeling off. On the outside, I would be considered more palatable and acceptable, but I wouldn’t feel fulfilled. Working in an office where I am spending a majority of my time replying to emails, organising meetings, and just pretending to look busy, would not make me happy.
Consumerism isn’t the only reason for the proliferation of bullshit jobs. Graeber says “instead we have created a sadomasochistic dialect whereby we feel that pain in the workplace is the only possible justification for our furtive consumer pleasures.” Because our jobs take up so much of our time, we don’t have the luxury of having a life, therefore all we can really afford is furtive pleasures, like going to the gym after work, getting Uber Eats, watching a high-quality drama series on Netflix, or online shopping. The very nature of these experiences is only enjoyed because of our suffering through work. These examples Graeber likes to call “compensatory consumerism.” The question asked now though, is how do we change things? If we recognise a large chunk of jobs are bullshit and we see all these flaws in the system, is radical change possible? The more I try to picture a 15 hour work week the more questions and problems arise. If we got rid of bullshit jobs, then what would our world look like? Who would decide which jobs are bullshit and which ones are not? Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek spoke about imagining a world without capitalism. “Thirty, forty, years ago, we were still debating about what the future will be: communist, fascist, capitalist. Today, nobody even debates these issues. We all silently accept that global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, or because of some virus. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism”.
At the end of his book, Graeber reluctantly offers one solution to the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, though he first says he dislikes putting policy recommendations in his writing, it would be disappointing if he was to simply point out all these ideas and concepts that everyone was already secretly thinking without offering up any alternative or way forward. But Graeber stresses that the main goal of Bullshit Jobs was to shed light on a problem that most people have never admitted before. Graeber is an anarchist and wants to avoid giving even more power to an elite group (government officials) who get to decide on a policy and then impose it on everyone else. The one identifiable solution that has been around since the 16th century and piloted in many areas around the world is Universal Basic Income. This would mean replacing all means-tested social welfare benefits with a flat fee to be paid to everyone through taxation. Giving the same amount of money regardless of gender, race, ability, or economic wealth is an equaliser, as it holds a symbolic power. UBI detaches livelihood from work. It would dramatically decrease bureaucracy throughout countries (for instance, 60% of people in the UK eligible for unemployment benefits don’t get them). If Universal Basic Income became a reality, then we as human beings would have more time on our hands not just to indulge in compensatory consumerism, but we would have time to challenge old social, political, and economic structures which are harmful, fine-tune the way UBI is actually implemented in the world, and have more agency for how we want to live.
As George Orwell said in Down and Out in Paris and London, “I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them too busy to think.”
If we aren’t spending 40 (or oftentimes more) hours of our week working at a job we can’t actually justify or make sense of, then as a collective, we instantly become extraordinarily powerful.