What’s behind the spread of useless work?

The old labor hymn, Solidarity Forever, written slightly over a century ago, celebrates the achievements and potential power of the working class.

The world depends on the labor of workers, the song goes.  “Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel would turn.”  That is a “power greater than their hoarded gold.”  If workers unite and fight, they can free themselves from the parasitic owning class.

David Graeber

These stirring words quaint today, because all the driving forces in the economy are liberating the wealthy elite from dependence on workers.  The driving force in technology is to eliminate jobs.  The driving force in management is to make workers replaceable.

And there is another strange thing going on, which is the creation of what anthropologist David Graeber calls bullshit jobs.  The definition of a BS job is that it is regarded as unnecessary even by those who do it.

For a number of years now, I have been conducting research on forms of employment seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them. The proportion of these jobs is startlingly high. Surveys in Britain and Holland reveal that 37 to 40 percent of all workers there are convinced that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world.

And there seems every reason to believe that numbers in other wealthy countries are much the same. There would appear to be whole industries — telemarketing, corporate law, financial or management consulting, lobbying — in which almost everyone involved finds the enterprise a waste of time, and believes that if their jobs disappeared it would either make no difference or make the world a better place.

Generally speaking, we should trust people’s instincts in such matters. … If one includes the work of those who unwittingly perform real labor in support of all this — for instance, the cleaners, guards, and mechanics who maintain the office buildings where people perform bullshit jobs — it’s clear that 50 percent of all work could be eliminated with no downside. …

Even this estimate probably understates the extent of the problem, because it doesn’t address the creeping bullshitization of real jobs. According to a 2016 survey, American office workers reported that they spent four out of eight hours doing their actual jobs; the rest of the time was spent in email, useless meetings, and pointless administrative tasks.

The trend has much less effect on obviously useful occupations, like those of tailors, steamfitters, and chefs, or obviously beneficial ones, like designers and musicians, so one might argue that most of the jobs affected are largely pointless anyway; but the phenomenon has clearly damaged a number of indisputably useful fields of endeavor.

Nurses nowadays often have to spend at least half of their time on paperwork, and primary- and secondary-school teachers complain of galloping bureaucratization.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

One great example of this is higher education, especially in the United States.

In American universities from 1985 to 2005, the number of both students and faculty members went up by about half, the number of full-fledged administrative positions by 85 percent — and the number of administrative staff by 240 percent.

In theory, these are support-staff.  They exist to make other peoples’ jobs easier. In the classic conception of the university, at least, they are there to save scholars the trouble of having to think about how to organize room assignments or authorize travel payments, allowing them to instead think great thoughts or grade papers. 

No doubt most support-staff still do perform such work.  But if that were their primary role, then logically, when they double or triple in number, lecturers and researchers should have to do much less admin as a result. Instead they appear to be doing far more.

This is a conundrum.  Let me suggest a solution.  Support staff no longer mainly exist to support the faculty. In fact, not only are many of these newly created jobs in academic administration classic bullshit jobs, but it is the proliferation of these pointless jobs that is responsible for the bullshitization of real work — real work, here, defined not only as teaching and scholarship but also as actually useful administrative work in support of either.

What’s more, it seems to me this is a direct effect of the death of the university, at least in its original medieval conception as a guild of self-organized scholars.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

How did the administrators get to be more powerful than faculty?   They have power because they control the money flow, and the prevailing neoliberal ideology says that the success of an institution is shown by its ability to maximize revenue—tuition, donations and corporate and government grants.

Excellence in teaching and research contribute to those goals, of course, but so to salesmanship and public relations.  The newly-powerful administrative staff, not understanding what teachers or scholars do, create metrics in order to measure performance.  As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

This isn’t true just in higher education, of course.  It is true of medicine, where physicians and nurses are subject to insurance companies and “hospitalists”, for example.  Not to mention public schools.

Never mind whether the measurement is meaningful or not.  Never mind Goodhart’s Law.  Never mind that the people who will be rewarded will be the ones who figure out how to game the system.

But wait!  Don’t corporate managers value efficiency?  Don’t unnecessary jobs and unnecessary work increase costs and reduce net revenue?

Of course they do.  But in a hierarchical organization, corporate, governmental or “non-profit,” power and status come with extending command and control, and that means maximizing the number of underlings—whether or not the underlings have anything useful to do.

I don’t want to overgeneralize here.  Many managers not only want to do good work, but know how to do it, and actually do it.

But the dynamic is to replace skilled workers with machines and algorithms, even when there is no obvious need to do so, as with driverless cars, or when it is counterproductive, as with automated customer service systems.

When robots are not available, the drive is to reduce the autonomy of workers, as in Amazon warehouses.

Such practices may or may not create value.  What they do is to make life simpler for managers.  This is the foundation of the Stupidity Theory of Organizations.

There is the Fireman First principle, which is that government bureaucrats always cut muscle rather than fat because they themselves are the fat.  This applies to all bureaucracies, not just governmental.

In the early 1930s, John Maynard Keynes, in “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” and Bertrand Russell in “In Praise of Idleness,” speculated that if economic productivity continued to increase, society would reach a point in which everyone could enjoy the necessities of life with a minimum of effort.

Economic output in Western Europe and North America grew as much as Russell and Keynes hoped, but their dreams have not been realized.  True, the average European and American today possesses more stuff than their forebears did back then.  But the fruits of increased productivity have been hugely increased wealth for a tiny few and busywork for the many.


Punching the Clock by David Graeber for Harper’s Magazine.

‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job by David Graeber for The Guardian.  [Added 5/16/2018]

Is Your Job BS? David Graeber on Capitalism’s Endless Busywork, an interview for In These Times.

Are You in a BS Job?  In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone by David Graeber for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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2 Responses to “What’s behind the spread of useless work?”

  1. Charles Broming Says:

    Good post, Phil! You display a keen grasp of the obvious.


  2. Charles Broming Says:

    Oh, and thanks for the terrific links.


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