Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, an LSE anthropologist and the guy who gave us the phrase “the 99%”, surfaces something we’ve all come across. As jobs have shifted into services, no end of cosy jobs have been created for middle-class workers. Looking for an easy life. Graeber argues that these jobs are simply ends-in-themselves and hangs several species out to dry. Few would disagree.
His book explores the Kafkaesque world of bureaucracy but there’s an increasing list of jobs for people who pretend to do things in an organisation, which the organisation is not actually doing. Compliance checking and training is probably top of the list. Diversity training has been proven in large-scale studies to be ineffective, sometimes with a negative effect. Yet tens of thousands are still employed in this fatuous activity. GDPR is yet another manifestation of this. Organisations overreact and build structures, systems and jobs to deal with barely perceptible problems. Every problem needs a ‘course’, a variation on the ‘if you walk around with a hammer in your hand, everything starts looking like a nail’.
Graeber argues that, far from freeing us up for more leisure time, technology is being used to make us comply. HR has become the part of the organisation that protects the organisation from its own employees. We have armies of people telling us not what we should be doing but what we should NOT be doing. They now see employees as having pathological weaknesses – racism, sexism, unconscious bias and wellbeing problems to be sorted by hokey ‘courses’ and doses of Mindfulness, perhaps the only solution that actually delivers the very opposite of what it promises. This idea, that all employees are psychologically flawed and biased, has become the norm. Therapy culture has invaded HR, creating tons of jobs for people who are medically, and in any other sense of the word, unqualified to solve the imaginary problems they create. It’s a vicious circle.
Charities abound with more freelance ‘admin’ people, researchers and well paid executives than clients. The Charity Commission has little handle on the cost to spend ration of most charities. Without good governance they quickly turn into job creation schemes for the CEOs friends and acquaintances. I recently had to deal with Comic Relief. Two of their senior managers asked me in for a meeting, with a specific brief. I arrived only to find that both had forgotten that the meeting had been arranged (and both had PAs!). They were apologetic but couldn’t manage their own lives never mind a large business.
In academia, the amount of 2nd and 3rd rate research has rocketed, pressed into ever more journals that fewer and fewer read. On top of this layer upon layer of academic administration jobs have been created, making Higher Education increasingly expensive. The Case for Education by the economist Bryan Caplan, explores this very issue, with detailed research showing that funding more and more higher education is wasteful, as it is largely (80% not wholly) ‘signalling’. Making young people do more and more degrees is simply credential inflation.
Having worked for over 35 years in business, you soon learn to sniff this out. When meetings have more than three people in them, there’s usually some BS work in the room. When an organisation gets bogged down in research and report writing (most quangos I know) you can read the BS that rolls off the press. The productivity puzzle is not really a puzzle. It’s clear for all to see. Technology does make us more productive but not if it’s used to create tasks jobs that do non-productive things.