Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Bullshit Jobs - Futurist, Thought Leader, Leader... if you call yourself this, you're most probably not

If you call yourself a 'Futurist', 'Thought Leader' even 'Leader', you're most probably not one. I keep coming across people at conferences and on social media that have these titles, yet have shallow theoretical and practical competences.
I've lost count of the presentations I've seen that are merely anecdotes and examples culled from the internet with some general nonsense about how 65% of all primary school kids are being taught for jobs that don't yet exist, or some other quite from Einstein that, on inspection, he never said.
Let me give you some real examples. Two years ago, I went to speak at DevLearn in Las Vegas. Now one wants a keynote speaker to provide new, insightful thinking, but a guy called David Pogue did a second-rate Jim Carey act. His ‘look at these wacky things on the internet’ shtick was a predictable routine. Kids can play the recorder on their iPhone! No they don’t. Only a 50 year old who bills himself as a ‘futurist’ thinks that kids take this stuff seriously. 
At Devlearn, we also got a guy called Adam Savage. I had never heard of him, but he’s a famous TV presenter in the US who hosts a show called Mythbusters. He spent an hour trying to claim that art and science were really the same thing, as both were really (and here comes his big insight) – storytelling. The problem is that the hapless Adam knew nothing about science or art. It was trite, reductionist and banal. Then there was the speaker on workplace learning, at OEB last year, who used the totally made up “65% of kids… jobs that don’t exist” line.
My own view is that these conferences do need outsiders who can talk knowledgeably about learning and not just about observing their kids or delivering a thinly disguised autobiography. I want some real relevance. I’ve begun to tire of ‘futurists’ – they all seem to be relics from the past. 
Bullshit Jobs - the book
This is where David Graeber comes in. He’s written a rather fine book, called Bullshit Jobs, which identifies five types of jobs that he regards as bullshit. Graeber’s right, many people do jobs, that if they disappeared tomorrow, would make no difference to the world and may even make things simpler, more efficient and better. As a follow up to the Graeber book, YouGov did a poll and found 37% thought that their jobs did not contribute meaningfully to the world. I find that both astonishing and all too real. In my experience, worryingly true. So what are those bullshit jobs?
Box tickers
Some of Graeber's jobs largely orbit around the concept of self-worth. Graeber identifies box tickers as one huge growth area in Bullshit Jobs. Now we know what this is in most organisations, those that deliver over-engineered and almost immediately forgotten compliance training, that is mostly about protecting the organisation from their own employees or satisfying some mythical insurance risk. It keeps them busy but also prevents others from getting on with their jobs. They forget almost all of it anyway.
It also includes all of those jobs created around abstract concepts such as diversity, equality or some other abstract threat. The job titles are a dead giveaway Chief Imagination Officer, Life Coach… any title with future, life, innovation, leadership, creative, liaison, strategist, ideation, facilitator, diversity, equality and so on. All of this pimping of job titles, along with fancy new business cards, is a futile exercise in self and organisational deception. It keeps non-productive people in non-productive jobs. Who hasn’t come across the pointless bureaucracy of organisations. From the process of signing in at reception, to getting wifi and all sorts of other administrative baloney. But that is nothing compared to the mindless touting of mindfulness, NLP courses and other fanciful and faddish nonsense that HR peddles in organisations. Then there’s a layer of pretend measurement with useless Ponzi scheme tools such as Myers Briggs, unconscious bias courses, emotional intelligence, 21stC skills and Kirkpatrick.
A second Graeber category is taskmasters, and he specifically targets middle management jobs and leadership professionals. Who doesn’t find themselves, at some point in the week doing something they know is pointless, instructed by someone whose job suggests pointless activity. The bullshit job boom has exploded in this area, with endless folk wanting to tell you that you’re a 'Leader’. You all need ‘Leadership training’ apparently, as everyone’s a Leader these days, rendering the meaning of the word completely useless. Stanford's Pfeffer nails this in his book Leadership is BS.
All of this comes at a cost. We have systematically downgraded jobs where people do real things, like plumbers, carpenters, carers, teachers, nurses and every other vocational occupation, paying them peanuts, while the rise of the robots, and I don’t mean technology, I mean purveyors of bullshit, all of those worthy middle-class jobs that pay people over the odds for being outraged on behalf of others. Leadership training has replaced good old-fashioned management training, abstractions replacing competences. Going to ‘Uni’ has become the only option for youngsters, often creating the expectation that they will go straight into bullshit jobs, managing others who do all most of the useful work.
I disagree with Graeber’s hypothesis that capitalism, and its engine the Protestant work ethic, leads to keeping people busy, just for the sake of being busy – business as busyness. I well remember the team leader in a summer job I had saying to me ‘listen just look busy… just pretend to be busy’. I felt like saying ‘You’re the boss, you pretend I’m busy’. Most of these bullshit jobs arise out of fear, the fear of being seen not to be progressive, the fear of regulation and litigation, the fear of not doing what everyone else is doing with a heavy does of groupthink.
We keep churning out these hopeless jobs in the hope that they will make the workplace more human, but all they do is dehumanise the workplace. They turn it into a place of quiet resentment and ridicule.

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