Thursday, 17 May 2018

Bullshit Jobs

It's been years since I've live blogged. But I'm at a session at the RSA with anthropologist David Graeber speaking about  Bullshit Jobs. So here goes:

People are often apologetic about what they do for a living - often because they're literally doing nothing. That's why you get people playing games and watching cat videos while they're working.

Robots have bee taking our work for 100 years or so but instead of redistributing work we've made unnecessary stuff up. This includes whole industries, things like corporate lawyers which don't really need to exist. The appropach is perpetuated by those in power buying loyalty of structurally unemployed by giving them false management positions. Clerical, administration and supervisory positions often seem to be the worst affected.

YouGov did a survey on this - 37% of people in the UK don't think they make a useful contribution to society. Note this is almost certain to be an under estimation of the true figure for the proportion of useless jobs.

It is an important issue for the economy and humanity - bullshit jobs make people miserable, leading to stree, anxiety and depression.

Graeber  suggests we need to rethink our assumptions around human nature. You would image someone paid well to do a bullshit job would be pleased with their income and free time. However they are often extra miserable because they know they are happy but think they should be.


I've been reflecting on my own experience of this and although I've never had a bullshit job, have had some bullshit experiences over the years:
  •  A bullshit student sponsorship assignment where it was difficult to get much done due to lack of interest from the sponsor
  • A bullshit working my notice when I was asked to go into the office even though I had no work to do there
  • One bullshit consultancy project very early on in my career designing an organisation for a new group to develop services to support other people helping employees delivering for their customers, which I just thought was so far removed from the firm's customers to be largely pointless (and cost countless millions of pounds) 
  • And another which for a short period involved working late into the evening writing a report we all knew nobody would ever read (the firm didn't pay overtime so my assignment partner didn't care)
  • A more recent bullshit consultancy project in a dysfunctional client who didn't want to listen to advice about their problems but wanted me to keep going to the end of the contract (and offered too high a day rate to turn down).

That's quite a long list and I found I started to think of more as I started to describe them. In fact I could possibly go on, but really don't feel like I want to.

And yes, these were all fairly miserable experiences.

I suspect and regret that I've also had a temp working for me in a bullshit job where we needed cover for peak activities but where there was not much to do for most of the time.

So although I thought many of Graeber 's points were over exaggerated, bullshit does happen. And I think his fundamental point is sound - we can do more and better. Job design (including the way that people are managed and supported) needs to be seen as more fundamental aspect of organisation design that it often is.

I also recommend David Bolchover's book which I think potentially provides a more balanced summary of the situation.

Interested in the agenda? Come to this training on Job Design for Good Work and Increased Productivity that I'm delivering with Symposium later in the year (or I could deliver in house). I promise no bullshit!

And if it's appropriate, note that I consult on Good Work with the Work Foundation as well as independently.

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  • Contact me to create more value for your business 
  • jon [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com



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