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The soul-crashing sadness of 'bullshit jobs'

Opinion

Job titles such as “ninja”, “catalyst” and “brand evangelist” hide the fundamentally pointless nature of a new class of employment. Malcolm King explores the dehumanising world of whacko titles and bullshit jobs.

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My interest in titles started early. My father called me ‘boy’. Black American slaves thought the term ‘boy’ demeaning. My Dad called every male under 16 ‘boy’.

Job titles define who we are in an organisation and where we fit in the big picture. They connote status but they can also alert us to ‘bullshit jobs’.

Many years ago I landed an underpaid and overworked job as an academic at a university in Melbourne.

I was very happy the day my business cards arrived. They said ‘PR Officer’. Actually, I was a lecturer but I soon found that I was teaching PR, even though I was a journalist. It didn’t matter. I had my business cards.

By the time I got my correct business cards, my job had changed. I was now also responsible for student selection and as a subject co-ordinator for Media Law. Imagine. Me – a subject coordinator!

In fact, I was just one step up from the poor tutors who did most of the teaching work and who spent Easter and Christmas marking essays and exam papers for nix.

Around this time the university conferred new professorial titles on its senior staff. The university executive, heads of schools, acting heads of schools, their mates and their dogs were called ‘professor’. They carried red embossed business cards.

Later these people lost the university $120 million and sacked 500 staff but their business cards were works of art. Indeed, most of the communication and design work of the university was channelled into the production of those cards.

I had many titles at university over the years. I was a course coordinator, head selection officer, discipline leader, program manager, senior lecturer, program director and acting head of school. Each one required a new business card.

It became clear to me that titles were more like coloured campaign ribbons that returned soldiers wore on parade. The more ribbons you collected, the greater the kudos – although more often than not, the sheer number of titles reflected organisational upheaval and confusion.

If I’m honest, 40 per cent of my time working at university was spent dealing with staff incompetence, personality clashes, committee meetings and the mind-numbing bureaucracy typical of the Indian public service.

Most of us have worked bad jobs: the pay is poor, the boss is a tyrant and the work conditions were mediaeval. But many of these jobs were very useful.

Meaningless jobs are often highly respected and pay well, but they are utterly pointless and people doing them know this, according to American anthropologist David Graeber. His book, Bullshit Jobs, was released in May.

According to Graeber: “There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting, they avoid discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.”

In both the private at public sectors, there are Brand Evangelists (marketing managers), Chief People Officers (HR managers) and Organisation Catalysts (change managers). The latter position themselves as ‘catalysts’ but cleverly remove themselves from any responsibility for adverse results. On the other hand, if something good happens, they can say that they ‘catalysed’ the change.

The Federal Government is basking in the number of jobs created under its watch. There has been a jobs boom in Sydney and Melbourne. Most of these jobs are in financial services, telemarketing, corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources and public relations.

Unfortunately, many of these jobs are manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world. They exist to justify the careers of the people performing them.

In the main, though, no-one talks about the soul-crushing sadness experienced by bullshit jobs.

A free market ought to eliminate inefficient, unnecessary jobs, and yet the reverse has happened. We’ve got all these jobs that really shouldn’t exist but somehow do. You would expect this in a Soviet-style system but not in a free market.

“While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing,” Graeber wrote, “the layoffs invariably fall on people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things.”

In the main, though, no-one talks about the soul-crushing sadness experienced by bullshit jobs.

I don’t begrudge people calling themselves ‘geniuses’, ‘gurus’, ‘wizards’ or ‘ninjas’. The more titles we can think of that completely erase the nature of much of the trivial work we do, the better.

That way we can permanently live in a linguistic holiday, semantically removed from the fact our job may consist of removing staples from job applications (I did that for two months).

The weird thing is many bullshit job workers identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of senior managers but, at the same time, resent anyone whose work has undeniable social value.

The removal of meaning from work has gathered pace with the rise of managerialism. It has made many workplaces absurd, much as Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros was absurd.

All of the inhabitants of a small French village turn in to rhinoceros, except for one man who is a neurotic drunk. He stands alone against the rampaging beasts. The play is about conformity, fascism and mob mentality.

Leaders unwittingly undermine meaning at work by dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas.

Poet and organisational thinker David Whyte wrote in his book, Crossing the Unknown Sea, that work is like a pilgrimage. It makes us truly human but only if it has meaning.

“We know enough of ourselves on a bleak Monday morning … to realize that as human beings, we are the one part of creation that can refuse to be itself. Our bodies can be present in work, but our hearts, minds and imagination can be placed firmly in neutral or engaged elsewhere.”

If our minds idle in neutral too long, if we can’t see any worth in a job at all, we become shackled to a system that feeds us but doesn’t sustain us.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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