Good Jobs and Bullshit Jobs

Recently, the New York Times Magazine had a special theme issue on “The Future of Work: What Makes a ‘Good Job’ Good?”. As it happened, the issue came out while I was reading the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by anthropologist David Graeber. This was a lovely bit of symmetry, because both the book and the articles in the magazine address similar questions: with more automation in the workplace, why are we not working fewer hours? If we know as much as we do about organizations and work, why are so many workers so unhappy? Shouldn’t work be getting better, instead of getting worse?

These are very big questions with complex answers. I won’t try to cover everything that’s discussed in the book and the magazine articles, and have a wide-ranging but superficial discussion; I recommend that you read the book and the articles for yourself. But I’m going to pull out a couple of themes that I found particularly fascinating.

Both the book and the articles look at the worsening relationships between workers and employers and show that this trend isn’t just anecdotal. Surveys of job satisfaction over time show increasing numbers of dissatisfied workers (although I always caution people to look carefully at the methodology of these studies) but another data indicator of this workplace dysfunction is the troubling relationship between wages and productivity.

Graeber’s book has a very thoughtful discussion of how, in previous decades, both employers and workers were expected to benefit from improvements to the company’s operations. If the workers worked harder or more efficiently, the organization would become more profitable, and the employer would then share that prosperity with the workers through increased wages or benefits. Some researchers have referred to these expectations, at the individual level, as the psychological contract. Beyond the terms of the legal employment contract, the worker and the employer have mutual unspoken expectations that each will treat the other fairly. For the worker, the expectation of fair treatment includes being appropriately compensated for their contributions.

However, while worker productivity has generally increased over the past few decades, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has increased is pay for CEOs and executives. It’s pretty easy to see that a general trend of paying less to more productive workers, alongside insanely large increases in employers’ pay,  would lead many workers to question how this situation could possibly be understood as equitable or reasonable.

A related theme that actually isn’t explicitly mentioned in either the book or the articles – an omission that I found somewhat surprising – is the theories around the content of jobs that might help explain what makes jobs into good jobs or bullshit jobs.  Both the book and the articles talk at some length about tasks that make jobs boring, horrible, or useless. But neither pays much attention to the collective effects of the combination of tasks within individual jobs. In the academic field of organizational behaviour, the theories of job design and job characteristics provide some very interesting ways to think about what jobs should look like.

Job design” means that the group of tasks that are assigned to a position should be chosen to fill a defined function within the organization, but should also be chosen so that the job as a whole is satisfying, enjoyable, and safe. The process of consciously designing jobs often gets lost in workplaces because jobs tend to evolve as people with different skills arrive and leave, and as the organization itself grows (or shrinks) and changes. The principles of job design are intended to get managers to consciously think about what a job consists of and how and where it’s performed.

The related theory of job characteristics focuses on the inter-relationships between the tasks in a job. The theory suggests five attributes that should be identifiable in the combination of tasks within a job, and proposes that all five of these collectively will result in the worker having positive attitudes toward their work. The characteristics are:

  • Skill variety: the worker should be doing more than one thing, so that they don’t get bored from repetitive work, but they shouldn’t be assigned so many different things that the job becomes undoable or overwhelming
  • Task identity: the worker should be able to feel that they complete definable pieces of work
  • Task significance: the worker should feel that the task or the job they do is making a difference to the organization or to the world
  • Autonomy: the worker should have some control over decisions on how the work is done
  • Feedback: the worker should regularly receive constructive feedback on their job performance, and be able to act on that feedback to make changes.

There are several connections between these two sets of concepts and the bad jobs that the book and articles are discussing. The one that jumps out right away is task significance – or, more accurately, the lack of task significance. Many of the workers that are quoted in both the book and the articles are employed in what might be considered prestigious jobs, or are making a truckload of money at their work (or both). But they are dissatisfied because they do not perceive what they are doing to be making any difference to the organization, or contributing something positive to the world.

On a larger scale, other workers that are quoted are questioning why their job exists at all. We might be tempted to attribute irrelevant jobs to the rise of the robots eliminating a lot of workplace tasks, but pointless jobs have always existed. Graeber provides an excellent discussion of how the history of work is filled with jobs (e.g. attendants to monarchs or titled people) that were created simply because someone wanted to show off. The workers in those jobs never did anything useful, but having them around was a way for their employer to display his or her wealth and prestige.

Finally, the theme of autonomy emerges in the book and the articles’ discussions of job regulation and measurement. Graeber contends that there are an increasing number of bullshit jobs, or bullshit within jobs, around reporting or controlling workers’ activities. There is the annoying paradox of spending more time filling out reports on an activity than actually doing the activity, but there’s also the sub-industry of recording and analyzing the data from those reports, and administering the reporting process itself. Some of these processes are probably useful in regulating activity in industries that could potentially public safety and security, or where there might be more temptation than usual to commit illegal acts (although Graeber argues that the legislated regulatory processes in industries with that potential, such as financial management, are largely ineffective).

However, the increasing prevalence of these controlling practices in all kinds of workplaces speak to a larger, greater distrust and disregard for workers. Since many of these processes don’t produce any valuable information, or the information that they generate never causes any changes, their main purpose appears to be as something that management can point to them as evidence of accountability and transparency. But, as both the book and the magazine articles point out, tmanagers are rarely burdened with the same extensive and time-consuming reporting requirements as the people they supervise, even though the work they do has more authority and is more highly paid.

Presumably, managerial work has more impact on the organization’s success, and thus it should be more regulated and reported on as much as, or more than, what workers do. But it isn’t. In its own way, this inequity is a small representation of a world in which increasingly larger amounts of money and power are moving to increasingly smaller parts of the population, is very troubling.

Both Graeber’s book and the New York Times magazine articles have a lot of thought-provoking ideas on these themes and more. Both are well worth reading for anyone with any interest in why workplaces are so dysfunctional when they could be so much better.

One comment

  1. What a great juxtaposition, Fiona, to read the Times piece concurrently with Graeber’s book. You’ve provided a fantastic analysis. The two themes that jumped out at me were “purpose” and “injustice.” Most human beings inherently need a sense of purpose — and when we perceive that our work doesn’t have meaning, it chips away at our souls. Likewise, most humans have an innate sense of justice — and when our boss gets paid four times as much as we do to mostly listen at meetings, it breeds discontent. Thank you for giving me much to ponder about my own job and the vague sense of bitterness and dissatisfaction I see in my workplace every day.

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