The Antidote to Bullshit Jobs: Do Something Useful in the Gemba

Back in August 2013 David Graeber wrote an article for STRIKE! Magazine titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant.” In it he argues that the last century has seen the decimation of work that actually creates value — either things or services — and the creation and propagation of entire categories of jobs that are parasitic, that exist either to administer the vast executive and administrative apparatus that soaks up the budgets of both public and private firms, or that provide support to this administrative state.

Put in terms of Lean, he is pointing out the devaluation of value-generating work in and at the gemba — the frontline — and the valorization of things like meetings, preparation of decks for meetings, the commission of CYA analyses and studies, programs to demonstrate good corporate responsibility that lead to little or no societal value but that allow executives to speak to the actions underway etc.

Here are a few excerpts:

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.

In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.

So what are these new jobs, precisely? Over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed as domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers’ tripled, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.’

In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away.

But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.

And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones. These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or downloading TV box-set.

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited.

The remainder are divided between a terrorized stratum of the, universally reviled, unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc.)—and particularly its financial avatars—but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.

I have performed many B.S. jobs myself. Some of these jobs were entirely bullshit, others had moments of value interspersed with long stretches of BS.

If you work at the frontline, in the Gemba, then you have the chance to do more work of value. You actually fry the egg, fix the motor, clean the bathroom, change the bandage, teach someone how to read etc. The moments in my B.S. jobs when I did add value was when I got to go to the Gemba and improve the work. Not write a report on how to improve it, but make the changes to make it better.

Yet in our current system, if you want to make more money you have to move from the Gemba into a B.S. job.

If this excerpt from his self-titled rant doesn’t sufficiently insult or outrage you, then you can now read his book-length rant Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

Or you can take a look at this video in which he identifies the 5 major types of bullshit jobs:



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