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Are you stuck in a ‘BS’ job?

Last week I started a discussion here about the meaning of work – and how rare it is to find work that lends meaning to our lives. Most of us get our first jobs out of sheer economic necessity, and don’t have the luxury of wondering about the worth of what we do. Later on, however, we have to pause to think.

David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, wrote a provocative book called Bullshit Jobs, released last year. The question it asks (in the words of one of its reviewers) is this: ‘Why do so many people have to squeeze doing the things they love into their free time, while spending grim hours under the fluorescent lights of an office doing pointless tasks?’

Professor Graeber wonders why so many of us work forty-hour weeks on paper, but may effectively be working just fifteen hours. The rest of the time, we scan social media platforms dumbly, listen to motivational speakers obsessively, or watch entire seasons of TV serials while purportedly working.

What is a BS job? The book defines it as a job that is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence (even though the employer and employee will feel obliged to pretend that this is not the case).

The book goes on to identify five categories of BS jobs.

The first category is that of flunkies – jobs that exist only to make someone else look or feel important. Aides, sycophants and minions fall into this group – and this is one we are very familiar with here in Kenya, where people have made lifelong careers from being in the entourages of ‘big’ persons while actually doing almost nothing themselves.

Secondly, there are goons – people who act as hired muscle or engage in aggressive activities on behalf of others. In this category could fall the modern jobs of lobbyist, spin specialist, telemarketer, social media mercenary, even some types of lawyers. These jobs struggle for meaning because they exist only to sell gunk, create false narratives, or manipulate emotions.

The third category is duct tapers – folks who only exist because a problem exists that ought not to exist. Duct tapers are people who clean up other people’s messes – but messes that only occur because the system is bad. This includes those who spend their lives correcting the damage done by incompetent superiors – soothing egos and negotiating compromises.

Fourthly, let’s consider box tickers, or employees whose existence allows an organisation to claim it is doing something that it is, in fact, not doing. Sitting on pointless official commissions to show something is being done; working in ‘compliance’ to show all is well when it is not; creating more and bureaucracy simply to maintain the pretence that controls are being exercised; writing long and elaborate reports that no one will read. That’s the stuff of box-ticking. It’s done in order to pretend something supposedly important is being done.

The last category is that of taskmasters. You know yourselves. You are the unnecessary superiors, who exist only to assign duties to others, duties they are perfectly able to carry out by themselves. Taskmasters supervise people who don’t need supervision.

A caveat here: a ‘bullshit’ job is not the same as a ‘shit’ job! The latter might be arduous and poorly paid, but might still be necessary; the former has the whiff of being superfluous and unnecessary. We need cleaners and cooks, for example – they perform a crucial role, even if we fail to regard them with respect. BS jobs, on the other hand can be simultaneously highly paid and nonsensical.

BS jobs are proliferating. Look around you, and you will see how many people are there just to make others look good; to fight for wrong causes; to compensate for others’ incompetence; to signal unmerited virtue; to lord it over others.

As you read through this column, you may have begun to fear you are in a BS job yourself. Well, good. Pay attention. Work is important, and doing good work in our lifetimes really matters. If you yourself can’t feel the worth of your job, walk away from it at the first opportunity. Yes, we all have bills to pay; but more importantly, we have lives to live. Poverty might force you to take on meaningless work, but poverty should not confine and define the whole of your life.

A life spent on nonsense, even a well-remunerated one, is a life wasted.

(Sunday Nation, 24 November 2019)

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