Bullshit-Jobs (essay)

Near Nuremberg, 2006

I am in the fourth semester of my engineering studies at the university in Nuremberg, and I work like so many of my fellow-students in several odd jobs to make ends meet.

One of those jobs is working on a nearby building site with three of my buddies during the weekends, for about fifteen Euros per hour.

The main tasks on this building site, which comprises several dilapidated buildings on a large estate, vary a little from day to day, but our main assignments are primarily clearing out an abandoned production facility, hauling gravel or hard waste via wheelbarrows, and removing thermal insulation and drywalls from housing frames.

The facility itself consists of one main edifice subdivided into several levels and a vast production hall, a couple of attached offices, a few shops, some murky subterranean store rooms, and approximately a dozen apartments.

Most of those derelict apartments are uninhabited for several years, with broken furniture, garbage and waste scattered all over the floors, some of them with rotting food in turned-on but out-of-order refrigerators as if the previous owners had fled their housings overnight.

Overall, it is a foul-smelling and abominably filthy place.

When we are working indoors, my clothes are soaked with sweat after thirty minutes.

Sometimes we wear respirators because the air is saturated with dust, coarse particles and hence potentially hazardous.

On one of the first days we solely removed pigeon carcasses and decomposed excrement from the bleak premises.

There were two or three subsequent days when we smashed waste doors, walls and roofs to pieces with sledgehammers.

Relief materializes around noon-time when we devour one or two Kebabs and drink some cheap beer out of plastic-bottles bought in a nearby supermarket.

When we are driving home after the day’s work is finished, we occasionally watch videos that one buddy of mine had recorded with his mobile phone camera, and we cannot help laughing about our intense-yet-awkward efforts to do our job as efficiently as possible since none of us is used to this sort of physical activity.

After taking a shower in my small dormitory-room I inspect with interest my increased lean muscle mass, compared to a few months ago.

Scrutinizing a phenomenon

“And why have you chosen engineering and keep grinding day after day to get a degree? Perhaps to have a better life in a couple of years?”

– Reminiscence from a chemistry lecture in my first engineering semester in 2004

After I graduated in mechanical engineering in 2010, I worked for half a dozen different companies in seven years, until I got my first substantial and long-term employment.

What I’d experienced in the majority of these employments up to this point was tedious, stressful and sometimes tough manual work for automotive suppliers and engineering consulting companies.

But what I’d also seen a lot is a bizarre and inexplicable phenomenon, that completely alienates you when you experience it for the first time as a new and idealistic member in the workforce.

Unnecessary jobs that don’t contribute anything of value for the company you are working for, and, if they vanished, it would not make much of a difference.

Incredibly well-paid engagements within important projects, that are completely worthless and useless anyhow.

Jobs in which you write reports that nobody reads, create presentations nobody is interested in, organize unimportant meetings, attend unnecessary telephone conferences.

Jobs where you are done with your real work in forty-five minutes (because you are efficient), and the rest of the day you drink coffee, surf the net, file unimportant reports from other people, kill time with organizing emails.

But how is this possible? Do we really speak about private corporations and projects within a competitive market?

Inefficiencies are rather a characteristic of socialist economic systems, but capitalism is supposed to wipe such things out.

What can be the reason for this?

BS-Jobs: Case studies

A couple of weeks ago I accidentally stumbled across an essay from David Graeber, an anthropologist and political activist.

He breaks down exactly this phenomenon, and wrote a bestselling book about it – Bullshit Jobs (or BS-Jobs, as he puts it) where you spend the day with pointless activities, or with pretending to do important work.

He differentiates several basic types of such jobs, and with two of these types I am definitely familiar with (the main criteria for a bullshit job is by the way, that you know that your job is virtually unnecessary and you cannot justify its existence):

“Task managers”: That means in the broader sense middle management and supervisors (the paper pushers so to speak).

“Duct Tapers”: Jobs that are created to solve problems that should not exist in the first place.

I will give three examples from my practical experience as an illustration for BS-Jobs, and share some perspectives afterwards.

Case study #1

I was once hired as a consultant to analyze and assess test-processes of a German automobile manufacturer.

This project was initiated by a development department of this manufacturer, and the basic idea was to hire a team of experienced external consultants who were aside from testing also more familiar with a recently modified legislation.

Several companies were involved and responsible for various kinds of work packages (I was myself hired by a subcontractor of the actual consultant company. The team was hastily assembled and in reality not very experienced, as a matter of fact).

The project was poorly organized from the beginning. Some tasks were well-defined, but most weren’t. It was more like a straw-fire of activism, generated by the new legislation and a new type of vehicle-platform which was in the process of development.

We did what consultants usually do. Collect data, lead interviews, assess a couple of the major company-processes via assessment forms from textbooks that had no connection whatsoever with anything in the real practical world.

There was no chance for an external consultant (who was not familiar at all with this company) to comprehend, let alone manipulate any of the intricate processes given the limited resources at our disposal (either this was due to absolute ignorance, or deliberately).

It was all BS. The majority of the assessment and the analysis only existed for its own sake, supposedly from the very start. Our work products disappeared in some virtual drawer and were soon forgotten. On the whole it had something to do with politics, strange strategy and – most of all – influence in a company where money is a non-issue.

Case study #2

One characteristic of modern corporate organizations is the concept of outsourcing.

One example. Hardware or software testing is in very rare cases still carried out by in-house test authorities. The staff of the automotive corporations has reduced itself to a team of technical managers, with very limited knowledge about technical details within the development-processes.

Everything is executed by dozens of subcontractors, the working packages so huge and complex that nobody is really able (or has interest) to estimate the exact amount of resources which have to be allocated.

The testers, which were assigned by a subcontractor and themselves employed by another subcontractor, don’t exist without supervision, technical supervision and a test-management hierarchy.

If anyone is creative or has too much time on his hands, there is plenty of space for inventing BS-activities. There is also a wide range for automating most parts of the process. If someone is familiar with coding, it is not very difficult to expand a test-activity from two hours to, say, two days without any genuine difference in the result.

Barely anyone verifies these expenditures of time, because nobody has motivation or time to check highly intricate code and scripts with thousands of program-lines, or scrutinize the whole test-strategy on which basis the code was once created.1

1 this is in parts an inherent problem within the development process of software and thus actually not BS

Because tester and test-management are (usually) highly skilled, they can literally do whatever they want. I once had an assignment (BS-Job so to speak) to supervise and instruct these people. That was barely necessary, and happened maybe two to four times a month, though my work assignment was intended as a full-time job.

Your boss is also rather uninterested in the fact that you don’t have work for eight hours. 

He gets the money for outsourced projects or the work packages for months, sometimes years in advance. If there is indeed no work, the best you can get is a shrug with the shoulders (this is an elephant in the room, as a matter of fact).

Case study #3

I once had a job that was originally not a BS-Job, but turned into a BS-Job after about two years. The trouble started as we were not longer allowed to have our offices in the proximity of our client (that had some legal background).

Again I was hired by a subcontractor of a subcontractor. The main assignment for the project-engineers was software testing in the Electronic Control Units (ECUs) context. During the term of the project, most of the testing had been automated (to which I had contributed) or was carried out by the supplier himself.

Two factors generated more and more BS.

Because we were no longer in the proximity of our client and his test-facilities, we had to afford a great percentage of our working time now as travel time. Equipment and vehicles, our daily business main objects, were scattered around several distant premises.

Since our testing was to a large extent automated and our processes meanwhile well-engineered, we had nothing else to do than scrutinizing every detail of our test-scripts, even being aware that is barely necessary and rather inventing tasks where there aren’t any real problems.

The roles in that project were poorly defined. During the term of the project and reciprocally proportional to the real work which had to be done, it became more and more a mixture of bickering over responsibilities and craving for influence.

I communicated these issues directly to my superiors, though they were well aware of it already.

Due to habit and the structures of the corporation my bosses didn’t want to dissolve their team of experts, who had gotten their salaries through some intricate contracts and big development budgets for months in advance.

Eventually I quit this project and left the company since nothing changed. 

BS-Jobs: A modern phenomenon?

“Work contracts to fit in the time we give it.”

– Parkinson’s law

Graeber deduces from his surveys and observations:

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.”

“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—(…)”

I do not agree with Graeber here. In my opinion his explanation is a way too simple and ideological, what is not a big surprise considering his background of an anarchist activist2.

2 to be fair, I want to mention that my experience is mostly limited to the automotive industry and plant engineering. I have no experience about the many obscure industries with dubious raison d’être that literally mushroomed the last decades

According to my experience, it has more to do with social dynamics in big corporations, where money seems indeed some abstract and obscure quantity.

Craving for power and influence as well as plenty of unsatisfied ambitions comes within the territory of big organizations with dozens of subsidiary corporations and subcontractors.

And two of the most human of all traits we always have to put into consideration: laziness and habit.

The result from struggling for influence plus congealed habits in an organization is plenty of hot air and BS-Jobs which are genuinely pointless.

Left-wing activists are often adherents of conspiracy theories, and they despise and battle against any kind of stratification in society. The political buzzwords finance capital and the claim of the identification with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class sounds indeed like some ongoing conspiracy and an Orwellian Dystopia.

It is true that our society is stratified, and very rigidly stratified (…) Between the two branches of the Party there is a certain amount of interchange, but only so much as will ensure that weaklings are excluded from the Inner Party and that ambitious members of the Outer Party are made harmless by allowing them to rise. Proletarians, in practice, are not allowed to graduate into the Party. “

This is an excerpt from The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a fictional book in the novel Nineteeneigthyfour, where the society consists of an upper class (Inner Party), a middle class (Outer Party) and the Proletarians.

The explanation about a conspiracy of the finance capital doesn’t convince me.

The question: does there exist a conspiracy (that generates absurd and pointless jobs for the middle class) to maintain a hierarchical society, with the financial capital at the top of the pyramid?

No, it is the human factor, social forces, bad habits, and billions of individual interests as the driving force for it. Who has the most inferiors is the person who is most important, coming down to one of the easier to make observations.

And because of that ubiquitous background noise in every corporation of a certain size, there exists barely any competitive disadvantage.

Final thoughts

Of course, I can turn the problem on its head and ask myself: Is it better to have a BS-Job than to have no job at all?

Unfortunately, here we have some kind of dilemma and there is apparently no easy answer.

But I don’t like to do work which is essentially useless. It makes me unhappy. And I think I am not alone.

Perhaps some background noise is unavoidable.

Maybe – if we really make the effort to get rid of some of the more obvious BS-Jobs – we could facilitate creative projects and do useful research about stuff that matters.

That could be a good thing, I guess.

Sources

David Graeber – “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”