'Bullshit jobs' ― a commonplace phenomenon?

OCTOBER 15 ― I once heard a manager from another department complaining that one of her staff is always looking at her WhatsApp messages; the manager claimed the individual in question spends almost five or six hours a day on his phone.

My first reaction, as part of HR, was to ask her if this employee's deliverables or work had been affected. Her answer was surprising: She said that work-wise she didn’t have any complaints, but she just didn’t like to see him on his phone so often.

I’m sure we can discuss the above case-study from a variety of angles, but here I want to focus on one: The fact that this particular staff could continue fulfilling his responsibility despite, obviously, spending a lot of time on social media or the internet.

So it wasn’t that the manager in question had problems with his performance; she simply didn’t like the fact that he wasn’t pretending to be busier than he actually was.

This is, strangely enough, something not taught in schools and colleges, but very essential in corporate life: How to “look busy” and how to “ooze professionalism” when, in fact, one isn’t doing much of particular importance during the day, let alone at those particular times when (one thinks) people are observing us.

Mastering sandiwara is one of the unspoken skills of corporate leadership.

Which leads us to a question asked by anthropologist David Graaber in a recent book he published: Why do such jobs, which involve much pretense (among other uncool aspects), even exist?

The name of Graeber’s book is, well, Bullshit Jobs.

What is a bullshit job?

Graeber idenifies two criteria which define a “bullshit job”: 1) the lack of social value and 2) the necessity for pretense.

According to Graeber, modern society today is filled with jobs which are practically pointless and don’t substantially help anyone and, worse still, are performed with much fakery ie. workers need to pretend they’re doing something meaningful or just doing something.

Malaysians who spend most of their office hours trying to “look busy” will know instantly what I’m talking about.

If these same Malaysians find it very awkward or embarrassing to list down exactly what they do every day, then ― bingo ― chances are we’re close to “bullshit job” territory.

Graeber highlights at least five kinds of jobs which fall into this category:

The point of the table above isn’t to ridicule or embarrass anybody. Thinking hard about what we do for a living is, alas, not at all on the BS spectrum yet something few people do.

If you read the above descriptions and you can confidently say that you’re not in a BS job, congratulations. For example, I imagine that people running start-ups can easily say that Graeber’s descriptions have nothing to do with them.

Day in day out, these entrepreneurs plan, meet, deliberate, decide, earn small wins, learn from (hopefully) small losses and learn from all the exposure they’re getting. This is the antithesis of a bullshit job.

However, if you read the above and detect some resemblance between the description and what you’re currently doing, well then some serious reflection, conversation and perhaps “job rotation” (or even career change?) is in order, wouldn’t you say?

Note 1: The examples merely offer a glimpse of what Graeber considers a “bullshit job”; the key purpose of this article is encourage reflection on the meaning and purpose of our jobs and what, if any, kind of pretense we are forced to put up to justify them. Finally, please read Graeber’s book for more details, as this article’s main intention is to point to it.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.