Is Your Job Lynchian, or Is It More Kafkaesque?

David Graeber’s “Bullshit Jobs” and Alison Green’s “Ask a Manager” offer differing views — and some good advice.

 

Rachel Paige King | Longreads | April 2018 | 14 minutes (3,753 words)

 

When Richard Bolles, Episcopal minister and author of What Color Is Your Parachute?, died last year at age 90, the New York Times explained his best-selling career guide’s success this way: “‘Parachute’ had come along at the beginning of a historic shift, when corporate strategies like outsourcing, subcontracting, downsizing and mergers were starting to erode traditional notions of job security. The idea that you could stay in one job for a lifetime began coming undone in the early 1970s, and ‘Parachute’s’ perennial sales reflected, at least in part, this new reality.”

Given the tumultuous climate for job seekers over the last half-century — Bolles’s book originally came out in 1970 — the various editions of Parachute have, unsurprisingly, sold a lot of copies (roughly 10 million). In the 2005 edition, for example, Bolles demonstrates why generations of job seekers found his work helpful, with its combination of straight talk and spiritual uplift. For example, he writes, “The typical job in the new millennium is best viewed as a temp job …You must always be mentally prepared to go job-hunting again, at the drop of a hat.” Although the various editions were constantly being updated and revised, we see Bolles (in the mid-aughts at least) spinning the parlous state of job-hunting as not just an inevitable part of modern business but an opportunity for personal transformation. He asks workers to stop expecting not only security, but also stability or even any kind of appreciation for their efforts. At the same time, he presents the world of work as a thrilling adventure (or at the very least a fun challenge) involving short-term gigs with steep learning curves and workplaces characterized by interpersonal drama and managerial indifference to personal struggles. Still, he appears to believe that finding a “dream job” is possible if you stop hoping for any kind of external reward. For Bolles, the job seeker should not be looking not for a single position or even for a traditional career, but for a vocation. Secular people sometimes forget that that word was originally synonymous with the concept of a religious calling, but Bolles, with his seminary training, most likely never did.

Still, when he writes, “You must find work which feeds your self-esteem in the very doing of it, rather than depending on some future reward, some future raise, some future promotion,” it seems to me that he’s asking very little of employers. The perverse question that Bolles, who appeared to believe in the logic of the system and in the fundamental decency of most workplaces, never seems to consider is: What if today’s world of work is not incidentally or accidentally cruel, but in fact intentionally designed to ensure that workers’ self-esteem is crushed and their sense of self-worth eroded? In today’s professional climate, is the dream job Bolles urges us to look for available? Is finding even a bearable one likely? I ask this as someone with two graduate degrees who has, as a worker, done everything from cleaning up broken glass and used condoms off a barroom floor to enduring sexual harassment from my boss and bullying from colleagues. I would of course like an affirmative answer, but I remain unconvinced.

Author, anthropologist, and political activist David Graeber appears to share my skepticism, as the title of his new book, Bullshit Jobs, suggests. He seems to believe that meaningful work is possible, but that it is perhaps not so easy to find in the world of corrupt, sclerotic capitalism that we inhabit today. One of the purposes of his book is to examine an idea that pervades modern life without much examination: That is, the sense that a job should either have meaning or offer good pay and working conditions, but never be expected do both. It should be emphasized that Bullshit Jobs has much in common with recent journalistic studies or critiques such as Nikil Saval’s Cubed (2014) and Miya Tokumitsu’s Do What You Love (2015). It is certainly not what one would think of as career self-help, like Parachute. Still it does serve as a reminder to the disaffected that yes, the system is messed up and no, we are not crazy. And what, I ask, could be more helpful than that?

What if today’s world of work is not incidentally or accidentally cruel, but in fact intentionally designed to ensure that workers’ self-esteem is crushed and their sense of self-worth eroded?

Alison Green, author of another new title about the modern workplace, Ask A Manager, does not appear to be quite as disenchanted, nor does she address the issue of work as poorly-paid vocation so directly. But she, in her own stealthy way, parts company from Bolles and the conventional wisdom he represents — that is, she does not assume that that the organizing principles of the contemporary office make any kind of sense — for example, that they necessarily are based on ambition (on the part of employees) and efficiency (on the part of employers). The modern office as she depicts it contains touches of the surreal. So, for example, in that 2005 edition of his book, Bolles tells readers to expect plenty of drama from their co-workers. (In a passage full of dramatically punctuated sentence fragments, he warns of office “Power plays!” and “Ambition!”) Green’s professional world, on the other hand, makes space for the illogical. It has its share of cutthroats with clear motives and desires, but it is also full of characters who have been hired in spite of being flamboyantly incompetent and/or just plain bizarre. To put it another way, the central metaphor of Bolles’ book and his job advice suggests that a career is like a plane: If by some chance you need to bail mid-flight, you’ll discover that you’ve been equipped with all the equipment you need survive. Green’s subtitle is equally telling and reveals a slightly different goal: Her book is going to teach you “How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work.” Bosses who steal their subordinates’ food? Colleagues who have no clue? If Bolles envisioned the modern workplace as Shakespearean in its grandiosity and ambition, Graeber sees it full of Kafkaesque boredom and meaninglessness, while Green’s version is a bit Lynchian, possessing a mundane façade that belies something darker and more surreal.

Alison Green is a career-advice columnist for New York’s women’s vertical, The Cut, and her counsel tends to be sensible, sisterly, and perfectly sound. This book is full of all new material, written in her customary advice-column style. The book functions as a reference, organized into four chapters which offer advice on navigating a variety of sticky situations: Conversations with Your Boss, Conversations with Your Coworkers, Conversations When You’re the Boss, Conversations with Your Job Interviewer. Green tacitly acknowledges that human behavior can be weird — even in the most corporate of settings. In sidebars, she tackles work situations that diverge, um, rather dramatically from the norm and that reveal that there are gainfully-employed kooks at every level of your average organizational chart. As with the aforementioned lunch-stealing boss, some of these apparently quite real anecdotes involve superiors (“My boss thinks he is a Mayan shaman”) and others involve subordinates (“Employee is putting magic curses on co-workers”). Green also addresses what might be thought of as fairly typical career dilemmas that involve neither witchcraft nor the supernatural. For example, what to do about supervisors who take credit for your ideas, co-workers who won’t pull their weight, and subordinates who are rude, surly fuckups.

Graeber’s book grew out of an essay he wrote five years ago for Strike! Magazine and which has been reproduced in the book in its entirety. This essay, which has since gone viral, began, “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. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

Fortunately, he is willing to talk about it, and I suspect there are a number of people who can’t wait to hear what he has to say. After all (as he notes in the preface), the original essay received a million-plus hits and crashed the Strike! web page. I don’t think his long-standing fans are going to be disappointed, and he stands to make some new ones with Bullshit Jobs. Although he’s a professor at the London School of Economics and a rigorous thinker, this is no academic tome; his book is as unpretentious as its title, as well as being frank, and often quite hilarious. As I say, this isn’t a conventional career guide, since he doesn’t want to help readers to adapt to the status quo, he wants them to try to change it. In fact he calls the book “an arrow aimed at the heart of civilization.” In the course of his research, he interviewed or received testimonies from many workers willing to (anonymously) describe their bullshit experiences. Such people aren’t “nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics.” People in those professions, Graeber points out, “were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic.” People in consequential jobs, he argues, have no trouble discerning the value of their work. Not because their work is necessarily a matter of life or death or even strictly speaking essential, but because the benefit of what they do is perfectly clear. “A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place.” The people he believes are in worthless jobs, he emphasizes, are the people who themselves believe they are in worthless jobs. These are people who collect a paycheck but don’t know why, and who feel defeated, discouraged, and even despondent about it. Such workers tend to have vague job descriptions and function as small cogs within vast organizations. They are administrators and paper-pushers, and they include people that have the title that Green uses to identify herself — managers. Graeber believes that such people often have no idea why they are being paid to do what they do and would rather do something else. His definition of a bullshit job is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” He tells a delightful story of a Spanish bureaucrat who didn’t show up to work for six years. The man was apparently being punished for something that had nothing to do with his work performance — his politics. Rather than go through the motions of doing his bullshit job, he decided to “just go home and do something useful with his life.” He became an expert on Spinoza’s writings instead.

If Bolles envisioned the modern workplace as Shakespearean in its grandiosity and ambition, Graeber sees it full of Kafkaesque boredom and meaninglessness, while Green’s version is a bit Lynchian, possessing a mundane façade that belies something darker and more surreal.

I laughed hardest over the confessions of university students and recent college grads who fundamentally cannot believe the corruption of a bullshit system that their elders didn’t warn them about. One student bemoans his campus job, which he says consists entirely of “scanning IDs, or monitoring empty rooms, or cleaning already-clean tables.” This example as much as any other underscored the original essay’s point that for the ruling class “work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing.” And so, it apparently never occurs to anyone (other than the students and Graeber, of course, and now us) that rather than being forced to take pointless, bullshit jobs in exchange for an education, students at a university might be better served by paying lower (or — gasp! — no) tuition. Furthermore, it seems especially perverse that just before young people enter the adult world of employment they are forced into a bizarre rite of passage designed to demonstrate that whatever worthwhile thing they might study at school, no job they hold is likely to benefit themselves or society. Instead, by being forced to take bullshit jobs to make ends meet while in school, they learn at a young age “that one is paid money to do things that are in no way useful or important and that one does not enjoy.” They learn to expect to earn money for work that seems pointless and that offers no meaning whatsoever, just a paycheck. As Graeber presents it, this is an education of a kind, but a perverse and unsatisfying one.

It’s worth remembering that whole field of career advising began long before Richard Bolles. In a 2000 article in The Career Development Quarterly, University of Missouri counseling professor Mark Pope breaks down its various periods and trends. He writes that career advising really began in the U.S. around the turn of the 20th century. At that time, the country was transforming itself from an agricultural economy to a largely industrial one, and career advice was aimed at helping to address the “loss of ‘permanent’ jobs on the family farm.” A generation or so later, the country had to reintegrate a generation of World War I vets, many of them with deep psychological and physical wounds. And then, of course, came the Great Depression and mass unemployment. The origins of career advising and study are, then, rooted in dislocation and pain, both collective and personal. Even today, no one picks up a book to read about careers or a pen to write about them without having the feeling that many people are traumatized either by the search for paying work or the day-to-day struggle to keep it. (In this sense, the work of Bolles, Graeber, and Green, whatever you think of them, is meaningful, and not bullshit, as their writing is meant to offer insight and wisdom to people who long for it.)


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Pope identifies the post-war era of job-searching as being buoyed by an effervescent economy. The job market was strong and gave workers some power. Since the 1990s, Pope says, rapid technological change has been shaking up the world of employment. Even though Pope’s article is nearly 20 years old, his words hold true. If anything, the trend has accelerated: A.I. is on the horizon, and we’re told ad nauseum that robots are coming to take our jobs and leave us destitute. Today, to be successful in the workplace, one must not simply find one’s vocation or “calling.” Rather, one is expected to engage in a program of constant self-reinvention in accordance with the latest trends, contorting oneself to fit whatever job is trendy these days — say UX or data science or digital content strategy — while continuing to gather ever more degrees and professional certificates. The idea that anyone can really excel in such an environment — one in which a worker is supposed to dedicate him or herself to a job path that might be obsolete in five years — seems, upon reflection, to be completely absurd. Still, thoughtful reflection, unlike, say, “design thinking for innovation” or “creative problem-solving” isn’t taught in schools or certificate programs so much anymore. For the very young, we now have elaborate regimes of standardized testing standing in for an actual K-12 education. And American colleges and universities compete for customers — oops, I mean students — by trying to offer purely vocational training unencumbered by any humanistic claptrap, or even the occasional challenging reading assignment. Not surprisingly, social mobility is nearly dead. Still, for people born into wealth anything is possible. If your dad is rich enough you could, for example, make the leap from being a corrupt real estate magnate with mob ties to becoming president of the United States without ever holding an entry-level job in the field or being required to master any new technology other than Twitter. As for the rest of us, there’s always coding boot camp or unpaid internships, which may or may not help us find the holy grail: satisfying, meaningful, well-paid work, the sort of work I always imagined that physicians enjoyed, until I learned about their high suicide rate, which makes me a bit less envious of their $208,000 median pay.

The origins of career advising and study are rooted in dislocation and pain, both collective and personal.

Just as the American employment picture became more dystopian around the turn of the millennium, so too have books on careers divested themselves of the optimism of Parachute. Or so it seems to me. For example, in 2007, Stanford professor Robert Sutton wrote a little book about creating civil workplaces and gave it a memorable title — The No Asshole Rule. It was, he says in the introduction, at least in part inspired by his personal experiences. As he puts it, he wished to find ways of avoiding “the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.” (After that book became a bestseller, he found, as he notes in his 2017 book, The Asshole Survival Guide, that he suddenly went from being known within academia as a scholar of the psychology of business and management to international recognition as “the Asshole Guy” — that is an expert on the bullies and jerks who abound in office settings.) Another perennially popular title (also from 2007), Timothy Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek caters to disillusioned workers who have ceased to believe that there is any hospitable workplace. It jettisons the idea of work as vocation, and instead encourages people to spend as little time and energy as possible earning a paycheck.

The whole world of career books, then, seems to reflect a sense among readers that a “dream job” is not a realistic goal. The language in the books themselves is harsher than it was when Bolles started. Both Sutton a decade ago and now Graeber, with their willingness to talk about assholes and bullshit, have given their books titles that might have made gentle Richard Bolles blush.

Graeber’s original Strike! piece offers a theory on why things have gotten so bad. He believes that “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.” Therefore, large numbers of people must be coerced into putting in time in an office, even if what they spend their time doing there is nonsensical, pointless, or soul-crushing.

It is here where Green and Graeber’s books most closely align, because Graeber’s bullshit jobs beget the kind of batshit behavior and situations that Green wants you to be able to navigate and survive. I think many workers sense the violence bubbling below or just above the surface of contemporary office life. It was the early 1990s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, that gave us the phrase “going postal,” an expression that alludes to both the fragility of American workers’ psyches and our easy access to lethal weapons.

Although her book isn’t intended to address that level of workplace violence and stress, Green tries to provide something eminently practical: a way of making the world of work seem less mystifying and fraught with peril. Take her illuminating advice on job interviews, for example. I guess I always knew that I was expected to answer the standard job interview question, “Why do you want to leave your current position?” with the scripted response, “Because I feel I have mastered my current job, and I am now looking for more opportunities for personal and professional growth” but Green really spells out why this little white lie is so important. She says that if you say that your current workplace is full of, you know, assholes, you’ll make your interviewer wonder whether you’ll be able to get along in a new office with new co-workers. After all, they may very well be assholes, too. Although Green would phrase all of this more diplomatically than I do, the fact is that in interviews and on the job, it is often dangerous to simply tell the truth.

Graeber is of course just as concerned with workplace bullshit and its connection to power and subordination. But in the end, he is doing something Alison Green does not do — that is, make a case for radical honesty. He is willing to lay it all out, writing in an especially disarming passage that, “hatred, resentment, and suspicion have become the glue that holds society together. This is a disastrous state of affairs. I wish it to end.” After reading his book, I thought that perhaps if we committed ourselves to really telling the truth about what goes on at work (instead of offering up anodyne answers to job interview questions) maybe some of what’s wrong with our workplaces would have to be reexamined and perhaps even fixed. The #MeToo movement is trying to do this; we will see if the exposure of so much sexual misconduct will leader to a broader examination of nonsexual emotional abuse in the workplace. As the New York Times reported, many years ago, Graeber himself went through a high-profile tenure case at Yale where, in spite of all his intellectual accomplishments, his colleagues offered little support. He was given the silent treatment by some of them, and was told he was “unreliable.” (These snubs are presumably examples of “the petty but relentless nastiness” that Robert Sutton claims to have mostly avoided at Stanford.) Like the Spanish bureaucrat-cum-Spinoza-scholar he mentions, Graeber was possibly being punished not so much for his anarchist politics but for what his politics imply — that is, what one of his students called his “egalitarian philosophy and practice of life, his contempt for authority.” Green does have some apposite thoughts on the subject of interpersonal struggles among colleagues. She notes that “relationships with co-workers can be tricky” and that “sometimes being self-deprecating can make things easier.” All of which is to say that regardless of what one thinks of authority, she does kind of have a point. I am eagerly awaiting the day when the system is smashed or at least radically reformed. But until then, I’ll appreciate both good managerial advice and the supervisors with sufficient wisdom to seek it out — no matter how bullshit the situation we seem to find ourselves in now.

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Rachel Paige King is a freelance writer in New York. Her articles have appeared in SlateSalon, and Atlas Obscura.

Editor: Dana Snitzky