Why we should be thinking about the future of office work

One of the fallouts of a post-pandemic workplace will be a fewer number of what the influential activist and anthropologist David Graeber provocatively called "bullshit jobs".

September 05, 2020 / 07:42 AM IST

When we finally put the pandemic behind us, what will office life look like?

In a recent survey of 1,123 employees by the New York Times and Morning Consult, 86 percent of those working from home said they were satisfied with the current arrangements. They said they were feeling less stressed, were able to take more breaks and even spent more time outdoors.

This attitude is one of the reasons that, in another survey by KPMG, more than two-thirds of large company CEOs plan to downsize their office space.

Yet another study by Cushman and Wakefield provides further perspective. It showed that 70 percent of Generation Z and 69 percent of millennials faced problems working from home – compared with only 55 percent of baby boomers. Younger employees, then, for reasons of space, distraction, or even a need for mentoring and socialising, seem to prefer office life.

All of the above are American surveys, but given the increasingly globalised nature of life at work, the broad trends would seem to hold good across countries. For those fortunate enough to still have jobs in the near future, it looks like a hybrid model is on the cards.


Quick to seize the opportunity, a breed of consulting firms is already advising employers on the shapes, sizes, and safety measures of forthcoming offices, as well as the right combinations of online and offline collaborations. A broader focus comes from Adam Grant, organisational psychologist at Wharton, who has written about transformations in three features of work life: job satisfaction, ethical leadership, and trust.

Perhaps, then, one of the fallouts of a post-pandemic workplace will be a fewer number of what the influential activist and anthropologist David Graeber provocatively called “bullshit jobs”. In his book of the same title, he says that these are the jobs that, to the outsider at least, seem to not do much of anything.

Graeber, who unexpectedly passed away earlier this week, provides examples of such jobs: “HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers, or the sort of people (very familiar in academic contexts) who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees.” This is apart from those people whose job is largely to provide administrative, technical, or security support.

He divides such jobs into five broad categories: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters.

Flunkies are those involved in old-fashioned, feudal tasks, such as opening doors and operating elevators; goons are aggressive promoters of other people’s services, such as telemarketers; duct tapers are those whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organisation, such as employees who undo the damage done by sloppy superiors; box tickers “exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing”, such as compliance or due diligence; and taskmasters are unnecessary superiors, the type who assign jobs to others.

His definition of such an unnecessary job, in the final analysis, 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.” Savage. As Nikil Saval, riffing on Rousseau, once wrote, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in cubicles.”

After the publication of the essay on which Graeber’s book was based, the market research firm YouGov tested his hypothesis by conducting a poll of Britons, asking: does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world? More than a third said they believed that it did not, 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain. These numbers appear to bear out his argument.

The questions his book raises are, why do people agree to do, and put up with, their own bullshit jobs? What has caused their proliferation? And why is no-one doing anything about it?

There is, of course, the need to make a living. But Graeber’s approach is more systemic. He asks why so many people find themselves in a position where the only way they can get money is by taking such jobs to begin with.

He goes on to postulate that inefficiency is a feature, not a bug of large corporations. Further, the political-industrial establishment prefers to do nothing about it because it’s a scenario that fosters rootlessness and resentment, which can be a useful tool.

Some of Graeber’s examples tend towards the literary. He cites Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, for instance, in which two teams of barristers keep the battle over a huge estate alive for more than a lifetime. The moral, for Graeber, is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.

More unpleasant is a scene from David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, in which an auditor dies at his desk and remains propped up in his chair for days before anyone notices. Graeber remarks that this may seem like an absurd caricature to some, but in 2002, it was reported that a Finnish tax auditor actually sat dead at his desk for more than forty-eight hours while his colleagues carried on around him.

Whether or not one agrees or with Graeber’s analysis and his approach towards a resolution -- universal basic income, for a start -- it’s undeniable that his scrutiny is worth thinking about. We need to ask whether the moral values currently ascribed to hard work, and the relentless need to produce and spend, are keeping us away from a better, if not truer, way of life. It’s certainly the perfect time to do so.


Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Sanjay Sipahimalani
first published: Sep 5, 2020 07:42 am

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