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For more and more people, work appears to serve no purpose (newyorker.com)
459 points by wyclif 4 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 393 comments



A large company I worked for was spending >$1M/year (data + data pipeline + personnel) on "Social Media Analysis." Every month a "Social Media Report" PDF was emailed to "key stakeholders and decision makers." When we asked them what they were doing with it everybody said they never really looked at it. When we asked them how it could be more useful they shrugged their shoulders.

And yet the company was constantly talking about how great they were at their social media presence and using social media Analytics to keep their customers happy.

I guess a sending out a monthly PDF on social media is self-explanatory to the value of if. So many people involved in something that was zero value.


You’ve just described 95% of projects at large companies.

If you consult for any of them you quickly realize there are like 5 people running the entire company and 49995 somehow pushing forward through inertia.


> If you consult for any of them you quickly realize there are like 5 people running the entire company

The sad thing is when some clueless manager on a power trip, or just trying to reorganize in the most clueless way, threatens someone vital to operating the company without knowing it. It can escalate quickly as the employee realizes how undervalued they are compared to their contributions, and a small local panic may set in for other people that see the train wreck that's fast approaching and its possible ramifications for them.


This sounds specific. Has this happened with you?


I've heard the situation explained times by others. My own experience is from a much, much smaller company and the owner just being oblivious due to his own ego. I saw the tension rising between the two individuals, and heard a few comments the owner had made which made it sound like they didn't think losing the employee in question would be a big deal. My first reaction was "If he fires her, I better look for a new job myself. This company probably has 12 months max without her, at least in it's current makeup."


Or 40000 doing the bare minimum not to get noticed or fired and 9995 playing politics instead of working.


Losers, Clueless, and the Sociopaths

https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-...

Your 40,000 are the "checked out losers".


Wow -

"Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself and anything of value is recycled by the sociopaths according to meta-firm logic."

That has a sort of cynical beauty to it.

AFAICT I'm a loser-turned-sociopath as I now sell to the highest bidder on a strictly short term basis, and don't believe in anything apart from my bottom line.


Somebody downvoted you but that site is a real eye opener. I also use to send friends to read it. I'm not sure that everybody appreciates it because it's to easy to find themselves or to realize which role they are playing.


Thanks for this link. Aligns very much with my own experience.


And this, kids, is why a small startup can beat a big incumbent.


"can" but can also suffer from other idiocy. I know, i've worked many times in big, medium, and small companies.

The problem with small companies is... the lack of inertia! You get the CEO reading an article and decide to 'rebrand', throwing away whatever plan there was in motion to do the previous fad.

Then he goes to a show, and comes back all bouncy about the new cool stuff we HAVE to start integrating or else we won't be relevant when coming to market.

Been there, done that, got a whole pile of t-shirts ;-)


"change the world", "disrupt the industry"...

Builds another social network


> You’ve just described 95% of projects at large companies.

I've witnessed this in gaming teams as well.


As an analyst this is one of a few comics forever on my wall: http://dilbert.com/strip/2007-05-16


This is mine: http://dilbert.com/strip/2007-03-20

Same spirit.


I'm not sure why, but this comic feels like a cut above the rest in terms of execution.


How doesn't that completely demotivate you?


I don't think it's my whole career by any means, just a comedic reminder of what bad projects look like.


I'm not the parent commenter but, regardless of the uselessness of such a job (as an analyst, producing reports of negligible value or whose value is ignored, or as a developer, producing apps that produce such reports for those analysts), you are still paid well enough to not complain/look elsewhere and the experience is useful for your next job.


Domo was founded in 2010, three years after this was published. Coincidence?


I work with B2B companies and I can confidently say that outside of LinkedIn, there is little to no value in maintaining an active presence on Twitter/Facebook/Pinterest/Instagram in most B2B segments


Unless you are selling to HR, I don't see any value in even keeping a LinkedIn presence.


Most corporate IT, enterprise software and consultants are on LI. People flow between those sectors, like a McKinsey consultant tapping out before becoming a partner, moving into a role at one of her clients, etc.

LI is a self-updating rolodex, has killed business cards. Invaluable to keep track of where people move.

Our sales people would hate for LI to go away. Happily pay themselves for Sales Edition.


> Our sales people would hate for LI to go away. Happily pay themselves for Sales Edition.

You just convinced me to go kill my LinkedIn account from whenever ago.


It does matter for getting the right kind of employees, basically it's used as branding the company as something people would want to work in.

Most B2B companies are pretty hard to get any relevant information out of.


I've seen far more mileage in maintaining an active presence on niche-specific platforms.

A company that actively creates and shares interesting content on HN will have a much better brand image than one that does the same on Twitter. HN's smaller, self-selected audience will also land you better quality leads with less noise as compared to a large social platform


>When we asked them how it could be more useful they shrugged their shoulders.

This is a massive driver for giving you "Bullshit Job" thoughts. If my end products are not being used, why the hell do they even exist?


A of of these projects/products come from the same place. An executive or manager has an idea. Some of these ideas have good intentions. Some come from somebody reading HBR and seeing an article titled "By 2020 30% of purchasing decisions will be driven by social media." Then the ball starts rolling with the PowerPoint decks filled with revenue forecasts. And once that ball is rolling you have a lot of people inside and outside of the organization who are all pieces in this machine to achieve the final goal. Since nobody has visibility to the whole process and the accountability is totally opaque, the ball rolls into something that checks every requirement (even if the requirements were the opposite of the stated goal) but is totally useless.


Investment bank research. A trader had said "it's the brand recognition between picking it up from my inbox and putting it in the bin".


This reminds me of a principle I heard reading some stoic literature (unfortunately I forget which) which stated: "The purpose of thought is to inform action."

Thoughts, analysyes and ruminations can be fun, but ultimately if they don't suggest an action: either initiating a new action, or modifying an action that is unfolding, then they are without purpose.[1]

[1] The Buddha even suggested that they are stressful.


There is a non-zero probability that the whole thing started out as a flypaper report: http://hoaxes.org/archive/permalink/the_flypaper_report


That is heart breaking.


Where there’s chaos, there’s opportunity. Channel that heartbreak into cash flow.


Do it for a number of years and suddenly you realize: you've become one of them. Adding zero value and leeching of paying customers. Really kills your motivation to better yourself.


I now know how that woman at the end of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" must have felt...

That movie might have been a metaphor for corporate work places.


Or do something that's actually productive elsewhere?


If you’re not getting the most dollars you can for each hour you work, you’re shorting yourself.


The root cause is complexity. People don't understand their jobs: sometimes they are told to do stupid things, other times they do useful things but they think they are useless. Companies always relied on their employees to adjust their work to the overall goal - if they cannot understand the whole structure then this crucial organizational maintenance fails. If they see that their reports are not read - then they or their bosses should intervene - but now people don't understand what is the purpose of those reports, who should read them and why.

Another thing is that in a complex organization there are many internal zero-sum mini-games - bosses that employ people only to increase their own importance, etc - then the job of these employees must be kind of useless. But the root cause of that is the same - it is the job of the boss of the boss (or maybe the CEO, or the board or the owner) to reduce that, but they don't because the complexity hides it. And then those mini-games add to the complexity itself creating a positive feedback loop.

Jobs like lobbyists or corporate lawyers or much of PR departments are also about zero-sum games - but in a bigger organization - the nation as a whole. Military is a zero-sum game on yet bigger scale.


I was with you until the end, but none of those functions are inherently zero-sum. Perhaps it's mostly a nit-pick, but zero-sum has a very specific meaning, and it isn't "stuff we wish we didn't have to do", which seems to be the unifying factor in those functions.


Which particular one you think is not zero-sum? Military is kind of obviously zero-sum - the others are a bit more mixed - but the waste is in their zero-sum function (and the examples are not mine - they are from the article).


Military in the sense that it deters attack can be massively positive-sum, depending on how you account for the value of not being attacked and maintaining national sovereignty. Military in the sense of, let's say, the Iraq invasion turned out to be massively negative-sum (but would have been massively positive-sum if the rosy optimistic nation-building intentions had worked). On the other hand, the Balkan interventions of the 90's were probably positive-sum, at least when you include the peace and relative prosperity enabled there, and not just limited to benefits in the home countries of the militaries involved.

Graeber call these jobs "bullshit" or "useless", he doesn't to my knowledge call them zero-sum (and I didn't see that term used in the article?).

My point was to agree with you that these jobs seem useless, but probably aren't, because exactly as you describe, of complexity (generally, of course, individual instances may well prove to be useless).


My point was that military is a zero-sum (or technically negative sum) in the game between nations (that was the meaning 'on a bigger scale').


In the very limited definition of war that is taking territory from another country (which that country then looses), and where the deaths of soldiers and destruction of property can be discounted, war can be considered zero-sum. But obviously that was never true, and the regimes that pretended is was true don't really exist in the west anymore since around WWI -- war (in this "classic" sense) is massively negative-sum.

Having a military as a means to fight wars could then also be understood as negative-sum -- but having a military as a means to not fight a war (deterrence) can be considered positive-sum. It certainly ain't zero-sum.

Graeber seems to have a rather naive view of "goons". Yes, it would be nice if there was no need for military (or police, or security guards etc), and you can imagine a world where this is the case, and that world is certainly massively desirable. But until we do bring about that world, "goons" do serve a practical purpose.


The U.S. also uses military for purely positive things: DARPAnet, aeronautics research, trauma care research, Army Corps of Engineers, policing in crises, serving after natural disasters, etc.

Whether those things combined with the negatives all add up to a net positive is another question, but the point is modelling military size and spending as a game of Risk is too simple.


I think his view of goons is tailored to address the psychological burden of performing such a job. A goon might suffer from being aware of the nature of his existence, even if the promise of a utopian world is still too far away to bother thinking about now.


Sure, if you think the "game between nations" is scored on how much territory one occupies, rather than how prosperous the nations are.


Can you explain how military makes a nation prosperous?

Somehow I cannot comment deeper in this thread - so I'll comment here.

Defending territory is not making it prosperous. If nations did not attack each other with their armies they would not need armies to defend them from that, and they all would be more prosperous.


> Defending territory is not making it prosperous. If nations did not attack each other with their armies they would not need armies to defend them from that, and they all would be more prosperous.

I suggest you look into https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma

> Somehow I cannot comment deeper in this thread

You can if you click the time on the comment. That will take you directly to a text box where you can reply. I never understood why HN works like this.


You lost me here - what about Prisoner Dilemma is relevant here?


I'm sorry the relevance wasn't clear!


Protecting foreign "interests" you have control of? Bending foreign countries to do your will? Out right stealing of lands?

Britain did very well off the back and resources of foreign countries due to their military from southern Asia.

See Spain in Latan America. France in West Africa. US picking up the pieces of the remnants of the Spanish empire.

These things were not accomplished due to the kindness and beneign-ness of the dominating force - regardless of what the home country was told (Britain: civilising the natives, US: bring democracy etc etc)


That would be more towards the zero (or negative) sum end of things ...


mseebach has already covered that.


Former submariner:

The military is about as far from zero-sum as you can get.

Gear is manufactured, used, worn out and discarded, at surprisingly high cost overall.

Soldiers are recruited, trained, serve, and leave. Training funds, time, and gear are necessary but never recouped.

Every military operation of any scale uses food/fuel/every other supply imaginable - all used and lost from other productive use.

Every 'build a civilization' game ever assigns expenses to military units created, never any production value.

(Ok, military R&D is sometimes practical and useful outside of the military... a small sop in an other wise large sinkhole.)


I read it more that in the grand scheme of things, the only reason that those things exist to balance themselves--they don't create any value on their own.

If the other guy has no military, we need no military. If the other guy builds a bigger military, we build a bigger military.

If the other guy doesn't spend on marketing, we don't need to spend on marketing. If the other guy invests heavily in marketing, we need a bigger marketing push.

There's only ever a gain in the system if there's an imbalance. Looking at it simplistically, if everyone collectively decided to stop at once, there'd be no need for those things anymore.


I think he means it in a sense that you have to have one as a nation and the more powerful yours is, the less other countries can project power. Though nukes change this IMHO.


nukes only threatened to change this, drones will change this.


Well you buy the effect of discouraging the potential enemy. It's like the nukes.

You rarely buy power to really exert it, more often it's just for the possibility.


No the root cause are most jobs are useless wastes of human life whose hollow purpose is simply to make executives rich and further their power while workers scrape by


I didn't quite understand what he was saying about President Obama's thinking, so here's the full quote from Obama:

"Everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.’ That represents one million, two million, three million jobs [filled by] people who are working at Blue Cross Blue Shield or Kaiser or other places. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?"

So it seems that Obama didn't pursue a single-payer system because keeping 2-3 million "bullshit" jobs was more important than efficiency in the health care system, or at least it was part of his reasoning.


Joe Leiberman would not have voted for single payer. He opposed moving Medicare eligibility to 55 and over so that had to be taken out of ACA. He (or any single Democrat) was the margin for passing the bill in the Senate with 60 votes to avoid the GOP killing the bill in the Senate.

Also, if I remember correctly, the ACA is similar to but not identical to a GOP plan from the 90's and the state plan adopted when Mitt Romney was governor of Massachusetts in the way you describe - continuing to use existing insurance companies.


Yes, obamacare is trivially different from romneycare. It's villified for political reasons by the right but it's what their mutual benefactors wanted. (Continued inefficiency and profitability; upward wealth redistribution)


Just to underscore this, Lieberman represented Connecticut, which is home to some of the biggest insurance companies in the United States. Lieberman killed the public option in the ACA.

https://www.publicintegrity.org/2015/02/16/16766/elimination...


Lieberman was (and is) certainly bought and sold by the insurance companies, but the lion's share of the blame for not having single payer - let alone a public option - lies squarely on Obama's shoulders. Obama's man in the Senate, Max Baucus, at Obama's direction, barred all single-payer and public option advocates from the conference rooms and negotiating table from the very beginning. Nancy Pelosi and Obama cajoled Dennis Kucinich into supporting the ACA in exchange for a promise that they would bring his single-payer bill to the floor for a vote, to at least put Congressman on the record. Obama brought Kucinich on Air Force one to make this promise. They lied. Kucinich never got his vote - Pelosi and Obama never allowed single payer to surface at all.

Lieberman is certainly worth of endless condementation, but trying to pretend Obama didn't do everything he could to kill single-payer and a public option in order to implement Romneycare is just wrong.


At a political level, the entire approach of "get to 60 votes then punch it through!" is all wrong. This sort of change in the social contract of 300 million-plus people requires more consensus and a more gradual change than that sort of move can provide.

The political situation and polarization of the country certainly got a lot worse when the ACA was passed and that is arguably the biggest political problem the U.S. has had since, affecting basically every policy decision the U.S. makes.

To bring it back to jobs without purpose, not wanting to quickly rearrange an entire sector of the economy is a completely cogent reason to oppose a change you would otherwise vote for if it were applied differently.


Isn't the 60 votes thing is more a reaction to the Gringich stated policy of obstruction before cooperation style politics - before that Democrats and GOP crossed party lines more often to pass legislation and did not vote in lock step, I definitely recall Reagan/Tip O'Neill worked together across party lines to pass legislation most recently. Also, because of the 1980's Byrd Rule that requires 60 votes on avoiding the filibuster in the Senate on bills that affect the budget in certain ways after reconciliation - it sometimes lets bills only need 50 like the GOP was trying for with their ACA rollback last session.

Now it seems rare, the Maginsky Act sanctions and the Iraq War powers are the only consensus votes that come to mind.


A lot of the animosity goes much further back than Gingrich. There were burned bridges during the Bork and Thomas hearings, for instance.


Interestingly enough the house single-payer bill H.R. 676 [1] (and supposedly the Senate bill S. 1804, although I couldn't find any specific language on it) has provisions for "retraining, job placement and employment transition" to account for any "jobs eliminated due to reduced clerical and administrative work".

[1] https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/676


It just sounds like a realpolitik explanation that a bill that would cause that level of job loss should have a solution for the affected employees.


That is assuming it will cause job loss of any appreciable amount. A backup plan is good to have and propose.

My personal take is that a bunch of these pointless jobs would get shoved into government sector.


It's probably best to whittle away at that rather than unemploy 3m people in one go. Better for them to find another place in the economy slowly. At least, that's how I read it.


If anything, ACA seems to increase their number, not decrease it.


I don’t think any sane man would be dumb enough to pass a bill that would make millions unemployed.


Not overnight anyway. Remember that the bill was passed during the recovery period from a recession.


So much this. Everyone wants to fix things by just changing X without taking the time to see the effects that will cascade. There are a lot of worthless jobs in all these systems and those people buy houses and cars which employs other people who buy clothes and food which employs people who buy health insurance. We can make health care better and cheaper but it requires will we don't have. These same people can now be employed in jobs we really need like elder care, etc. But everyone would rather keep their $80K office job where they spend half the day on their phone and fb.


The dark side of me would axe everyone and it would be a bit of cosmic justice. The current healthcare philosophy in America is sprinkled with social darwinism in that you are 'free' to choose what's best for you and if you can't afford it, fuck you, it's your fault, you haven't worked hard enough.

So I would gladly layoff most healthcare administrators and have them figure out what to do, by themselves. It's their fault and their fault only if they can't. “That’s what freedom is all about: taking your own risks.”[1]

Fuck them, this is America, you 'own' your career. I mean, this is the universe I'm currently working in, why shouldn't they be subjected to the same thing? Especially when they chose to work in a parasitic system? If my skills lag behind, I'm unhirable in my industry. Coupled with my increasing age, IT'S ALL MY FAULT AND MY FAULT ONLY if I get fired/laid off and end up with no healthcare.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/16/opinion/krugman-free-to-d...


Yeah, but those are good questions he's asking. What are we doing with them? If it weren't for Lieberman, maybe we'd have been forced to figure that out.


No, that's not a good question, it's political pandering to special interests. It's wrong in it's superficial representation and it's done for very wrong reasons.

A significant reduction in overhead would free significant funds into the hands of the consumers, who would employ them to improve their lives, generating economic growth and demand in other economic areas that would pick up the slack. Granted, it's not comfortable for the workers made redundant, hence the tendency to band together as a special interest group and put political pressure to keep things inefficient (that's all assuming single payer is indeed an efficiency improvement, an entirely separate discussion).


What I'm saying is that he's asking the questions rhetorically like this only because it was already known to be impossible to get to single payer because of Lieberman.

If the facts on the ground were that it was actually possible to get single payer passed, I think those questions would have been easily answerable. It just wasn't tactically necessary to answer them in the context of what was achievable because of one horrendous (sorry Lieberman, but you really blew it) person.

The statement was clearly entirely political, of course.


For the workers made redundant, a good answer to "what will happen to them" is some transitional support to help them re-train (whether through universities or vocational training) for other jobs, and maybe some assistance figuring out what new path to pick and how to get new jobs in the end.

"What will happen to them" doesn't have to mean preserving a broken system, it just has to mean caring humanely for those affected.


West Virginians vehemently disagree with you, it seems. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-trump-effect-coal-retrain...


According to that article, they disagree with this idea as applied to an industry (coal) that has long been a key part of West Virginia's cultural and political identity.

Also according to that article, former coal miners are more open to retraining where other industries have jobs readily available and/or where coal has no credible chance of comeback in that area.

None of that contradicts my suggestion as applied to the health insurance industry, which isn't really part of any cultural identity, and which would clearly not be about to rebound quickly in a single-payer world.

Retraining could even be pretty quick if they retrained to other forms of insurance, especially life insurance (which still cares about individual health) but there are many other kinds too.


What makes you think the other insurance markets can absorb anywhere near that number of workers, without collapsing wages and causing even more misery?


I don't, but they can be among a menu of several destinations for them. Certainly not the only destinations.


Destigmatise and expand welfare. That's exactly what it's there for, so you don't have swathes of people doing jack shit for 8 hours a day and helping no-one. If even 10% of those displaced by getting rid of bullshit jobs go on to do something productive, it's an enormous win for the economy.


Wellfare dependency bas negative, debilitating effects that can last generations once it take hold. Just like poverty.


On the face of it, the idea that it's somehow worse to be given food than to starve is kindof ridiculous.

I mean, sure, it's easy to setup negative incentives if you setup a welfare system and you aren't paying attention, but that's really a different sort of issue... and one that can be solved by looking at those negative incentives. (the earned income tax credit is a good place to start if you want to look at real-world attempts to amelerate the negative incentives that come with "you lose all benefits if you earn more than X dollars" style need-based plans. I'm just bringing it up because it's a real-world attempt to solve that problem and because there is real-world research on it.)

An imaginary way to deal with those negative incentives is Milton Friedman's "negative income tax" or even the 'basic income' people are on about.

But point being, the negative incentives are a thing that you have to watch for with welfare programs... but they don't negate the good done by, you know, allowing poor children to access medical care, food and education.


On the face of it, the idea that it's somehow worse to be given food than to starve is kindof ridiculous.

The discussion here was between welfare and bullshit jobs, not welfare or starving.


The problem with those jobs is that people capable of doing them are already employed. Welfare is still needed for those who can't.

The pointless job sucks out many hours of productive hobbies and caretaking, space to think, innovate and organise.

This might be the desired effect - one of the means to control the population.


The counter-argument is that these jobs are sucking out many hours of taking drugs (incl. alcohol), watching TV and falling into depression, since many can't really handle being idle.

I tend to be more optimistic and think that the problems arise by our current model of unemployment rather than the idleness by itself, but I can't pretend I know the answer.


What is the ultimate, fundamental and irreducible, difference between welfare and government provided services? Like the military, or like pensions? Or, in the UK, like the NHS?


Is it 1 million or 3 million? Because not knowing the difference of 2 million people isn’t a sound, quantitative basis for making policy. What if the impact on jobs was 0? Or -1m, i.e. a million jobs added?


Nobody probably knows how many private providers would remain, and how much they would shrink (yes, single-payer countries usually still have private insurance providers, clinics, hospitals, etc). Pretending you can know a precise answer is worse than admitting you just know there would be a negative effect in that job market.


> bullshit employment has come to serve in places like the U.S. and Britain as a disguised, half-baked version of the dole

The incredible thing is that this happened without being a master plan of any government or even a cultural meme (an ideal like recycling, minority rights, literacy).

No one sat in a meeting room in the 1950s and said, "Well, we're going to have massive unemployment in the decades to come, so let's start creating lots of meaningless jobs."

It just happened. Gradually and without anyone noticing. Amazing.


Well, this sort of "self-assembly" is partly founded within the scaffolding of division of duty as a means of quality assurance, that serves as a process of checks and balances within business practices.

Conversations, about obsolete personnel, become awkward verrry quickly, so to shift attention away from the massive elephant in the room, compromises must be struck.

The middle of the 20th century killed enough people to fill many multiple cities. All of that awkward disintigration of civility was the friction of people getting their fingers caught in the doors on the wrong side of the air locks, as the space ship fired up its jets.

People know that gobs and gobs of money filter through hands and fan out in distribution channels, so the real game isn't to sequester it all, but to properly skim incredible amounts of it, without raising eyebrows. Then, after a lagoon of reserves opens up all the essential opportunities to reinforce the system as it is, levers and control surfaces appear, and anyone without their hands on the affordances for operating guidance are basically shit out of luck in terms of bucking the system while it's healthy and strong.

It didn't just happen. Operators intervened.


That is how most things happen. They emerge from evolutionary pressures, game theoretic dynamics, or just as emergent properties of the rule set in operation. The result looks like a conspiracy but in reality it's driven by the furious mad piping of the blind idiot gods of evolution, economics, and complex systems.


Lovecraftian Economics... just saying that makes me shudder a little but I see it, can't unsee it.


Steve Jobs once quipped that conspiracy theory is optimistic. It assumes that someone somewhere has some idea what is happening and can actually steer the ship.


This is a terrifying yet also strangely comforting philosophy.


Do you realize what kind of jobs don’t exist due to computers? You would have teams of people doing complex calculations or accounting.

Milkman, elevator operator, and Linotype operator are a few that employed a lot of people.


But the “computer age” also created a ton of bullshit jobs that shouldn’t exist. If anything, milkmen, elevator & linotype operators provided actual value. What does “social media analytics” provide?


> What does “social media analytics” provide?

How many jobs do you think “social media analytics” actually creates? Probably not a 'ton'.


No, but thanks to our hyper specialisation there are a ton of those types of job.


Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if it actually _was_ a ton.


After all, a ton of people is only 14 people.


The great depression, which was a period of high unemployment, was still fresh in the minds of many during the 1950s. The theory of the time was that WWII is what fixed the economy. Many people sat in many rooms trying to figure out how to achieve the 'wealth' effect of war without all of the destruction. Creating useless jobs was a common idea.


Let's finish that thought process, roll out UBI, and generally let people figure out what they can do outside of those space filling WPA jobs.

Everyone not beholden to a company for their living wage now gets off the treadmill of "keep employed" for its own sake.


Let's finish that thought process, roll out UBI...

I've never quite understood how UBI fixes the 'problem'. Can you (someone) explain why current prices wouldn't simply adjust to reflect the introduction of the 'helicopter money'? Isn't this the very issue found w/ exploding U.S. tertiary education costs?

Thanks...


Close cousins to the "bullshit" jobs in the OP are the "gotta" jobs that no one really chooses to do but they have to earn money to live on.

UBI is a compelling way to get lots of people out of that "gotta" hole and enable a much wider range of options and opportunities. Perhaps not a complete fix but certainly a helpful step.


> UBI is a compelling way to get lots of people out of that "gotta" hole

Right, can you say more about why this is "compelling"? What I'm pointing out is that the 'savvy' business people will likely view the introduction of the UBI money into the economy as a reason to raise/adjust prices, i.e. inflation.

Having spent (too) much time speaking w/economists and the occasional central banker, who regularly debate the merits of QE (effectively targeted at the asset-rich) vs. "helicopter money", I'm not sure that society wouldn't end up right where it is now based on what I mentioned above about the 'savvy' business people.

If you're interested, someone broached the 'UBI/helicopter money' issue w/ Bernanke a couple of weeks ago as part of a broader conversation. I've linked to the video in another thread.[1]

[1]https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17274399


Creating useless jobs sounds like basic universal income with extra steps.


I'm pretty sure that in the UK the massive increase in higher education and the introduction of tuition fees was intended to keep unemployment down and get people to take on the financial burden of keeping themselves off the dole.


> I'm pretty sure that in the UK the massive increase in higher education

The increase in numbers going to higher education reduced those available in the workplace. Rather than everyone aged 16-65 being available for work (say 50 million), half of those ages 16-22 went to university, meaning about 2-3 million were taken out of the pool of available people.

> and the introduction of tuition fees

Tuition, when Labour first introduced it, was charged upfront - albeit at £1700 a year (in today's money).

When they tripped it in 2005, to £4300 a year, it started being repaid on every penny over £18k (in today's money). However this came from the same repayment as the cost of living loans, which meant the treasury only got a return on the tuition when the graduate was earning a decent wage when they were much older (if tuition was £100k or £0k, you paid the treasury the same amount per year until you'd repaid your £20k of cost-of-living loans)

When Cameron changed them to £10k a year (in today's money) in 2012, the repayment threshold was higher - if you unless you earn an average of £40k (median salary is £27k) you don't pay a penny back in tuition.

Since Labour introduced the 2005 tuition increase, tuition has been a graduate tax in all but name.

> was intended to keep unemployment down and get people to take on the financial burden of keeping themselves off the dole.

The number of unskilled jobs will only decrease in the future. However undergraduate degrees isn't the solution. While jobs on a supermarket checkout vanish, and jobs assessing insurance claims, an even legal jobs, electricians and plumbers aren't going to be automated away any time soon.

A big problem is that there is still a mentality that you need a degree to do a job of a given level - even if you're age 40.

My own company seem to be doing well here, we employ apprentices at age 18, and giving them a lot of training and some university based education, and at the end they come out as a qualified broadcast engineer, with a degree. They've had 3 years of real world experience, but also have the piece of paper which serves as an insurance for obsolete companies in the future who won't look at a CV which doesn't have 'bsc' at the top.


>Still, I think Graeber too often confuses “tough jobs in negative- or zero-sum games” with “bullshit jobs.” I view those as two quite distinct categories. Overall he presents the five types of bullshit jobs as flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters, but he spends too much time trying to lower the status of these jobs and not enough time investigating what happens when those jobs go away.¹

¹ https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2018/05/bu...


That was great.

My favorite excerpt:

> Overall, I fear that Graeber’s managerial intelligence is not up to par, or at the very least he rarely convinces me that he has a superior organizational understanding, compared to people who deal with these problems every day.


This is one lesson you learn if you work in consulting. The biggest, most important companies in the world are chock-full full of glorified paper pushers. I spent six months working at a Fortune 500 company building a system to give mid-level knowledge workers better access to their data. I've never felt as demotivated as I did when I realized that at the end of they day they were just producing PDFs that were immediately archived away without ever being read by another human.


I am currently contracting for a major corporate retailer and this is absolutely spot-on. 10 managers with zero tech experience pushing 3 developers (I'm not kidding) to complete a massive project.


> 10 managers with zero tech experience pushing 3 developers

Daydreaming here a bit, but suppose the 3 developers banded together, went to the top decision maker in the company, and proposed that they fire 8 or 9 of the managers, keeping the best 1 or 2, and that the developers' salaries be immediately doubled going forward. It could be stated or left unstated that the developers are willing to quit (which is still better than being eventually fired if the project fails, or becoming burnt out). If the project is truly important, and the situation really is 10 non-technical managers pushing 3 developers, why not try something audacious?


Doesn't work. I went through a year of executives and managers above us getting the chop, month after month after month, and layoff after layoff at one company, and we just got an email saying "how we're going to invest all this money we're saving back into the company!".

When people started quitting after being demoralized by repeated benefit cutbacks and layoffs, they said "We heard you, you said you want raises (after a year of no bonuses and two years of no raises), we're going to get them to you!"

With all that money you saved by laying off like 30% of the entire multinational corporation? Great! These should be decent raises! After the raises were finally granted, it wasn't even enough to cover a cost of living increase for a single year, let alone the two years that had passed with frozen salaries. And then they congratulated themselves in a corporate email sent to everyone for "listening to their employees and giving them what they ask for".

Oh, and they're still closing offices and laying people off, and expecting everyone to still keep serving paying clients (other corporations) at the same level of service they did with 5%-50% of the staff they had beforehand.

Any money they save, just stays in the corporations' hands. They don't care to give any of it to the peons. They're totally interchangeable cogs anyway, right?


went to the top decision maker in the company, and proposed that they fire 8 or 9 of the managers

The people at level n+1 to you in an organisation are there because they have the support of people at level n+2 and so on.

If you want to pull a stunt like this you need the support of someone level n+4 in a different department who hates whoever is n+3 in your own reporting line.


All that would probably achieve is getting your entire department shut down, the project cancelled and everyone involved laid off.


OK, but what’s the downside?


Wouldn’t work. Clearly upper management is incompetent if they have 10 managers for 3 devs.


That just might work... they should commission a study immediately to see if it would work and hire a new manager to manage the study.


More likely they’d fire the 3 developers in that scenario.

Which, true, means they would be better off than before.


It's true. I was in close to this situation once. There were 5 developers instead of 3, and 6 managers. They fired 3 of us developers.

Management are like a cult. They've all gotten to where they are because manager A has dirt on manager B, and so on. There should be no non-technical management in tech, and they should be the first to be automated.


While I like your spirit, personal experience tells me that this is a great way to get fired/laid-off/marginalized, etc...

Even if the managers like your idea and follow through with it 1) the friends of the lower-level managers take umbrage at having been bypassed;

2) the top decision maker might choose to view such bold action-takers as a threat to his/her own position.

This also goes for product suggestions, process improvement ideas, etc. People like hierarchy and don't want it (their place in it) threatened.

So, if the 3 developers are willing to band together, they should just do so to quit and form their own company.


Hello, 3 new developers from Infosys!


I have found myself in this situation, a company top-heavy with nontechnical folk. When the company opened my department what they should have done is headhunted a leader from another company. But what they actually did was promote people within the company to run a department they have no training or experience in. I've now heard they've hired yet another manager with no technical experience beyond PowerPoint. So where do you go? Try to teach the CEO himself how to run a tech company?


> I spent six months working at a Fortune 500 company building a system to give mid-level knowledge workers better access to their data. I've never felt as demotivated as I did when I realized that at the end of they day they were just producing PDFs that were immediately archived away without ever being read by another human.

I've done that exact project for like 6 giant pharma companies.


Why do companies do this? Why don't they save a lot more money?


The problem is that we often think of a company as a single abstract decision-maker.

It isn’t, of course. It’s made up of managers who want to look like they’re doing something big so that they gain status and get a pay raise (“I led the company’s first blockchain initiative!”). It’s made up of employees who want to cover their own asses by recommending that a brand-name consultancy be added to their project. And so on.

Each individual in a corporation acts in accordance with her or his own incentives, which may or may not be well aligned with those of the company’s shareholders.


Not disagreeing but there isn't only the negative side (self-promotion, ass-covering). There are people trying and failing. Life happen: acquisition (you or some of your provider), restructuring, negotiation, strategic changes, key person leaving, new people coming, ... all of that produces little bit of inefficiencies in large organisation.

That's not dissimilar to the food you buy and throw away, the antique furniture you bought planning to restore but never got to it, the stack of book you wanted to read but other things occupy your time.


Similarly, a lot of employees don't really know what the global mission of the company is or what their strategic interests are. I've definitely seen leaders fail to clearly communicate this. When that happens, people fall back to optimizing their local environment or department and that can definitely lead to useless shit or actions which while locally beneficial, actually impede the mission of the company.


Most employees don't really care what the global mission of the company or their strategic interests are. It's whether you can get a decent paycheck with some stability while having a semblance of control and balance. The more you work the more this becomes true.


I will say, as an employee myself, I don't feel like my company cares about me and how well I do as a person. So why should I care about the company and how well it does for its shareholders? It's just an economic transaction between me and the organization; I do whatever they tell me to do for 8 hours, and that's that. If what they're telling me to do hurts them, then that's not really my problem.


I will say, as an employee myself, I don't feel like my company cares about me and how well I do as a person. So why should I care about the company and how well it does for its shareholders?

When you as an individual don't feel any sense of doing better for your organisation. How can an organisation composed of diverse set of people think of your cause?


I care about the individuals I work with. They're good people. I definitely try to help my coworkers out with their personal goals, if and when I can.

But the organization itself? Nah. Corporations aren't people, no matter what the courts say.


> managers who want to look like they’re doing something big so that they gain status.

So much this!

I've seen many outsourced multi-million-pound projects that would have been quicker, cheaper, and better as in-house projects for a few hundred thousand.

A senior manager doesn't want "In charge of a £100,000 3-month project" on their CV. They want to be able to write "In charge of a £20,000,000 2-year project". It doesn't matter that the cheap one works and the expensive one doesn't.


> managers who want to look like they’re doing something big so that they gain status.

The true currency in the work world isn't money it's status.

Money is only important as a proxy for status.

Having a lot of people reporting to you confers status.


Quite a lot of work that's not immediately obvious as useful is producing defensive material.

It's a different story to say "we analyzed a market and decided against pursuing those opportunities because of x, y and z" (an activity that produces lots of shelves full of reports) than to say "we didn't pursue some opportunities and we never bothered to look into it" (an activity that never occurred because nobody was filling shelves with reports).

"Give me everything we know about foo" is only possible if somebody has been collecting shelves full of things over time.


Basically, if someone asks you something, you can throw more PDFs at them than they have patience to read, in order to make them go away?


And without the PDFs on a shelf somewhere, you have nothing to throw.


The book goes into it a bit. Some of it is status (i.e. people wanting others working under them, even if it's pointless work), other times it's to claim they care about something even if they don't (imagine a company that pretends to care about their employees wellness, they could hire a wellness consultant and ignore the recommendations).


My workplace just went through that very thing. We had a company-wide review of employees attitudes, remuneration, equipment, the works. They released a letter telling us they were going to begin a few months later, starting with pay raises and equipment upgrades - and then did nothing. It's a year on from the initial review, and I guess they managed to complete their goal: stave off the riots for a while by letting the minions feel heard.


Step 1: senior management asks for some numbers Step 2: report produced. Management reads the executive summary. Step 3: someone trying to look busy asks for an update. Report is updated manually, because it was never designed to be automated. Step 4: report continues to be produced for years after anyone stops reading it.


Some people get hired between step 3 and 4 and might never make the mental connection to step 1.

Step 5. Consultants get hired to digitalise the process of reporting.

Now a good consultant can make the leap to step 1 and start redirecting value to something else. A shitty consultant milks the company for $ without ever undermining the sorry people stuck at step 3.


A lot of these are compliance related or audit related.


People might have the goal of saving money. But companies aren't people; they don't really have goals.


I would say the bottom line is pretty much the goal for most companies.


I'd say that the people who get paid based on the bottom line have that goal. Not their employees, they want to be paid well themselves, and work with people they like, and probably a hundred other things before they worry about the bottom line.


I'd be curious as to if profit-sharing schemes and the like cause employees to make more fiscally sound decisions.

Probably a difficult thing to study, though.


I would guess it would depend on the company. If it's small enough that an employee feels they can have a meaningful impact on the company financials (say, maybe <= 10 people in the company), then I would guess so.

If, on the other hand, your company of 500 employees introduces profit-sharing, then there's probably no point to even trying. Too many decision makers pulling in too many politically motivated directions.


If co-ops are any indication, yes. I like the Mars Trilogy model in theory, where corporations are gradually replaced with small co-ops that are all employee owned, and then they collaborate with other small groups on an ad-hoc basis to get things done. I don't think that's entirely practical, but I do think it's a great outcome to aim for and is far short of socialism.


Cronyism, intertia, lack of will.

For the latter, putting a spotlight on people's jobs will send a message to all other works.


... regulation ... (ie. ability to audit afterwards)


After 10 years in consulting, my conclusion is that we haven‘t really figured out how to run a large company properly. Its Kafkaesque and causes so much suffering.


The thing is that any sufficiently large company is, by definition, full of average people. And average people are, well, kinda average.

The large consultancies think that they’re the ones who’ve managed to crack this code. “We only hire The Best!”, they say. But once you get past a certain size, that’s just not possible.

You might have The Best front-line customer-facing champs, but Bob down in Payments Processing still lives with his mom and he’s dragging the whole lot down with him.


I am now convinced it's some kind of money laundering scheme to move money from big customer companies into the pockets of the top brass/owners of the consulting companies while making it look like value was created. Money the managers of the customer company can not siphon out by themselves without having a project to pay for.


Your assumption is that avoiding personal suffering or miserable beuracracy is the goal, that isn’t the point. Maximizing return on investment is the point, of course these other goals won’t be met.


How is wasting a million dollars on unread social media reports „maximizing return on investment“?


With the huge numbers of companies that tried giving employees autonomy and responsibility over their own domain then collapsed, what else are we supposed to do? Oh wait, no one has ever tried that? Not even since we transitioned from rote repetitive manufacturing tasks to mental work? Wow. How stupid are we?


You're right of course, but they're also chock full of consultants doing the same thing.

We joked that the big 4 just had a Markov chain managerial speak program, and all they needed to do was enter the number of pages they produced, and it would spit out pre made reports with the latest buzzwords of the required lengths.


Yup. You figure out pretty quick that the vast bulk of all economic activity is digging holes and filling them up again. I have worked in government, academia, and large-ish companies and you find a ton of bullshit work in all three. I would not say government or academia are worse than large corporations. It seems to correlate more with entity size than public vs private.


Ha. I quit my grad school when a prof admitted he didn't read the papers he made us write. It was good practice for making sure I never put up with a job like that.


I had to prepare reports and such for the board to read before. I worked my ass off on them but never saw anyone actually reading them or even talking about them.

So I printed off random "techy" stuff and some cat pictures online and gave it to them to see if they even opened the document up. To this day they never noticed anything and I did that for 2 years before I left. I still did what I could at my job, but the time spent on those reports dropped to nothing after my test.

The was government though, but I have seen the same thing at many schools I worked at before.


Not sure this is a good example. As - for me at least - the point in students writing papers is not so much in someone reading them. But the students writing them. As only by writing a bunch of papers will you learn how to write a paper.

I agree that it would be better if someone would read them and give actual feedback based on your actual performance. But looking at my own little episode in academia, the most was learned while writing stuff.


That flies in 1st year undergrad, after grad school they hand you a "masters", I feel like to be a master someone should have cared enough about your project to read the paper


I feel you. I took it upon myself to build a tool at my current job to increase the quality of life for employees of another department and tried in vain for a year to get their department head to have them try it, only for some mandate to come down from on high to gather certain metrics my tool was well positioned to gather. Tacked on some metric gathering and now everyone uses it... pretty much just to gather the metrics.

I've accidentally participated in making their lives more tedious for the sake of generating numbers people look at but do not use for anything but complaining about the numbers. And now all my development time on that tool is spent rearranging the numbers. We could at least be using that data to make actionable decisions, but no one is interested in that.


I've always suspected as much. Thanks for the insight. Will be sharing your comment w/a friend who is considering a stint in consulting.


Consulting is just relationship management and perceptions.

And lots of travel in my experience.


> Last are “taskmasters,” divided into two subtypes: unnecessary superiors, who manage people who don’t need management, and bullshit generators, whose job is to create and assign more bullshit for others.

This is the most irritating aspect of any company I've worked for. I can deal with the fact that certain people are "duct tapers", people who take pick up the slack, "box tickers", etc. But people's belief that others need to be managed, especially when those others are already motivated, is demoralizing and destructive on so many levels.

The bias of management creates a feedback loop when the employee does the work the way they would have done it had management not been looking over their shoulder, and the manager thinks to themself "It's a good thing I'm here, because nothing would get done!"


Equally there is value in herding cats.

My role is often times just to ask people what they think they need to do. often they know, often they just need to speak to department x and work together. for whatever reason they don't so my department herds the cats together and works to focus on what is the right problem to solve.


The purpose of my job is to make me money. I make money by doing things that my company thinks is productive. Today I helped write some internal APIs. Last week I worked with legal on some stuff. Building “sexy” web applications or “disrupting industries” is great. But I can’t pay my rent or go to the movies because I shifted some paradigms. The purpose of my job is to make me money, regardless of what the job is.


But do you think they are productive? That is the key. There are many things my company thinks is productive but I think they are a waste of my life.

Feeling good about "making money" isn't something that lasts. Eventually it's just that thing you have to do to maintain your completely normal lifestyle that you now take for granted. At that point you'd better hope the thing has more meaning than just "making money".


It is productive if it feeds and shelters your family. I once made peace with this and now I'm happier.


You could feed your family by cleaning toilets. Surely you care about more than that?


If your only goal is just to make money for yourself, then you're a part of this "work bullshit" problem.


Yeah, but I don't really have the time or the freedom to care about whether or not I am part of the problem. At the end of the day, I need to live, and everything else takes a back seat to that.


That’s where you’d be wrong and I think the book agrees, it’s not bullshit if you don’t think it is. The job provides value that it feeds the family and kids. It may not be a value to the company or “the greater good” but it does provide meaning to the person doing it.


I'm a frontender. My speciality is client-side JavaScript. I'm not horrible at it.

I freaking love my job and would do it for funsies of there weren't companies prepared to pay me to do it, but my job has been completed bullshit for as long as the role has existed. When the revolution comes I'll be the first against the wall against the wall alongside the digital marketing managers and the agile coaches.


Huh, I lump us in the other camp - the producers / creators. That's the whole reason I went through the trouble to become a web developer. I had a bullshit job before - contract recruiter. No creation. Only added value because engineering managers can't be fucked to figure out how LinkedIn works.

Maybe your product sucks in your eyes? What about the frontend for couch surfing? Helps people connect with locals when they travel. Or OkCupid? People have been married through it.


I was being flippant, a huge part of my 'thing' is job satisfaction and making something really good is the majority of that.

However as far as modern frontend work goes? somebody with a grasp of XML could build a perfectly functional frontend. Everything else is tinsel and glitter.


You do yourself a disservice, sir/ma'am.

We used to use Fraedom for our expense software. Everybody hated it. Now we use Concur. Everybody loves it.

Same functionality. Radically different outcome. It affects people! My boss' quality of life improved measurably.


Funny, I hate Concur. I can easily imagine how it could be worse though.


> I'll be the first against the wall against the wall alongside the digital marketing managers and the agile coaches.

Full-time SCRUM-masters won't last the first 30 minutes of the revolution.


Are you saying you enjoy doing something you believe to be utterly pointless, or do you enjoy doing some part of the work that serves a purpose except that it's being used for a completely pointless goal?


Separate things - I love the creative process of solving problems by writing code, I absolutely love contributing to something I think is worthwhile. I'm lucky enough that I can say i wouldn't work for a company that I didn't believe in.

The fact that I used framework x over framework y? Pretty irrelevant on the grander scale.


don't you think you help people navigating websites by making them more user-friendly ? I would believe that what you do doesn't really fulfill the definition of bullshit job as it helps people down the line.


Most of front-end work isn't making stuff more "user-friendly". It's an arms race of "fancy", showing off that your company is technically up-to-date and has money to burn.


Yes, for maybe the first 2 years. Then a maxima is reached, but UI designers gotta justify their paycheck, so they keep innovating right off that peak into the next valley


Aren't they usually designing the UI for new features of the software? Backend developers can't just ship an API in a B2C environment.


Plenty of new features are bullshit as well. Added without much reason and used by few customers. There’s often a lot of pressure on product teams to continuously make things better and no incentive for them to say “the best thing we could do is to leave this alone for now”. This gets internalised to the point everyone has their own little hobby horse and actively lobbies to get it on the agenda. Hey presto you have a “dynamic and creative” team constantly churning the periphery of the product core.


For many years now I have wondered if it might be practical for software engineers to be kept "on retainer", as lawyers often are, by companies. I once purchased an absolutely fantastic FTP client called BulletProof FTP. But it followed the sad trajectory of so much software. It reached very near to absolute perfection. And then they just kept working on it. It grew like a cancer. It destroyed everything good about the software and eventually made it worthless. It was clear, to me at least, that there was simply some manager somewhere who had personal problems and couldn't tolerate sitting still, forcing developers to just keep bolting garbage to the side of the thing.

A lot of it boils down to the Protestant Work Ethic having no place in the modern world. It made sense for situations where 'work' was physical labor. That benefits from perseverance and endurance. Mental work does not benefit from perseverance and endurance. It suffers tremendously from them. The brain simply does not work that way.


Making a good UI for new backend features is not enough to justify full-time frontend work. You have to add glitter and cruft, and make the whole thing less usable.

(One of the things that pisses me off in modern UI design on the frontend is designing resource-intensive pretty UIs. They look great on mockups. They work well on testing. Throw some actual, real-life data at them, and they slow your browser to a crawl. This directly limits the usefulness of a product.)


It’s fun to optimize the performance of software though :-) If that’s not valued, it sounds like a deeper issue.


sweet summer child...


ops and security will shoot the back end devs first if it makes you feel any better.


As a back-end dev I have the exact same instinct about what our ops guy would do to people like me. He’s a great guy, though.


The price of labor is so cheap now apparently there is almost no incentive to clean this up.

Consider that even small sandwich shops consider it worthwhile to hire a guy to stand on a street corner waving a sign or dressed as a pickle.

I suppose we as a society have decided to do this rather than guaranteed minimum income or any other livable social safety net.


At my company, a small startup, I recently attended a meeting whose invitation list included 4 managers and 2 workers. From that I can extrapolate that the bullshit to work ratio is 2 to 1. They're working to fix it, though: they're hiring more managers.


Larger airlines create really well produced (and expensive) safety guideline videos as a supplement to the safety speech before each flight, and they still have attendants pantomiming the safety procedures. Smaller flights just have the attendants. I think this is a form of branding, it "feels" like a better product when you have a video with expensive production values.

Is it necessarily true that a bullshit job has to server no purpose? I think a doorman is like the safety video. It makes the product feel more expensive. I agree it's a bullshit job, but it contributes to the impression your company is making. Maybe a well produced Analytics Report makes a sort of impression like this too. At a glance you can prove you are a high end company that has everything together, and produces sophisticated reports as evidence. Even if it's a bullshit report, spending 5 figures to make the report is worth it, if it secures a bunch of 6 figure customers.

I'm not saying we should secure bullshit jobs, I'm just trying to voice some more perspective.


> I think this is a form of branding, it "feels" like a better product when you have a video with expensive production values.

I'm only familiar with Air New Zealand's productions, but they are totally marketing / patriotism / more marketing. In that sense they form a very important function: they do some crazy video that gets them in the news again, reminding people they exist and solidifying the idea that they are a fun airline you should totally pay slightly more than the competition to fly with.

(full disclosure, I am a New Zealander who will fly AirNZ if given the opportunity, so clearly it worked on me!)


The question boils down to marketing. If a company spends more money on marketing, every rival company will do so too. They are creating jobs, that would cancel each other out.


> Under a different social model, a young woman unable to find a spot in the workforce might have collected a government check. Now, instead, she can acquire a bullshit job at, say, a health-care company, spend half of every morning compiling useless reports

This passage starts getting into why these jobs have to exist.

1. There are fewer useful things that need doing than employable people, so not everyone can get a useful job.

2. Everyone needs some kind of income.

3. Basic Income and welfare are politically difficult because of our Protestant cultural belief that income must be earned through work.

If 1, 2, and 3 are true, then bullshit jobs must be created, or people starve/riot.


Is it rooted in Protestantism or just generalized zeitgeist for our planet? Even in the Soviet Union you had to work to eat, as I recall.

I think it's shit - down with private property and all that. There is going to be a point in the next hundred years where we won't be able to justify millions of jobs, and none of my representatives seem to have any sort of plan in mind for when that happens.


>Some, he thought, were structurally extraneous: if all lobbyists or corporate lawyers on the planet disappeared en masse, not even their clients would miss them.

And how does he think disputes between companies or between companies and consumers should be handled?


Yeah, a lot of these jobs he talks about are what I call "zero-sum jobs" - it sucks that they have to exist, but if any individual firm stopped having them, that firm would be behind.

Money managers are a good example of this. At the end of the day stock picking truly is a zero-sum game, and all money managers can produce in total is the negative effect of their fees on their clients money, yet people pay them because they take the chance that their money manager will produce a better than average return.

Similarly, the vast majority of marketing jobs are zero-sum jobs. True, a teeny minority do inform the public about a new product or service they wouldn't otherwise know about, but the vast majority are just trying to convince the public to use your widget over competitor's (actually very similar) widget. But any individual firm needs marketers, otherwise the competitors would take all of their business.


That reminds me of an aphorism I once heard: If a town has a one lawyer, the lawyer drives a Honda. If a town has two lawyers, they both drive BMWs.


> all money managers can produce in total is the negative effect of their fees on their clients money

This assumes that the same stocks are issued and purchased regardless of the efforts/nonexistence of money managers. Do you think it's possible that scams might be more numerous or more successful if there were nobody at all trying to determine the worth of individual stocks?

If you do think that's possible, then money managers can collectively produce positive value.


> At the end of the day stock picking truly is a zero-sum game

If stocks give dividends, then stock picking isn't a zero-sum game.


To expand on this , growth is real , and it's not random. Value for society is created by having money directed towards more beneficial projects.


> If stocks give dividends, then stock picking isn't a zero-sum game.

I don't understand this. "Stock picking" traditionally refers to buying or selling stocks through the stock market. It doesn't create or destroy any stock, and the dividends are invariant with respect to who owns the stock.

That makes dividends perfectly zero-sum. If I buy a stock from you, my gain from getting the dividend is exactly equal to your loss from losing the dividend.

What am I missing here?


The selling party doesn't lose dividend, they just don't gain it. Losing it would mean the dividend amount is subtracted from their account.


The more common argument for stock trading being zero sum is that if I experience a gain after buying a stock from you, you experience an equal loss (by selling the stock when it would have gone up).

Dividends do not alter that argument in any way. The trade is described as zero-sum because the total amount of value it produces is zero -- in the trade scenario, I gain X, and in the no-trade scenario, you gain X. X minus X is zero. My gain is your loss.


In the old days companies sold stock to raise capital to do things that were productive and would hopefully return the capital and more back to the shareholders. Companies with a lot of growth potential would sell stock over and over again as they needed more money to grow. Imagine the time (not that very long ago) when private investors would not invest billions in companies before an IPO. Giving money to a great company that is cash strapped is a win-win, not zero sum. Tesla is the only company right now that I can think of that does this. Amazon is close with its zero profit philosophy.

The tax code in America messed with this dynamic with taxing stock buy backs(capital gains) less than dividends (income). Giving large chunks of stock options to the company execs also didn't help.


“[A] lot of these jobs he talks about are what I call "zero-sum jobs" - it sucks that they have to exist, but if any individual firm stopped having them, that firm would be behind.”

This part of it all, in particular, reminds so much of “Meditations on Moloch”[1] . If anyone hasn’t read through this, I highly recommend it. It’s an inspiring look into how human society gets trapped into these games where no one wins, but to stop playing is much worse.

1: http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/


"zero-sum jobs" - it sucks that they have to exist, but if any individual firm stopped having them, that firm would be behind.

Perhaps a solution would be to ban them by law. So if corporate lawyers were banned then the executives would settle their disputes personally at a fraction of the cost.


Except that that can end up costing even more.

A common "cost saving" measure in companies is to get rid of various admin staff, people like PAs and the ones who book travel etc.

Now everyone has to spend a bunch of time doing work that a £20KPA first-jobber could be doing.

In some cases (e.g. scheduling meetings), the amount of time doing that gets bigger the higher up you get. This means that a £200KPA executive probably now spends a fifth of their time on grunt work.

In other cases (e.g. international travel booking), someone who has it as their day-to-day job will get it done correctly in a fraction of the time of anyone else.


> "zero-sum jobs" - it sucks that they have to exist, but if any individual firm stopped having them, that firm would be behind

Like feathers on a peacock.


I didn't agree that lawyers should go (unless there's some way to make the law simple enough that literally anybody can defend/attack as easily as a company with massive resources), but lobbyists I think should gtfo. It's naked wealth disparity - I can't afford to pay the tens of thousands it costs to whisper into a senator's ear every day, but Monsanto sure as fuck can.


Lawyers are a bit like nukes, if other people have them then it is wise to have some about just in case.


You and thousands of others can contribute tens of dollars to an organization that does that.


So we can make more bullshit jobs?

I think that voting and calling your representative should be the maximum effort necessary to be fairly represented.

That isn't reality, nobody should take this as an opportunity to condescend to me as a fair weather child. It SHOULD be reality.


This doesn't account for difficulty of coordinating those thousands of others.


Washington nonprofits and professional associations have this figured out at scale and employ many multitudes of lobbyists to counteract the corporate lobbyists. Many of these organizations achieve real quality of life improvements for their constituents be they workers protecting their jobs, concerned citizens protecting their lifestyle, or retirees protecting their pensions.


Well, one might think there would be fewer serious disputes, and those that do arise there might be more incentive to actually work things out.


This is tough. In many cases I think that people identify as superficially "worthless", I think there's a justifiable reason for those jobs even if it takes a little bit of digging to understand why it exists. For example, I know of a few jobs right now that a person does that, if it disappeared tomorrow, would have no immediate measurable impact on the company those jobs exist within. But wait a year or two and those jobs turn out to generate long-term cost savings to the company.

But in other cases, jobs that seem to be superficially necessary turn out to not be needed at all. I just said goodbye to a colleague last week and after they left we went through their entire list of tasks and responsibilities -- things that kept an intelligent, highly educated, adult human fully occupied for more than 40 hours a week and paid well into six figures -- and entirely eliminated or rolled over all of those things with no specific impact to our work. The scary part was that much of it was work producing material that was highly demanded of by one of our customers -- the bulk of those 40+ man hours were reports and other deliverable. We simply told the customer that they wouldn't be getting some of that stuff anymore or it would take a different shape to satisfy the need and they were ultimately fine with it.

What really concerns me are those jobs that need filling and nobody knows they exist and there's nobody doing them. Things that would eliminate waste, consolidate work, or expand business, but some collective blind spot prevents those positions from being realized. The classic examples in software are good QA people or in many small companies, good sales and business development people.

If this still doesn't make sense to this tech crowd. I'll pose this, in the 90s the revolution was "making software useful to people by making the functions of the software discoverable in a well designed GUI". How many of us sit in front of entire screen fulls of discovery-free GUI-less command-lines all day typing out things that took thousands of hours to master and would be bulk eliminated if somebody just put a nice usable GUI in front of it?


I agree with your overall point, but I don't think the GUI example helps your case here.

> How many of us sit in front of entire screen fulls of discovery-free GUI-less command-lines all day typing out things that took thousands of hours to master and would be bulk eliminated if somebody just put a nice usable GUI in front of it?

We sit in front of "discovery-free GUI-less command lines" to do stuff that is either impossible to be fully and properly captured by a pointing-device operated GUI, or would become orders of magnitude less efficient if operated through such GUI.

The discoverability problem is overblown, IMO - the actual problem is that we've trained people to no longer feel expected to learn a tool before using it. The example I usually give is this: no one in their right mind expects to be able to enter a car for the first time in their life and be allowed to drive on public roads. It is expected of them to go through a couple-dozen long training course and learn a bit of theory. People don't complain about that, because there's a social expectation that you need training. Compare that with people whining that a program is "unintuitive" because it requires you to spend 5 minutes in a tutorial to acquire basic operational competency. Compare that to video games, where again there is an expectation to learn, where people don't complain about tutorials.

The only way to make software that can be mastered in 10 seconds from first exposure is to make it have flat learning curve - that is, you can't use it for anything more powerful than what you can learn in those 10 seconds. This approach gives you simple toys, not actual tools.

As for discoverability of CLI tools, skimming its manual and looking at usage examples is equivalent to taking a GUI program and quickly skimming through all its menus and buttons. The whole problem here is purely of individual emotions. It's as if some people were simply afraid of reading.


> or would become orders of magnitude less efficient if operated through such GUI.

I don't disagree. The reason for the re-rise of the CLI is that it's just faster to get stuff executed and easier to script and coordinate things. But there's also a great many CLI tools that don't have obvious command-line uses, or the docs are poor and users of those tools just "know" how to use them because of many hours spent learning them. But new and infrequent users spend lots of time reading docs or rereading them, or looking up examples on the internet and in many cases those uses would be immediately obvious with some radio buttons and a couple buttons. There's also the cases of unbreaking things or unexpected results because of typos.

GUIs make the trade-off of learn-ability with operational efficiency and frankly, many of the tools we use don't benefit from being able to type them out quickly and would benefit from just having some buttons to click with all the options specified.

Also don't think I'm talking only about mousable GUIs. There's plenty of very good examples of keyboardable GUIs with very fast and efficient use-cases that also maintain good discover-ability.


> Also don't think I'm talking only about mousable GUIs. There's plenty of very good examples of keyboardable GUIs with very fast and efficient use-cases that also maintain good discover-ability.

Good point. GUIs of old were heavy on keyboard shortcuts; the web era seems to have forgotten about this concept.

Incidentally, the best keyboard-only-but-still-GUI I've seen is Magit - https://magit.vc/ - it's operated entirely via keyboard, but is very discoverable, with visual popups listing keys you can use and values of various switches. See e.g. [0] - the bottom part of the screen is the popup that shows when you press 'd' once. For operations you often do, you quickly learn the mnemonic - e.g. for typical diffing, you'd press 'd d' quickly. And the list of all command groups is available under '?', as yet another popup.

--

[0] - https://magit.vc/screenshots/popup-diff.png


This is why zapier is such an interesting idea.


For the record, people absolutely complain about tutorials in video games. The best tutorials aren't tutorials at all. Instead, the game gradually teaches you how to play without explicitly teaching you how to play.

Obviously, that task is extremely difficult so a lot of games instead opt for the tutorial.


It is interesting that certain people prefer keyboard only ui and others like mouse + keyboard ui.


Qa people! I would easily give a finger, maybe not a whole arm, but a full finger to get a single, solid qa person on my team. We execute really well, but I don’t have the eye for detail and my team doesn’t have the skill set. But qa is “non revenue generating” and so we don’t hire for it. Even though we lose tons in terms of man hours and productivity due to errors that a solid qa person would help us catch early on.


> Left to their own devices, Graeber points out, people tend to do work like students at exam time, alternately cramming and slacking. Possibly, they work this way because it is the most productive way to work. Most of us would assume that a farmer who started farming at 9 a.m. and stopped at 5 p.m. five days a week was strange, and probably not a very good farmer.

Smart! I never thought of it that way! I'm a remote part-time engineer and I totally do cram-and-slack. It should be a management style.


Developer and son of a farmer here. It's a bad analogy. In farming, there are very real "deadlines", and you can do 14 hours of useful physical (well... driving machines) work for a few days at a time. At other times, there really isn't much to do. You can find something to do if you want, but it doesn't make much of a difference.

In software, your mental capacity is the most real limit, and it's limited to about 5-6 hours per day for the most demanding part of the work. You get the most out of it by using it every day. Having just the right amount of work to do is hard, but working creatively for more than 6 hours per day is impossible. I have talked about this with many people and everyone seems to agree with 5-6 hours. (As somebody with a home office, I find that a very long break in the middle of the day may allow an extra hour or so)


wow, thats a venn diagram. do you see opportunities for software in farming where you are from?


I'm from Germany. A few decades ago, farmers were still several percent of the population, so I'm not that special. Germany is small and dense and infrastructure is decent everywhere, so you don't start with a big disadvantage coming from a farm.

Sure there is software in agriculture today, mostly "ERP"-type, but I don't think there is an opportunity better than in other industries. Things are getting more exciting with autonomous tractors and drones and selective herbicide application based on image recognition. But the underlying technologies have applications in areas with more turnover.


I wonder how a farmer would describe their work cycle. Do farmers feel like they're cramming and slacking? The impression that I get is that farming is more cramming. I don't really know anything past the general public perception of farming though.


Depends. For a Central European farmer without cattle, there is not much work in winter. You can maintain machines and buildings and such.

Farmers with cattle are more constantly busy. My parents got rid of the few cows they had based on economic calculations and, frankly, a desire to have vacations sometimes. Some old farmers thought they were crazy (it was a few decades ago). Of course, it went just fine.


The ultimate land of bullshit jobs has to be in college administration


Yeah that's bad. Another big concentration is government contractors, especially huge ones. We had this idea that we would eliminate waste by privatizing government work. Hahahahahahahah...


I've finally found a job I'm good at, at a company that seems to make somewhat of a positive difference. At least, we provide a service our users need without producing and readily apparent negative impact.

I've never been so happy at work. I fix challenging problems every day. I'm part of a really small team and I'm able to bring skills to the table that they are missing, which is fulfilling because I'm really having an impact.

In the past, I've worked at shitty jobs where my work meant nothing and was even resented by my peers -- mostly because we were an "Agile" shop doing all the wrong things (death by meetings, retarded micromanagement, un-meetable deadlines).

I'm super thankful for my current gig.


It's not really surprising, when so much effort has been invested in erasing any kind of higher purpose than money from western society. The idea that there is an obligation towards one's fellow humans and citizens leads to the idea that the mega-rich might be obliged to share a bit -- so that had to be silenced.


"The boom on Bullshit-Articles on Bullshit-Job Boom," is here.


I for one have no idea why this concept gets so much air time given how little substantial foundations it's based on. I can find justifications that make all the so-called "bullshit" jobs perfectly valuable within a couple minutes of thought. I wish the inventor of the concept had invested as much.


A friend of mine is a camera operator for a small production firm. They have some really old equipment, including tripods that aren't safe to use for their cameras, but they still cheap out on them anyway.

He gets paid about $16/hour to stand by the camera for up to 20 hours a week to make sure it doesn't fall over, which costs around $10k/year. A new tripod would cost $1500 and could last for a decade, so $it's 100k vs $1500.

Justify that, if you can. I can't, and I'm not being sarcastic or bitchy, I really want someone to explain it.


Many possible explanations. One of the most common ones is cash flow. If you're somewhat at break-even, there just isn't any $1,500 around, but there are enough jobs to pay $320 a week, and do that every week. (This is by the way the same reason poor people often make "stupid" decisions)

This is the most common case for smaller companies - it's all hand-to-mouth, and you barely squeak into profitability, so you minimize one-time expenses that shorten your runway. (What we around here like to call "Ramen profitable")

There's also the fact that even with a tripod, you probably want somebody around - assuming they use high-end movie gear, a camera runs between $100k and $500k. Spending $10k a year on somebody who catches it in case of accident makes sense.

I'm sure there are other explanations. I'm sure there are places that make stupid decisions, too :)


The reason it gets so much air time is because most of us encounter it during the course of our work. It's in our face so it's good to hear it called out for what it is.


What are the justifications for a bullshit job?


Please share these justifications then...


With all the talk of BS jobs, you’d think the article would be shorter. I lost interest 2/3 way through - felt like it was going in circles.

But I agree there could be some merit behind the premise.


Its the New Yorker -- every article they write reads they like they get paid by the word.


Actually, they do get paid by the word.


exactly my thoughts, does the world even gain much from reading these? I'd argue corporate lawyers, which he called bullshit jobs are way more useful


It keeps the topic in public's attention. Maybe when more people realize just how much economy is made of utterly wasteful zero-sum games, we'll have an environment ready to accept changes - which can be anything from culling those bullshit jobs to going full-UBI.


Both articles that have made the front page are simply articles about the same author, the last one was from the Guardian I distinctly remember. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/may/25/bullshit-jobs-...


When was the bust on Bullshit-Articles, regardless of the topic?

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