1. If your receptionist or assistant is only making you feel important, you are wasting their salary. One example: In my job we have to maintain professional licenses in many different states. Assistants help with this paperwork, which is different for every state and requires hours of reading and making phone calls to decipher. Yes, the engineer who bills their time at $150/hr could be doing this, but it's more efficient to pay an assistant. That is one small example of many, many vital tasks.
2. "Goon" is maybe the second oldest profession. Usually we call it "soldier". At some point you may be in conflict with an adversary. It's helpful to have someone on your side who is good at whatever type of conflict that is. I don't know why "telemarketer" is in there, it's not like the others. That's sales, which is pretty vital to any business. Now, the entire business and the product that a particular business is selling might be bullshit, but the job of selling certainly isn't.
3. I think the author vastly overestimates how preventable problems are. Maybe someday we'll invent an airline system that is 100% perfect and never loses anyone's bag. That's not the reality right now, though. Shit happens. Having someone who is paid to deal with it is better than not having them.
The arguments in general are written from the perspective that the "perfect" society is one where everyone cooperates to build new technologies, create art, go to space, et cetera, and every job that does not contribute to that utopian ideal is considered a "bullshit job".
Not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, but that's the argument's perspective as I see it. IMO its not surprising he is an academic, this view has a very ivory tower feel to it.
Regardless of this, this still sounds like a market inefficiency. I have not read the book (but I certainly will now), but I'm going to guess the author's response would be that while the assistant's job is necessary for the engineer to remain productive, it is still a bullshit job. What's needed instead is an automated service that handles this for the engineer at far less of a cost or less bullshit paperwork from government.
There's also the issue of the quasi-sovereignty of states in the US. They are not going to want to give up power to manage their own affairs.
The author seems to think about things this Pollyanna, blue-sky way where we could just change everything magically to be more efficient, but back in the real world there are entrenched interests and institutional inertia that result in things happening a certain way. They don't change overnight. It's not bullshit to pay people to deal with the world as it is. It's really the only option you have if you want to get something done now, instead of in some hypothetical future where we've automated away every inefficiency.
Best case, they were right and the task gets automated away, now we don't need to talk about it at all. More likely, they might find that it's actually not as easy to automate away as they initially thought.
The sensitivity is that if there are not enough resources then there is little to be gained by redistributing them (if there is not enough food, someone will starve even with the best executed and fairest system). That isn't an arguments against having the jobs, that is an argument that their ability to add value is context sensitive and they don't emerge until there is a bit of a surplus to play with.
I can think of offices that would implode without the receptionist/assistant/office manager that performs the "glue" functions and allows others to focus on their roles.
I would say telemarketer is not standard sales, its high pressure unwelcome sales tactics that are stressful and harmful to both sides in my opinion, but I wouldn't classify that as "Goon" but as "negative sales techniques"
He seems to vastly misunderstand the actual function and roles hes criticizing.
From the article:
""Those two British and Dutch polls were the only ones I knew when I wrote the book. Since then, there has been a poll that came out at 10 percent. But I'm a bit skeptical about that, because the other two polls matched. It depends very much on what questions you ask people. In any case, I think that more detailed work is needed. '"
The part I highlighted in Italic seals the deal: the guy is either blissfully ignorant, or wildly dishonest.
These people are essentially financial furniture who have engineered a kind of managerial capture of the principals capital, and in turn pay themselves exorbitantly. We talk about a tech bubble, but what have really seen is a 35 year management bubble.
Who are these principals, the owners of the capital? When you look at the largest capital pools they belong to pensioners, tax payers, trusts, depositors, saver/investors, insurance policy holders, and other collective owners. Interestingly, managing these pools is where all the bullshit jobs exist as well. These bullshit jobs with decadent pay differences are the effect of managerial capture of these mutual/collective capital bases.
I'd speculate it's possible that a lot of political views across the spectrum could be described in terms of a principals revolt against capture by their agents.
To me it seems like a pretty useful job in a large organisation.
It goes on to state that the receptionist at such a place is required as a "Badge of Seriousness" even if they have nothing else to do.
The book isn't only about the job itself, but our constant need to "look busy", even though there isn't anything to do, and most importantly, how these structures develop. He coins the phrase "corporate feudalism" as an explanation, meaning (to oversimplify) that people at the top think that other people at the top look powerful when they have lots of people below them, so they need to create a lot of jobs just to have people to be the boss of.
He based his assertion "on the basis of a YouGov survey among 843 Britons, in which 37 percent of the respondents said that their job 'did not make a meaningful contribution to the world', and one from HR and organizational consultant Schouten & Nelissen among 1,900 Dutch citizens, who 40 percent came out."
Both surveys are very low-quality, and are contradicted by other massive surveys, which he decides to ignore because "Since then, there has been a poll that came out at 10 percent. But I'm a bit skeptical about that, because the other two polls matched."
So I don’t agree designating itt a bullshit job.
Even when we were 20 people in an office folks coming in for interviews or to fix the WiFi/Coffee machine/plumbing would either be totally lost, or the person sitting near the door would be significantly burdened with constant distraction and less able to perform their primary function.
Furthermore no one would set up those maintenance tasks because they’re focused on the product not on making sure the office is functioning properly.
Not trying to get in between you guys arguing, but I'm just throwing this out there because I thought possibly it might help. Maybe you guys aren't really disagreeing so much as using different language for different positions? Just from my point of view, it SOUNDS like what you are describing is more of an Office Manager. So maybe in some organizations Office Manager is the same as Receptionist in terms of job title? (I do hope you were PAYING that person at the level of an Office Manager though, and not a simple receptionist. That's kind of shady if you weren't, because that person was doing a great deal of work.)
Some tasks may be more BS than others. But how many jobs would be considered BS in the author's vision that either they can be done by someone else or not at all because they involve addressing activities that should have been done perfect from the beginning?
He's obviously aiming for controversy because controversy sells.
Thieves helping themselves to computers, video projectors and the like as entrance security is a joke and noone monitors the lobby anymore.
Calls doing the rounds from department to department as the corporate mega-switchboard does not know anything but employees' formal title and not what they actually do - unlike the receptionist, which also manned the local switchboard.
&c. You can solve most of this by throwing more money at it - but a good receptionist is IMHO money very well spent...
But I find other BS examples that the author used, like "airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don't arrive". There's no dedicated staff for this. They are simply staff who have to take the time to also do this. He sometimes mixes up "jobs" with "job tasks". Some tasks may be BS but the jobs definitely involve more than what he cherry picked as an example. Is "staff that asks you if you enjoyed the food at the restaurant" also on the list?
Would he rather have airline employees just not give a shit when he has a problem? Or does he actually think airlines pay for employees that are there just to provide consolation?
A "job" is the entire collection of tasks you get paid for or are expected of you by your employer. One BS portion does not make the job BS. In the same vein, is writing a list of BS jobs a BS job? He's definitely exaggerating with many examples for the purpose of making it a bit more controversial.
2. Important deliveries being sent back to the parcel depot because the door wasn't answered
3. Parcels sometimes going missing, with the parcel company claiming they were delivered but no employees knowing where they are (with the resulting recriminations)
4. Guests being let in without the sign-in procedure being followed
5. Job applicants showing up saying they're here for an interview with 'Dave' and the person who lets them in not knowing who that is, where they sit, or how to contact them.
These things are done much better at organisations where it's someone's job to do them.
The last link has a comment with even further links.
So many of the jobs listed seem highly useful, but yeah bullshit at times, but the same job very much not bullshit at other times.
I get the concept, I don't think it is wrong that these exist. I do question if anyone could really accurately identify what jobs are bullshit and what aren't and that makes me wonder about the overall concept here.
I sort of agree with his philosophical conclusions, but still I'm not sure how it plays out exactly and not sure basic income and such really would change anything, at least as far as people's choices and such.
Granted I've only read a handful of articles and this wiki article about this so there may be a lot that I'm missing.
For a very vivid example, take a soldier (admittedly, a "goon" in the authors parlance). In 1900, the most effective individual soldier was likely armed with a repeating rifle. In 1965, an individual soldier (or small team) could fire a nuclear armed rocket. The change in effectiveness was massive, but necessitated massive changes in the workforce structure from "productive (or destructive, for individual soldiers) to "administrative" roles. This was done not only to support the creation of the weapon but to ensure it a) was placed at the utmost position of effectiveness and b) ensure it was never used at all. I'm rather happy the jobs in b in particular existed.
The same could be imagined of a mining worker- where there once were hundreds of men with pickaxes and dynamite, there are now just a few driving very large machines to do the work, but with a substantially more people in the backend ensuring that these capital assets are used effectively, designed well, and are safe.
That's not to say there aren't some extremely suspicious trends (the massive growth in the health administration seems to me the most problematic), but for the most part describing individual "jobs" as BS is incorrect.
But meetings. Some people just love to hear themselves talk. And some people need to hear something said N different ways, before they can take it in. So someone who spends most of their time in meetings, that's arguably bullshit.
And yes, I do appreciate that stuff needs coordinating. But damn ...
Companies are financially motivated to have these kinds of jobs, and if we only use that metric then we could say that almost no job is bullshit, but that doesn't mean people enjoy them.
That said I'm weary to extrapolate those ideas into any specific plans to change society
Admin assistants, for example are a linchpin of a successful office and an important and irreplaceable part of client interactions in small businesses.
Perhaps, the wikipedia article lacks context or nuance, at face value his entire concept seems laughably idiotic.
Interesting premise and, like most things in life, further investigation is required.
It's tempting to be swayed by the anecdotes of actual people describing the absurdities of their jobs. It's almost like a satire of pointlessness and dysfunction, despite being very real. But it's colored by perspective of people who expect some amount of self-actualization because of the nature of their workplace, when such an expectation is a unilateral construct influenced by their observations of social class.
Despite the author's elaborate taxonomy of the types of bullshit work, they're all cases of delegating the least palatable, most mechanical, and least intellectual aspects of an actual decision maker's duties and tasks. It's fashionable to pick on middle management, but they form a translation between boots on the ground and high-level business goals, and serve as a containment layer for the inevitable political turf war. It's common to scoff at rubber stampers, but this serves as a way to tie an abstract policy to a human who can be blamed, when process of the organization is brought under scrutiny. These are standard features of bureaucracies since forever, and while they provide insight into human psychology, they don't speak for broad implications about labor relations and the human condition.
And secretaries? They're vital component to smooth operations and screen for potential distractions. The underutilized receptionist is more than just signalling: by definition, they're there for times of need, the same way a security guard is. A security guard isn't pointless just because they never have to intervene: their presence is an effective deterrence against behavior that would call them into visible action.
It's difficult for me to derive a meaningful lesson from this book, other than people are prone to be dissatisfied unless they feel like their efforts impart meaningful good in the world. But in my opinion, the privilege of wishing for self-actualization through one's labor is a recent phenomenon. Not too long ago, it was common knowledge that work was drudgery to earn to living, so we didn't expect more out of it beyond that.
 https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18800421  https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18802087
Firstly "quarterly profits" are not necessarily synonymous with "shareholder value" over the long term - although the entire financial industry operates on the basis that they are.
In reality it's perfectly possible to produce stellar quarterly returns while driving a solid, productive company into the ground and denying investors future returns.
Secondly, shareholders are proxied by senior management. Senior management has its own goals, which include status management as well as profit.
Profit is only a partial proxy for status, which is why senior management in some companies likes to play some standard management games like "reorg" and "rebrand" that do nothing at all for returns, except possibly waste them, but make managers feel like they're critically important wielders of corporate power.
The third reason is that if you concentrate enough wealth among shareholders, the rest of your economy - the part that does most of the consuming, as well as most of the actual work - atrophies and eventually implodes under a pile of debt and consequent violent social dislocation.
This is not a good thing. But it seems to be a lesson that generations of shareholders need to keep relearning.
How is this pointless?
And none of the other jobs mentioned are bullshit. They are all required in various degrees.
I call it bullshit book
Start small. Iterate. Do it wrong. Embrace the fact that we're imperfect, not oracles of the future. I'll gladly prefer fixing up some shoddy code over needing to tear down and re-architecture from scratch a larger, even well designed system, that solves the wrong problem.
Not all preventable problems are worth preventing. Preventing them causes other problems, if only the problem of wasting a lot of time fixing many non-problems that you mistakenly thought were potential problems in an attempt to do so.
The specific example of shoddy code given in the book is that of a programmer gradually replacing a completely ineffectual algorithm written by an incompetent academic who also happened to be his boss. The algorithm was designed to "mimic speech" (this part is not very clear in the book) and the programmer replaces it with Eliza-like heuristics.
You should read the book before judging it so harshly.
Some examples might be:
- Overengineering. I worked for a startup that committed to a $20k/mo multi-az setup with mass redundancy for what was essentially a lightly trafficked static website.
- Not-Invented-Here syndrome. Different place spent months building out a custom shopping cart and checkout solution for sales b/c they didn't really like the built-in options. Full on high priced design team (not a person, a team), UX folks, front end devs, trying to get PCI compliance on their servers (a huge task), etc. or they could have done what Tesla did and just used Shopify - https://shop.tesla.com/us/en.html
In both those examples, there's no need/value to the work being done over similar solutions making it a "bullshit job".