Brief thought exercise: in reality, does your job need to exist?

To start, read this (from PBS), then this (from Slashdot). David Graeber teaches at the London School of Economics — so broadly, he’s vetted — but he’s also a leading thought person in the Occupy Movement — so theoretically, you could dismiss him as a crackpot. He wrote a piece last summer for a left-leaning British zine entitled “Bullshit Jobs.” It went fairly viral (translated into about 20 languages and re-shared) and while his primary academic focus seems to be debt and what to do about debt, he makes some interesting points regarding the creation of jobs in a knowledge economy.

Here’s the crux of his idea, from his interview with PBS:

I’d say 20 percent. But it’s hard for me to say. The last thing I want to do is come in and say, you, your job is BS, while you, you’re okay. The whole idea is that people should decide for themselves what’s valuable. But if you talk about jobs where the people who actually are working at them secretly feel that they really don’t produce anything, or don’t do anything, I’d say about 20 percent has been my experience. But, of course, you know, we’d have to do extensive research to see if that’s really true.

So, in an admittedly unscientific manner, he’s claiming that 1 in every 5 people has a job that essentially doesn’t add value or doesn’t need to exist. That could be drastic and it’s probably lower than that — actually, a better way to think about it is that everyone (people) is valuable, but oftentimes there will be 12-14 people doing the work of 8-10. This is fairly common in mid-size to large organizations, and massively common in large to very large organizations. Last summer I worked in one of the latter, and the floor I was on had about 118 people. I once had a mid-senior manager tell me, “I’m not entirely sure what 40 or so people on this floor do.” Sadly, I don’t think that’s horribly uncommon.

Work needs to shift in the coming generation, especially with the exiting of the Baby Boomers — see here and here, for example — but the big question is, Can it? Obviously I’m talking about U.S.-based work, as that’s what I know and understand. The context is different in Scandinavia and Asia, and I realize that. In going through the last couple of jobs I’ve had, though — both short-term and full-time — I realize that a lot of them, conventionally, would fall into that 20 percent bucket above. This rolls up with employee engagement figures, which indicate that (at some level) 77 percent of people are not fully engaged at their jobs.

I’m not sure work can change — it may be more of an issue of when an organization has to change that it does, and enough of them do that it becomes a “new norm” (probably several generations hence, if at all) — but I do think most organizations could do a bit of a critical re-evaluation of themselves at core. Primary management tenets are based on literature from the 1920s-1950s, and the world was a much different place then as compared to now. The approach needs to be updated; in some cases, it is.

I’ve wondered a little bit in my life about why “jobs” are even necessary at all; for example, couldn’t an organization just hire the 20 best people they find in a process, then trust them to learn the roles necessary for success? (So long as a leader and a plan is already in place.) I realize that sounds crazy, because humans need structure and some jobs need to be specialized — from an engineer (which doesn’t require licensure in some sense) to a doctor (which requires a ton of time and debt). But in a way, is the idea of specialization (which was one a bedrock of the emergent U.S. economy) now actually a detriment? (Remember: it’s a badge of honor for some organizations to be able to say “We’re hiring” or “We’re growing,” so oftentimes creating jobs is done as kind of a theoretical pissing contest, not necessarily aligned to any real need).

So look, take out your own views on the fundamental nature of your job. Maybe you love it, or love the field, or whatever it is. But does it really need to exist? Think about it. It’s kinda interesting.



Ted Bauer