Bullshit Jobs

Few years ago I wrote a blog titled “TLAs: Which is your favourite?“. TLAs or Three Letter Acronyms are typical management jargon which you cannot escape in your corporate life. Technically there can be only 17,576 TLAs (26^3 i.e. number of ways of choosing 3 letters out of 26 letters, with repetition allowed).

TLAs are one form of bullshit buzzwords. There are many other types. And there are interesting tools around this concept. One of them is a Bullshit Buzzword Generator. For example, this: https://www.atrixnet.com/bs-generator.html

The BS Generator generates three cool-sounding but totally meaningless phrases which can be fitted into any corporate communication!

Then there is a game called “Bullshit Bingo” created by someone like me (who is totally anti-Bullshit). It’s an interesting concept and there are several versions!

For example, this game:


The reason I remembered this was an interesting article I read in The Economist: “Are you stuck in a “bullshit job”?

The article is based on a new book titled “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” written by David Graeber. I have not read the book yet; though I read the Economist article and got the gist of it. It’s really thought-provoking idea, and something that hits at the root of phrases such as “value addition”, “corporate efficiency” etc.

I started my career in a renowned IT Services company in India. Many of my family relatives had no connection with this new age industry. So a common question they would ask me was: What do you (actually) do? What do you produce and ship and sell?

They had seen factories and they had seen workshops and shops. But a work location which didn’t get any visible raw material, where there was no movement of goods or no smoke, no chimneys, and yet which “exported” millions of dollars of output was difficult for them to digest. So I told them that we make CDs and DVDs. Then they were OK. They had seen CDs and DVDs.

Similar question was repeated when I had moved up the ladder to become a Manager. What do you do now? was indeed a tough question to answer honestly. I often felt if I was adding the value (in true sense) compared to the paycheck I get?

Then there is typical question that haunts many mid-level managers (more so in IT sector): Is my job/role really needed? If I go away on vacation for a few days/weeks, would the work not get done at all?

The book, I suppose, tries to address such questions. This extract from the Economist article is really insightful:

Mr Graeber defines a bullshit job as one “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”, though they may have to pretend that they believe in it. This definition, and indeed much of the book, combines two categories of roles. In the first are jobs that Mr Graeber tends to think are socially worthless, such as corporate lawyers or investment bankers. (Some of those workers may take an equally dim view of the utility of anthropologists.) In the second group are jobs where employees find themselves with little or nothing to do and, worse, must still look as if they are frantically busy.

To be honest, I have felt this often in my job. And then I have tried to change company, or my job role. Because it is really difficult for me to sustain in a bullshit job for too long.

Some people manage to spend entire career in such bullshit jobs. Most do it unknowingly, and few others knowingly. Some even master the art of bullshitting and create a fortune!

When I visit public sector (Government owned) businesses – such as banks, insurance companies, power or telecom, I can see Bullshit jobs all around me. Most of them are really not needed. Even in private sector, there are plenty of bullshit jobs – and surprisingly many are in the top management!

In fact bullshit jobs are omnipresent! They are there in academics, in places of worship (temples etc), in Government offices and ministries, in arts (Movies, Music, television), in Sports, even in charity and philanthropy!

However the two that stand out, according to me, are:

  1. Government of India has created a Ministry for river Ganga Rejuvenation! There is already a Ministry of Water Resources and River Development. But the Government decided to add “Ganga Rejuvenation” so that river Ganga (or the Ganges – the most revered river in India) can be cleaned and transformed from its current state of sanitary canal into a living stream of water. The Ministry was meaningless right from the beginning, because they could achieve the mandate through the existing ministry of water development. Four years have now passed and Ganga is equally or more dirty! This definitely was a Bullshit job in the first place.
  2. The second is actually a case of irony. I mentioned that most of the Public Sector enterprises (Government owned companies) are extremely bad. They have no efficiency, lots of bureaucracy, unions, poor customer service and they suck a lot of taxpayers’ money. So the government, rightly decided to get rid of these PSUs (Public Sector Undertakings). This was in 1991 when India started process of economic liberalization. And ironically a new ministry was added: Ministry of Disinvestment! The mandate for this ministry was to identify and sell PSUs and generate some money for the Government. 27 years later, the Ministry of Disinvestment still stands tall and has a lot of work to do! This clearly was a useless job…but it has become bullshit job because they have not been able to do their job even after 27 long years!

It often reminds me of BBC Classic “Yes Minister” and the Department of Administrative Officers and the episode on empty hospitals, called “The Compassionate Society”. Do watch it! It’s hilarious and equally relevant after 3 decades…