Bullshit work

I remember my first job, working as a pot-washer at a local Italian restaurant. Most of you probably haven’t had the joy of performing this exacting duties of the ceramic hygenist, but you’ve probably held a position where the exchange of values is similar. You turn up, clock in and are dutifully employed until you clock out. During this period (usually around 8 hours, sometimes up to 14 or more) your will is not your own — you’re subject to whatever tasks your line manager gives you.

In a job where there is a steady, linear amount of work to be done, this makes sense, if you are a factory worker, a farmer, or even decorating a house. In these jobs, there is a fairly fixed amount of work to be done, and a time to do it. Your best bet is to pick a pace you can work at steadily, for the time you have, and plod along — it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

In reality, there are very few jobs where this linear approach to working makes sense. Usually, my shifts at Felicinis would look something like this.

  • Arrive at 4 pm and punch in, get met with an overwhelming number of pots, pans and crockery that required my immediate attention.
  • Have 3 hours to get the kitchen into ship-shape order before the next influx of cremated risotto pans and bone-dry pasta bowls. Madly rush around for the three hours, just about getting everything into order.
  • Perhaps having 5 minutes to catch my breath before the next onslaught.
  • Work solidly until 12 before clocking out. My manager was happy — he’d got his money's worth.

After a few months, I started to get pretty efficient at pot-washing. I knew exactly where everything belonged, I knew the tricks to quickly scrub the pans, I knew the system to make sure the dishwasher never stopped running, I knew the optimal soak times, the scourers to use, and all the little hacks to get the job done. This is where problems started happening.

At first, there would be no respite between washing the lunch pans and working through the dinner shift, but then, gradually, I started to get a lot more breathing room. I’d finish off lunch at 18:45, then 18:30, then 18:00. I’d conjured an hour out of nowhere, and it didn’t stop there — every week I kept getting quicker. My manager, wanting to get his money's worth, started to assign me other tasks to do in my ‘down time’. I thought nothing of it, I was paid to work and it was his prerogative to decide what I worked on. Plus these jobs seemed kind of important — cleaning the skirting boards, wiping out the fridge, stuff like that.

But after a certain amount of time, the jobs he’d assign me just stopped making sense. One example of this — is he would ask me to make sure my station was spotless before the evening shift began. This made no sense, why would I mop and clean a section, that I was only going to have to mop and clean in 5 hours anyway? The jobs were bullshit jobs.

This is when my job stopped becoming a clear exchange of value — my performance as a ceramic hygenist for £5.00/hour, became something else. My job became a narrative, a narrative that if I wasn’t doing some kind of work, regardless of whether it was valuable or not, I was stealing. I was stealing as I was being paid to work, so doing something completely unproductive was better than say, let me read a book for 15 minutes until actual work needed to be done.

I guess this theft by idleness narrative wouldn’t be a problem if it was just constrained to my first rung on the career ladder. What I found though, is that the further up the career ladder I got, the more bullshit work, I ended up doing.

Bullshit-as-employment

The day I understood how deeply engrained theft by idleness is in our culture was my first career job, I worked as an engineer for a car company. Sometimes there would be a lot of work to do, other times you are waiting for another engineering team to approve designs, or for the purchasing department to approve the costs — during these times there’s not much to do.

I tell you, having nothing while in the employ of a corporate institution is one of the most soul-destroying, pointless endeavours you could wish on a human. You have to involve yourself in this large charade of ‘looking busy’ for me this would usually involve having my engineering drawings open on my computer, going through designs I’d been through 100 times before, or pretending to check my calculations again and again. Looking around the office it was clear most of my colleagues were involved in the same elaborate ploy, only evidenced by the fact that between the times of 17:00 and 17:07 80% of them promptly stopped their ‘pressing work’ got up and scuttled to their company cars.

These problems of the appearance of busyness vary from company to company, but nearly all my friends report similar situations, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have work to do, you are ‘on their time’, leaving earlier than your contracted hours would be considered theft.

Theft by Idleness

This narrative of ‘theft by idleness’ is so baked into our culture, we probably don’t ever give it a second thought, or acknowledge how toxic it can be. To gain some perspective, let's take a trip to Ancient Rome, and try and see how they might view the situation.

To the ancient Roman, there were two mediums of exchanging value. Either you bought someone as a slave, in which case you owned them, and therefore all their time, or you paid them for output. You could buy the potter's pots, or you could buy the potter, but paying the potter for his time to make pots? This wasn’t something the Ancient Roman would even be able to grasp as a concept.

You need to take a couple of leaps to contemplate buying time for money. First, you need to be able to separate the potter's capacity to work as a thing that is distinct from the potter himself, second, you’d need to devise a way to pour the abstract idea of time into uniform, temporary containers, that could then be purchased, using cash. Sounds more complicated than the concept of fractionalising non-fungible tokens. Digital assets may be intangible, but at least they are not a complete abstraction, unlike time.

Because (apart from very rare cases) no one would ever willingly enter an arrangement where they sold all of themselves, as a slave, slavery was constrained to people who were enslaved already or forced into it — the modus operandi for the freeman looking to make a few shekels then? Sell a product, a good or an output. In this paradigm there is no such thing as theft by idleness, I only work on things that will deliver value, and you will only pay me for that value, this sounds like an ideal arrangement, why did we move away from it?

The movement to bullshit

The movement to time-for-money probably started from an economical perspective. We moved towards very fixed methods of production, factory work, farming etc. Time-for-money was a way to dress up slavery as something new, as long as you paid someone for their work, they weren’t slaves, despite the fact they spent every waking hour doing your bidding.

But why are we still using it in the present day? As much as the word wage slaves gets banded around (guilty) for anyone employed in time-for-money employment it would seem a little far-fetched to think we still use time-for-money as a way to exchange value because we are looking for a way to enslave people. No, I think there’s another way of looking at it.

YouGov did a poll a few years back on the concept of Bullshit jobs, brought to the public eye by Anthropologist David Graeber. A bullshit job is simply a meaningless job, offering no value to society. 37% of participants in the survey, thought their job was entirely bullshit.

That’s a pretty staggering statistic, but are you really surprised? Anyone who has ever worked at a large corporation will undoubtedly have either held or witnessed a bullshit job. Middle managers, pencil pushers, checkboxes, these jobs are pointless and deeply unsatisfying. To be honest, I think 37% is probably an understatement, these are people who were self-aware enough to recognise their job was bullshit, if you take into account the vast swathes of people completely wrapped up in their own BS (guilty again) I’d put this figure at least double, maybe more.

For some of us, bullshit work isn’t a problem. If we enjoy the people we work with, get the opportunity to slack off in our spare time and do something that gives us meaning (for example reading or learning a new skill), and are getting paid well enough that we can afford to do the things we’d like to after work, then the fact that our work is bullshit may not affect how enjoyable we find life.

But for most of us, this isn’t the case. Bullshit work, according to the YouGov survey, undermines our self-belief, causes stress, and leads to us feeling dissatisfied in life. In the modern world, for better or worse, work takes up a large portion of our time, if we are spending that time on endeavours we know to be pointless, we will suffer.

But if bullshit jobs are so prevalent, why do we stand for them? Why do we choose to do them?

My hypothesis is we moved to a system of time-for-money, not because of some authoritarian regime, not because the super-rich are trying to exploit us, but because, as a society, we collectively agreed that this was the easiest way for us to make a buck because charging for output or product of our labours (time-for-value) was difficult. As we started to charge each other for bullshit work, we created a feedback loop, acceptance of paying for bullshit work led to more bullshit jobs being created, driving more bullshit work, and so on. An infinite Ponzi of bullshit, if you will.

I think if we want to get out of the bullshit work cycle we need to reframe exchanging our time for money. I think the below heuristic is mostly true.

Not all time-for-money jobs are bullshit jobs but most bullshit jobs are time-for-money jobs

Why are there not more time-for-value jobs?

In my eyes, there are a few root causes for the proliferation of time-for-money work.

  1. Unable to assign value to output. If you ask any project manager, bureaucrat, or other bullshit job why they couldn’t get paid for their output, you’d probably hear the following rhetoric. ‘It’s just really difficult to quantify the output of my work. I exist to make others' lives easier, I provide guidance, I create process, I ensure stakeholders have their expectations met.’ In the majority of cases, this is just bullshit masking a bullshit job (bullception). The real reason behind the fact someone in this type of work can’t charge for value is simple — there isn’t any value there to charge. The employee is not to blame for this, they are set up in a profession where their tasks, goals and aims are so diffuse, or so far removed from the actual value delivered that they were always destined to deliver bullshit.
  2. Output is really difficult to cost. There are a few jobs, software engineering or perhaps legal work (although arguably the latter is mostly bullshit) where it’s just difficult to estimate how long a job will take. Even with all the focus in the world, a software engineer working on a project may come across unexpected complications in the code-base or a function they’ve never dealt with before, and so must spend time learning how to do the work they’ve been assigned to do. Writing code is not like making pots. The process is often not repeatable, and work is tough to estimate
  3. Bad Managers. I think a great manager would have a clearly defined expectation of what their reports would deliver. A great manager would assign an employee work that was directly and measurable and fully in the employee's control. The reality is, it’s just easier for managers to not go through the hard work of creating such measures and scope, I know this because I’m not a good manager, I frequently change the specifications of the products I want to be built, or even worse, change the result I want a product or piece of work to achieve. It’s easier for me to pay someone by the hour — then I can be lazy with how I manage that person.
  4. Safety? Time-for-value work gets rid of the concept of theft by idleness. It has huge benefits to employees, they only work on stuff that delivers value, it’s more efficient and this means people don’t have to engage in games of office politics where everyone outdoes each other to ‘look busy’. A monthly salary though does provide some benefits, the main one being a decent safety net. Regardless of what happens in my life, I know I'm getting my bread every week. I’m not entirely sure shifting away from a time-for-money way of working would provide any less safety, if you find a job you can do well, and continually deliver, not only would you feel 10x more fulfilled you’d most likely have a more stable source of income. Indeed, people who report doing bullshit work also report they feel stressed about their job security. If they think their work is entirely meaningless, surely someone in the organisation will catch onto this and get rid of them!

Moving to time-for-value

Ok, we’ve covered a lot here, so let's take a little recap. Most jobs have bullshit elements or are pure bullshit. As a society, we are complicit in this bullshit, even though, statically speaking, it makes us unhappy. Bullshit jobs have been enabled by a model where we trade our time for money, rather than output.

Now, let’s explore some ways out of this mess. If we could exchange our time for value, rather than money, wouldn’t we be much happier?

It certainly seems that the benefits are there. You are being paid directly for output, so it's a lot more difficult to question your meaning, you get to work as hard or as little as you like, without having to pretend to somebody. You can most likely get more job security and in terms of the economy, the productivity increases would surely be wild.

I’m interested in moving away from time-for-money both as an employer and a worker. I think there are a few ways to do it.

  1. Entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs don’t get (properly) paid unless they either sell their business or get their company to enough profitability to pay themselves large dividends or salaries. This is not possible unless you have people paying you. People only pay you (for the most part) if you provide value, entrepreneurship then, is inherently a non-bullshit job. I’m going to make a real effort to try and remain an entrepreneur for the rest of my life.
  2. Pay workers for output. In my business, of our 10 or so employees over half of them get paid on an output basis. I’ll pay a designer for a set of designs, a video editor for a video. Our developers do get paid on an hourly basis, I’m not sure if this is avoidable, my thinking is that if I was a better product manager, and split up work into smaller, deliverable-focused pieces, developers would probably be able to give me a reasonable cost estimate.
  3. Avoid salaried work. While entrepreneurship is probably the ideal to avoid bullshit work and the lack of fulfilment that comes with it, it is inherently risky. There will surely come a point in my life where a business fails and I need to pay the bills. The easy option, of course, would be to find salaried work. Salaried work (even if not working in a bullshit job) often dictates some amount of bullshit. I’d sooner try and avoid this by taking on positions where I’m paid directly for value, by selling a productised version of myself, or a result.

All of the above is not possible for the majority of the population. I’m in the incredibly privileged position to have no dependents, hard skills, and parents I can fall back on. Even if the majority of the population wanted to move away from trading their time for money, to trade it for the value they’d face huge hurdles, from pay cuts to retraining.

For most people, these costs may simply not be worth the benefit. I also struggle to see how without a significant cultural shift in the way we view work. We’d also need a great awakening that performing unfulfilling bullshit work, simply because it pays well, is perhaps not the best way to lead a satisfying life.

However, things aren’t hopeless. There’s a tactical way to shift from bullshit to less bullshit, to hopefully no bullshit. We don’t need to go all-in on being entrepreneurs, we can continue to work our time-for-money jobs, while we distil the actual value we create into a product or service. We can then start selling this, rather than our time, and hopefully, lead lives with a little less bullshit. I’m pretty passionate about this topic, and doing less bullshit work will probably make the world a much happier and more fulfilling place, over the next few months I’ll be releasing videos, articles and tools sharing my experience on making the transition, so maybe others can too.

Bless,

Tom x

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