Last year, anarchist thinker David Graeber distressed boardrooms everywhere with his anxiety-inducing book Bullshit Jobs. Arguing that society creates jobs which are of no utility, Graeber boldly targeted C-level and executive positions for special ire. Despite reams and reams of criticism against Graeber, no one managed to convincingly argue that he was wrong. If we assume he is correct, then, what can Human Resource and Talent Managers do in 2019 to practically rectify this society-wide failure?
The big jobs conspiracy
David Graeber believes we’re all involved in a conspiracy: The job-creation conspiracy, where society-at-large produces jobs simply to produce them. Our cultural and economic inheritance (think Protestant work ethic and global capitalist system) tells us that value comes exclusively from employment, regardless of the type of employment. Unwavering belief in the value of employment for employment’s sake has led to widespread creation of jobs with no utility, particularly for the person performing them. What’s more, according to Graeber, these jobs are typically prestigious; corporate lawyers, for example, are singled out as particularly redundant.
There may indeed be parts of jobs which are a bit of a drag, but if entire jobs, particularly advanced ones with great reputations are of little or no utility, then what could be the cause, and what can we do about it?
Firstly, let’s discount the conspiracy thesis.
Despite its plausibility, there’s no pragmatic way of assessing it. Let’s instead consider some more practical ways this may have become possible.
The old network
One way cushy but useless positions could have been secured is through old networks. Businesses and governments operated on the assumption that only certain groups of people were fit for certain jobs. Not only was wealth and privilege kept within a certain circle, laziness and ineffectiveness came to be associated with these jobs.
Since these old networks were not truly meritocratic, their first priority was not to ensure the best outcome for their organisations, rather to ensure the continued existence of their positions. This oversight had serious consequences: not only did the nepotism of the positions mean that certain jobs were unquestionably entrenched in the company, it meant that processes and outcomes became extremely inefficient. A very egregious example of this would be the British government’s former method of recruiting spies. The government once simply tapped into the elite talent pools of Oxford and Cambridge to fill spying positions. This privileged approach (trusted by people who themselves arguably were where they were because of their privilege) led to the hiring of Kim Philby, among others; Philby turned out to be a prolific and dangerous Soviet doubleagent.
Simply a bad fit
Rather than being some overarching systemic conspiracy, the existence of bullsh*t jobs could simply be because of our hitherto limited abilities to match people to what they are suited, and thereby creating a mismatch between skills and jobs. This is not to argue that such mismatches are always avoidable; on the contrary, people often take jobs out of necessity rather than desire and ability. Nevertheless, we should not overlook the fact that we’ve not only hired people to positions to which they are unsuited, but following the Peter Principle, we’ve also promoted people beyond their competence. As such, it’s not necessarily that there are millions of terrible jobs out there, rather there are simply people doing a bad job because they are not perfectly suited to them.
The bane of the large organisations, silos occur when departments or people end up getting too comfortable with their own work, and no longer involve the wider organisation in what they do. These have inevitably created structures wherein the kinds of work people do could easily be labelled as “incompetent”, simply because, over time, their work has calcified into inconsequence. Silos have the peculiar quality of changing people’s mindsets; people simply stop believing that their work has anything to do with a particular department, person or organisation. And yet, it could prove pivotal. This could indeed have led to an overwhelming feeling of “bullsh*t”.
So, what in 2019 can we do about it?
We’re now very much in a position to harness technology to change the job landscape. Before we talk of job automation and robots, however, let’s talk of three much simpler, easier measures: implementing meritocracy, identifying skills, and restructuring work.
Meritocracy: walk the talk
We’re now more aware than ever of the costs of bullsh*t: not having promising cultural moments such as #metoo challenged entrenched positions, businesses are simply too aware of the costs. Old networks and old ways of doing things simply won’t do: the competition for talent is too high, and obstacles and barriers for progression simply won’t do any more. With increasing social-mobility, as well as greater access to top education, the workforce is more diverse and more skilled than ever before. With the best people coming through, organisations have the best chance of doing well: therefore, entrenched positions, particularly those secured by old networks, need to be dismantled.
Matching skills to a job has previously relied on human judgement, which is of course full of error. By leveraging technology, companies can now more accurately match personality and competence profiles to job profiles. When someone can do a job well, they are more likely to feel as though that job is meaningful; with reduced error through technology, we can also reduce mismatching, and also the feeling of a job being meaningless.
Preventing silos and other structural problems from emerging requires a radical rethink of how we work. This can include job automation, for example, but also includes the restructuring of talent. That can mean using Flash Organisations, for example: where rather than hiring and retaining people on a permanent basis, companies simply hire the best for short-term contracts to complete projects. This used to be a pipe-dream but, thanks to tech, can now be done.
Bullsh*t be gone
There may indeed be an enormous conspiracy to keep us all in work, but before we try to challenge that, let’s make our workplaces more meritocratic, use technology to ensure skills fit, and also change the way work gets done. Then we will be sure to reduce the amount of bullsh*t in our jobs.
Christoph Hardt is co-founder and Managing Director of COMATCH, www.comatch.com, based in Berlin, Germany. He tweets at @ComatchChris.
This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of HR Future magazine.