Dog-eared and Cracked

Bullshit Jobs

January 14, 2021 Jay and Phil Season 1 Episode 11
Dog-eared and Cracked
Bullshit Jobs
Show Notes Transcript

This time around it's Phil's pick and he goes with Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. Has Phil gone too far this time or will Jay appreciate Graeber's literary prose?  Listen in as Jay tries to pronounce Latin and Phil laments the false promise of an explanation of theological underpinnings. Don't let the fancy jargon fool you, there are more laughs than ever before, as Dog-eared and Cracked dissect the value of a bullshit job.

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JAY [00:00:04] There's a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? 


PHIL [00:00:27] Welcome to Dog-eared and Cracked. Our book this week is Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. 


PHIL [00:00:33] I'm Phil. 


JAY [00:00:34] And I'm Jay. 


PHIL [00:00:35] Each episode one of us picks a book and recommends it to the other. We've known each other a long time. We both love books. We have varying tastes. And so we toss a book out there and see what happens. Have an interesting discussion about it. I don't know what Jay thought of Bullshit Jobs, because we don't discuss the books ahead of time, although I will say that judging by the texts I got saying, "Did you actually manage to finish the book yet?" I have a little bit of an inkling of what he might have thought. 


JAY [00:01:05] I believe one of my texts was, "Have you even read this book?" 


PHIL [00:01:09] We'll get to that in a bit. So before we get to the book, Jay, why don't you tell us a bit about David Graeber, who actually died suddenly earlier this year, right? 


JAY [00:01:18] He did. He passed away in September. From the chronic pancreatitis. David Graeber, he was an American anthropologist. He was an anarchist activist, which -- I had to refresh my memory on what an anarchist actually stands for. He was primarily an academic and he wrote three popular books, Debt The First 5000 Years, The Utopia of Rules, and then, of course, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. He was also an associate professor of anthropology at Yale, and there he specialised in theories of value and social theory. And this idea of value plays a key role in the book, as he explores the idea of why some jobs pay more than others. He went on to then work at the University of London. He was an activist as well, and he led protests against the Third Summit of the Americas, the 2002 World Economic Forum, and David Graeber was also a leading figure in the Occupy Wall Street movement. 


PHIL [00:02:25] He's the guy who came up with the one percent in the 99 percent. Right? 


JAY [00:02:28] I don't know. Yeah, he did. 


PHIL [00:02:31] Before we get more into the book, can you kind of give us a summary of what it's about? 


JAY [00:02:35] Yeah, absolutely. The name of the book is self-explanatory, but I think it's key to understand that this book -- he's trying to take an academic study. So the premise of this book is that millions of people across the world are stuck and were stuck in meaningless, unnecessary jobs. And it takes a toll on on spiritual health, namely because these people know that their job is pointless. So he'll go on to describe jobs held by clerical workers, administrators, consultants, telemarketers and corporate lawyers. And he describes them as jobs that if they no longer existed, no one would miss them. He's got a category of pointless jobs and he's organised them into five types. 


[00:03:14] There are the flunkies, and their sole purpose is to make their superiors feel important. An example would be administrative assistant. The second is goons. And these are your lobbyists, your corporate lawyers, your telemarketers. And of course, there's the duct taper, is the third category. These are employees who temporarily fix problems that should have been fixed permanently, for example, airline desk staff who calm passengers when their bags don't arrive. Number four is the box tickers, those who create the appearance that something is useful is being done, when it's not. An example might be a corporate compliance officer. And finally there are the taskmasters who manage or create extra work. Those would be your middle management or your leadership professionals. So, Phil, was there any specific reason why you wanted me to read this? 


PHIL [00:04:03] Well, a couple of reasons. I did kind of break one of the unspoken rules of our podcast, which is that the person recommending the book has read it before. And in this case, I hadn't actually read Bullshit Jobs, but it was -- I had been meaning to read for a while. I think I wanted you to read it because I had never read anything by Graeber before. And I also remember when Graeber on Twitter actually asked this question about bullshit jobs that started the whole thing. So I thought he was an interesting character. He seemed like someone with a lively kind of mind. Also, you know, you and I have different kind of career backgrounds. Like I've only spent a couple of years actually working sort of full-time at an organisation. And most of the rest of the time I freelanced -- and I thought that might give us different perspectives on this also. 


JAY [00:04:55] You're right. I spent a lot of time in the corporate world and I was looking forward to reading this book because of the premise. I'll leave it at that. 


PHIL [00:05:05] Well, why don't we start with, I mean, the basic, the basic premise that, you know, he says that something like, you know, 40 percent of people consider that their jobs are useless at best or harmful at worst. I mean, is that an assertion that surprised you or is it one you would question? 


JAY [00:05:27] I had a difficulty with with that premise because that's a starting point. And then he goes on to base an entire book on anecdotes. If you send out a survey to people, I feel most people will actually answer that they're not happy with their jobs -- and I don't know how to describe it, but I would say that it's not necessarily because they're unhappy. It's just they want more from their jobs. And so I think what's happened is this created a bit of distortion in the anecdotes that get sent in. If I could just speak a little bit to this, that's the basis for this book, which is this research, and its research is based on people's comments. And of course, he sent it out after the article went out in Strike magazine. 


PHIL [00:06:17] Let me just back up for a second and say before the book, he wrote an article called On Bullshit Jobs. Right? 


JAY [00:06:23] Right. That article went viral, or at least the comments about it, and I'm not surprised by that because that kind of question, it's a great conversation starter. It's a great subject at cocktail parties. Right? But the responses he got in were basically from very unhappy people. And then some of them are really questionable. There's -- I noticed several anecdotes where the respondent said that either, he's either constantly gone from one pointless job to yet another unenjoyable job. One of them even quit to play guitar for a living and sleep in a van. So how do you base a quasi research novel about corporate productivity on the testimony of slackers? 


PHIL [00:07:05] Well, I think I think he would argue that the guy was so burnt out from his bullshit job that that was that was all he could do after. 


JAY [00:07:15] Yeah. Yeah, I. OK, sure. We'll go with that. Were you surprised by that idea that 40 percent of people with jobs consider them useless? 


PHIL [00:07:26] There does seem to be a culture of -- in some places anyway -- of, it's somehow almost unseemly to actually like your job. 


JAY [00:07:35] Yeah,. 


PHIL [00:07:35] It's possible that that breeds a culture of feeling like your job is is meaningless. Right? When I was a marketing manager, which I think would probably qualify on Graeber's list of what constitutes a bullshit job. I was a marketing manager for documentaries. A lot of my job was box ticking. You know, I would write a marketing plan and we all kind of knew that there was no way I'd be able to fulfil everything on the marketing plan because we didn't have we didn't have the staffing resources or the money. And then I would like, spin whatever we'd actually done to make it sound good and like we'd fulfilled most of the requirements of the marketing plan. But I think a lot of that kind of like, my job is meaningless, is imbued in a lot of our culture. 


JAY [00:08:20] But one thing I've noticed in this book. One thing I found really frustrating, spoiler alert, is that it's one perspective. It's like he refuses to see all the elements, the other side of it so that he can make his argument. I've held many jobs over the years and a lot of them weren't fulfilling at all. They're completely unfulfilling. Did they serve a purpose? Yes. Did they have a direct impact on the fortunes of the company? No, not at all. Could those jobs have been entirely eliminated, yes or no? Some aspects of that job might have been absorbed in someone else's job. I was moving jobs one day, and -- I was working for an insurance company, and I was moving jobs to a different department. So during a week of transition, I took my time cleaning up my old office. I had a huge recycling bin in the in the office and I just found myself throwing out report after report into that bin. And I realise that the CFO had likely never read any of these reports he had requested. I realised I had heard nothing back on all of them. So my first instinct was, what a waste. But now that I think about it, after thinking about this through this book as well, I realised it was actually good training because it forced me to develop an understanding of an industry that would have been just cursory otherwise. I really began to think about this idea of value and how different is that than, say, those papers you used to write in high school and university? Did the world really need another analysis of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe? Or another book report on A Tale of Two Cities? Graeber's own thesis, "The disastrous ordeal of 1987: memory and violence in rural Madagascar" -- has anyone other than his prof and maybe a couple of academics read this? So how how much value was that? 


PHIL [00:10:18] Well, he does say at one point in the book, I am aware that many people would put anthropologist in the category of bullshit job. 


JAY [00:10:25] I found this book really difficult to read through. I just did. I struggled. I would get, I would I was measured by maybe 10 pages a day I could do. 


PHIL [00:10:36] I have a good friend, a close old friend, and a friend of his who I've met is a lawyer. And for a while, he worked for a law firm where my my friend said he literally had nothing to do most of the time, and so he actually wrote several novels while he was at work. And then eventually he got offered another job and he was kind of like hesitant, and he took the better paying job. And my friend said, but now he's really pissed off because he actually has to work. So I guess there's a plus side to bullshit jobs. 


JAY [00:11:13] I wish the whole argument or his whole book had been more even-handed. In other words, he he kind of got comments from others to explain it. I mean, that would have actually made a really funny, possibly funny or at least a more interesting book -- where if he'd actually gone to some corporate managers, some corporate manager, and asked them for their perspective on this. He's sensationalist and his writing's rife with hyperbole. Let me, can I read you just one quick little paragraph? And this is what kind of put me off. 


PHIL [00:11:45] Please. Yeah.


JAY [00:11:46] "Let us end then with Rachel. To express the horror of a generation. She aspired to pursue a graduate degree. But with British university fees having tripled and financial assistance cut to the bone, she was forced to take a job as a catastrophe risk analysis for a big insurance company, to raise the requisite funds a year out of her life, she told herself. But hardly the end of the world." Like, it's this kind of thing where I'm thinking, OK, so Rachel took a job. She was forced, forced! to take a job. This is the horror of a generation! 


PHIL [00:12:25] Well, I think -- let's talk about students for a minute, because I did find that quite interesting, even when they don't really need a job, that there's some kind of expectation that it's good for students to have a job, even if it's completely meaningless. Like the guy who's working in the kind of canteen place that he says could be fully automated. Right?


JAY [00:12:43] What got, what really irked me about that story was where he was complaining that he was being criticised because he wasn't smiling or being happy at the cash. But here's the thing. He's playing a role. A customer -- if you went to the cash as a customer, you would kind of like the guy to feel like he was happy to be there. A little bit of a smile on his face, maybe. Thank you for your business. But the student was arguing that he shouldn't have to do that, that it was wrong, that he was being criticised for even that. Like, I don't I don't understand. Yes, it could have been automated and one day it will. And that job won't be available. Like, why is he complaining that he has to work? 


PHIL [00:13:22] I remember feeling like, OK, if I have certain goals I need to meet or like some report I have to do or some plan, why can't I just go home when it's done? Like, why does it really matter where I am or how long I'm spending on doing it? You know what I mean? 


JAY [00:13:40] You know, he used his own example of being a dishwasher as a kid, even that -- I mean, I don't want to sound like an employer and I don't want to sound like a cranky business owner here, but if you've hired someone to do that work and they work hard, is what's the distinction between, I guess here's my point here: What's the distinction between when you're washing dishes, you're spending that time washing dishes. He's trying to basically equate that with a higher level of intensity and productivity than the other part of this shift. And that's that's a little hard to to believe, like if he'd worked additional hours and then still expected to be coming in at eight a.m. the next day, that I kind of understand. But why is it, why is intensity now part of this as well? In the sense that he feels that he worked, he worked really hard during the time that he was washing dishes and he presumably did. But why does that let him off the hook from working at all the rest of the eight hour shift? 


PHIL [00:14:39] I had a job when I was in university at a magazine store, and I had a manager who was one of those like -- I mean, he was the manager of like a branch of a magazine store in a chain, right? So -- but he was one of those guys who, like, took everything very seriously. Like he would, he would come by at night at times when he wasn't working to, like, peer in the window. He told us, of course, we had to be polite and all that. And he said, you're not allowed to read the magazines. Like, of course, most people who get a job, got a job in a magazine store -- it's because they liked magazines. Even if everything is fine and there's nothing to do, you can't read the magazines. And then we got another manager because the first guy got promoted...


JAY [00:15:19] Of course.


PHIL [00:15:20] And he was like, OK, look, here's the deal. Don't steal from me. Keep the store clean, be polite to the customers. Otherwise do whatever you want. And he goes, Oh, and there are secret shoppers. Here's how to recognise them. Make sure you're really polite to them. Like we were happy to work for the second guy, right? I would go the extra mile for the second guy. 


JAY [00:15:55] Here's something else that I kind of found interesting, I was trying to understand it, this idea that finance, for example, is useless and adds no value to the world and corporate law as well. Right, corporate law. I agree, though, the basis for that, for corporate law in particular is distrust. And it's this fear of being taken advantage of. And it's perpetuated by the fact that the other side will have a corporate lawyer as well. And you have to be prepared. What is the solution for this? In other words, do we just start trusting each other? Is that actually going to happen? I mean, even finance --so, what he keeps denigrating, the idea of of high level finance, and yet a lot of finance is actually important to the world we live in. I mean, I could go on into more details, but I'm trying to make the point that a lot of finance came about because of the complexity of the world, because we've gone beyond that feudal system he keeps going back to. He keeps making these comments about this feudal system being so great, which is completely contradictory to anything I've ever heard about the downtrodden peasant. What did you think of that? 


PHIL [00:17:11] I don't know if he says it's so great, but he says that it's not as bad as we as we think it is, that we work a lot harder than people in a feudal system in the Middle Ages worked, right? 


JAY [00:17:21] Yeah, I find that hard to believe. 


PHIL [00:17:23] I mean, I'm predisposed to believe it, but I don't know. But, but the whole thing with finance, like insurance companies, have been around for hundreds of years. Right? But our world has gotten far more financialized in the last few decades. Right? Clearly, you can offer insurance without having the high degree of financialization that we have now, right? 


JAY [00:17:45] That's right. Yeah, you can. So so, Phil, what do you think of this idea that, for example, corporate lawyers, he's very down on them. He's down on this idea that corporate lawyers are basically a waste of time, that their job is useless? He literally says that. And there's actually a funny quote there somewhere where he says, "I didn't get a lot of responses from corporate lawyers," but he manages to create an assumption about them anyway. What did you think about that? Is corporate law, is that role something where if it disappeared tomorrow, the world would be better off? 


PHIL [00:18:18] I think it's because he's disappointed that his musician friend became a corporate lawyer. 


JAY [00:18:22] Yeah. 


PHIL [00:18:22] I did wonder sometimes, when he would go on these rants, about how much he actually knew about this industry, right? Although when he wrote about screenwriting, which is something I do know something about, you know, he was fairly accurate in his, in his -- the person he quotes, he says that everybody wants to make some kind of little change and then, you know, and then at the end, they want to have their name on the film and be like, you know, I had such an important role in this film. You know, I think, ah, I think our relative enjoyment of this book, I think they come from different expectations. So, you know, Graeber is an academic, but I didn't come to this book hoping for an economic or an academic kind of analysis. I know I said to you in a text at one point that that he's a blowhard. So I saw this book more in the tradition of kind of like 19th century British pamphleteers, right? So my feeling was like Graeber has this kind of lively mind, I don't think he's going to be right about everything, but I think it's going to be just fun to follow along and see where he goes. So that was kind of my approach to this book. And for that reason, I enjoyed it. 


JAY [00:19:42] Right. See, that's just it. I didn't find it fun at all. Can I read something? And you can leave this in the quote or not -- or in the in the edit. 


PHIL [00:19:51] Go ahead. 


JAY [00:19:52] So here's a here's a sample chapter heading in the first couple of sentences. And this is what the read... And I'm reading this as a public service announcement just in case you want to pick up this book. Be forewarned, here's the chapter headingm or the section heading: "On the origins of the northern European notion of paid labour as necessary to the full formation of an adult human being." And if that doesn't grip you, then let's read on: "It's essential to emphasise the theological origins of this sort of thought. Most of the core assumptions of modern economics are originally traced back to theological arguments. For instance, St. Augustine's argument that we are cursed with infinite desires in a finite world, and thus naturally in a situation of competition with one another, which reappears in secular form in the 17th century, in Thomas Hobbes, has become the basis for the assumption that rational human action is largely a matter of economising the optimal allocation of scarce resources by rational actors in a competitive world."   


PHIL [00:20:57] Would you like to know my reaction when I got to that section? 


JAY [00:20:59] Yes. 


PHIL [00:21:00] As I was reading the book, I was thinking, "When is he going to get to the theological underpinnings of a lot of this?


JAY [00:21:12] Jesus Christ. You came to it from a different angle. I came to it from an angle going, oh, this is going to be a very -- this is going to be an academic treatment of an interesting concept. And he's going to have a lot of evidence, a lot of great stories, anecdotes. And it's that a lot of it is just him meandering around using words that have not been used for, like... How do you start? I understand -- every section started like a thesis! "On the origins." Like this is how he writes this thing. It's like, you know, oh, my God. Oh, here's another one: "Concerning the inverse relationship between the social value of work and the amount of money one is likely to be paid for it." Then he puts a quote that's in Latin! it's completely in Latin!. I like what, I don't know, 


PHIL [00:22:02] is it in the footnotes, though? 


JAY [00:22:04] No! 


PHIL [00:22:04] I mean, he doesn't give a translation in the footnotes? 


JAY [00:22:10] "Vertudum omnium partitium in ipsus est." It's page page 207 at the bottom. 


PHIL [00:22:16] Well once again I have it on my Kobo. 


JAY [00:22:20] Aw, geez. Well, just do a search on Epictetus. 


PHIL [00:22:24] Well how do we spell it?


JAY [00:22:26] Epic. Tetus. Epictetus is probably how to pronounce it. 


PHIL [00:22:29] All right. Before we wrap up, did you, was, were there just any anecdotes? Were there any anecdotes or stories of people in there and their bullshit jobs that you enjoyed or laughed at or entertained, you know? 


JAY [00:22:47] No, no, there weren't. I did kind of, you'd alluded that that might be something we'd discuss. So I did kind of go back to the book, didn't really find anything. But I will use this opportunity to ask you a question, because before you, you answer yourself. I need to, I need to just play this out for two seconds with you. So, if you have a receptionist and she's not sorry, she or he is not 100 percent busy. Are they, should they be able to read a paperback novel, for example? On their downtime?


PHIL [00:23:18] You think, you think not? 


JAY [00:23:20] I struggle with that conceptually and I'm trying to articulate why, I find that kind of a bad idea? 


PHIL [00:23:31] Well, I think it kind of goes to his point, which you may or may not agree with, of why social media has exploded because it's perfect for those situations! The receptionist can be sitting at the computer scrolling through Twitter, and no one will think twice about it, right? 


JAY [00:23:45] Yeah, agreed. 100 percent. Yeah, that's exactly what -- it's, and that's exactly what's happening. It's the equivalent of reading the paperback novel and it's just more accepted, socially accepted to do that. 


PHIL [00:23:55] Well, I guess we have come to the ratings part of our podcast 


JAY [00:24:01] Was there a particular anecdote that you really liked? 


PHIL [00:24:06]  I think my favourite was the guy who realised that, you know, he was working in a company that was a partnership among a couple of different branches, and he described -- he's in England, and he described them as hypercompetitive public schoolboys in their 40s. And his job was kind of like some kind of liaison between the two groups or something. But he realised that none of them actually cared about that to the point that they would bid on a job and turn up separately in the parking lot and realise, like two branches of the same organisation had bid on the same job. So the part of his story that entertained me was how he just went to more and more outrageous lengths of like going on three-day business trips that involved him, like taking MDMA and playing golf and not doing anything and hoping he would get fired. In fact, I think he's the guy who then winds up playing guitar for six months, isn't he? 


JAY [00:24:59] Yeah, yeah. So I think so. Actually, I like that story too, because Graeber actually does decently make the point about that -- others in that role might have used that social capital and done something more with it. 


PHIL [00:25:12]  Right. He could have used it as a step up the ladder, right? 


JAY [00:25:15] Yeah. Yeah. And I thought that was fair. I thought that was at least realistic. 


PHIL [00:25:20] All right. So we'll come to the the ratings part of our podcast, where we give the book a rating of one or lower to five, depending on what we thought of it. I would say, you know, in this case, you think David Graeber has a 100 percent bullshit job and five is "Occupy Wall Street"!


JAY [00:25:43] I'd rate our conversation today, absolutely, four out of five. This has been a really fun discussion, really fun topic. The book itself: I give it a one. I found it really difficult to get through. I absolutely found it horrendous. There are parts where I just ploughed through. I'm surprised it became a best seller. I really would like to do a survey myself and get people's opinion on actually how many chapters they read of this book, because it's a fun book to pick up. Right. It's got a little cool cover and the title itself is compelling. But I really question how many people got through 284 pages, and then there's like 37 pages of notes. 


PHIL [00:26:26] I read all the notes, you know. 


JAY [00:26:28] Yeah. Did you? I don't know where..I, I, I'm in awe Phil, because I, maybe I just, I don't know. I think what happened was I became really disillusioned early on so and I found that this topic was -- it's a great conversation starter. It's kind of a cocktail starter, and that's kind of where its true value starts and ends. And he's not funny! He takes himself way too seriously. I found it really hard to take his premises seriously, because his research is literally based on what people sent to him. He doesn't really go beyond that very often, if at all. It's funny because I don't disagree that aspects, you know, many roles that I've worked and that he describes are useless in positions to get eliminated. I understand that. So I'm not arguing his premise. I just found him very difficult to read. 


PHIL [00:27:26] Well, I would give the book. I think I'd give it a three and a half. I mean, I agree with you that it's not, it's not an academic study. The research is kind of shoddy. But I was just -- I felt like I was just kind of along for the ride. And unlike you, I was entertained. And and I think I'd be interested, too -- I mean, I think Graeber was one of the few academics who kind of has, he had a real I kind of fan following. So he's you know, he's, he was better known than a lot of other academics. I think there's probably like a kind of like Graeber bro contingent. So I see some of your criticisms for sure. Like I said, for me, it was just -- it was kind of like I'm willing to let this guy get into his rant about this thing. And I'm I'm happy to follow along. So I definitely enjoyed it. But I would stick with a three and a half. 


JAY [00:28:25] Yeah, that's fair.  I struggle because it's, it's, it comes off as an academic book, but it's, but the premise isn't -- there's no academic real... I don't find there was any real research. I'll use another example in this. Maybe make it more clear. It's kind of like if you send a survey out to people and ask them to send responses back in on their experience being abducted by aliens. And then write an entire book about this phenomenon of alien abduction. That's kind of how I felt about the book. 


PHIL [00:28:55] Well, next time we have your pick. The 50th Law 


JAY [00:29:06] The 50th law by Robert Greene 


PHIL [00:29:08] And? Robert Green and... 


JAY [00:29:10] Oh spoiler alert, 50 Cent. Interesting book. It's actually based on, it's an expansion of an article by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he had written a book on, or written a small article on something called self-reliance. And it's the concept that Robert Greene expands on. And he co-wrote this book with 50 Cent. And it's so it's a little bit about 50 Cent's life. And it's Robert Greene's expansion on kind of what it means to be self-reliant. And it's -- I thought it was a fantastic book. I'm already giving it a 5.5 right now. 


PHIL [00:29:49] My first thought was I hope 50 Cent is better at writing than he is at throwing opening -- than throwing ceremonial first pitches. But having read the synopsis of the book, I kind of wondered if you were trolling me. All right. See you next time. 


JAY [00:30:07] See you next time.