Bring back boredom, alleviate bullshit!
I’m writing to you from a state many of us have trudged through this year.
Endless work calls, blue light glazing over our eyes, slaves to our screens like zombies. Afternoons in a completely liminal existence, between the beeps of emails and instant messages. The intangible nature of it all, with the days ploughing away (or crawling sluggishly as mine seem to do). Seemingly meaningless tasks that take forever, everything moving at a snail’s pace… I’m talking, of course, about working from home. And, more specifically, in a bullshit job.
This Covid Rant is an exploration of David Graeber’s phenomenon of ‘Bullshit Jobs’; a thesis I found fascinating - until I was employed into the system it described. Now, it provides me a manual for understanding my _‘_work’ and why it impacts my soul in the way it has. The pandemic has illuminated the realities Graeber outlined: ‘work’ has been taken out of its office and its function in society has, compared to that of key workers, been exposed as miniscule. This is a rant, about my own bullshit job, an ode to Graeber (who died last year) and a call to end this type of _‘_work’ for good.
Graeber argued in his 2018 book that a large chunk of our society engage in bullshit work - work that is knowingly meaningless and offers little benefit to society. This theory, starting as a drunken dinner party anecdote (as do most great things) found the function of the modern workplace to be a scam.
Graeber questioned the increase in efficiency in Western societies from the 1970s, which has paralleled a puzzling increase in hours worked. Whilst this kind of efficiency should - in theory - give way to fifteen-hour work weeks, Graeber found that jobs were instead created “that were, effectively, pointless.”. Large sections of the population now “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” Graeber coined this “managerial feudalism”, no different to the final years of the USSR when, the joke goes, it took five Soviet tellers to sell a single piece of meat. Now this army of bullshitters take the form of paper pushers working 50 hour weeks when, in reality, the real work takes just fifteen hours because “the rest of their time is spent organising or attending motivational seminars, updating their Facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets”.
When we think about the roles of leadership consultants, brand managers, marketing researchers, corporate lawyers, lobbyists, strategic deans or vice presidents for creative development… What do these people actually do? What do their roles achieve? And would they be able to tell you if you pushed them? Without buzzwords or convoluted language, that is?
A significant foundation of this economy of bullshit, Graeber argued, was that people realised that their jobs were meaningless - “37-40% according to surveys”. As a result people are estranged from their own pursuits as their personal interests stagnate. They know that both they and society are merely pretending that their work is purposeful. Unsurprisingly, this has deep psychological impacts.
This is a theory tested after talking to anyone who works such a job, lubricated after just a couple of drinks; they’ll tell you they know their work is meaningless. “I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit,” Graeber recalls. Recruitment consultants; social media managers and brand ambassadors: I’m looking at you.
Here’s this ballooning bullshit jobs economy, peppered with PR, social media execs, administrators plugging information into spreadsheets, attending endless wellbeing seminars and spending hours a day ticking boxes to make online systems happy. And then the pandemic hits.
One of Graeber’s tests for a bullshit job was asking what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? As unlikely as it was, this became realised in real time. Lockdowns forced us to admit that it is the supermarket workers, carers, delivery drivers, couriers, nurses and cleaners who keep our society functioning, and not the “private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants”. Even the new language of work mirrors society’s realisation of this: they are ‘essential’ and ‘key workers’ versus the rest.
This came with the crystal clear realisation to those in power, that the latter is paid and respected far more than the former. Without the silver tower of the office, the value-added by late capitalism to this type of work was realised for what it really was: symbolic.
Graeber understood the damage of bullshit jobs on a “moral and spiritual” level as “a scar across our collective soul”. Knowing, secretly, that one’s job is meaningless, alienates the deepest parts of what it means to be human. As famously noted by Viktor E Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, we have a psychological need for purpose and, without it, we suffer gross mental health crises.
So in the pandemic, when the space of bullshit was brought home, the spatial dynamics of work changed for many.
Leaving the office, on the one hand gave people space and time to explore other pastures. From banana-bread-making (cliché, but true) to creative pursuits, many have been able to spend time (on the office clock or not) to recalibrate their lives. Without commutes and Pret sandwiches in the cafeteria, this time outside of the corporate world has given way for people to see things differently. Graeber notes that crises tend to “reveal unacknowledged truths”. Universal wisdom tells us we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. Conversely, during the pandemic, many found out what they didn’t miss - their work and the synthetic office environment.
On the other hand, for many, the relief from the office did not “create space” outside work, but compacted their ‘work’ into all parts of their life. No longer having spatial separation compiled with the increasingly complicated bureaucratic processes precipitated by working remotely. A European-wide study found those WFH have reported to be “logging on” for on average two more hours during lockdown. It’s hard to imagine that happening, without a corresponding pay rise, if those same workers were slugging away until 8pm every day at the office.
Moreover, whilst many took the unregulated WFH environment to engage in unlimited flexibility (just doing their fifteen hours), others started to get monitored by a new type of cyber-management in the form of Office spyware. One such service is dystopian-ly named ‘Staffcop’. The company gaze now exists not to check that you’re at work, but rather to provide second-by-second data on documents and spreadsheets and emails - not necessarily outputs. These devices indicate the meaningless of the work being monitored, as the targets for monitoring seem to have more importance than the actual work itself.
Dettol perfectly summed up our realisations about the modern office, with their list of reasons to go back to it in August 2020. The best they could muster included: “taking a lift”, “watercooler conversations” “plastic plants”, “those weird carpets” and “hearing buzzwords”. The ironic humor surrounding its reception, showed that most people understand the bullshit that surrounds their work - there was no way Dettol’s advertising executives could prove otherwise.
Boring but Not Bored
For many of us, working from home during the pandemic has exacerbated our feelings of boredom. This was summed up in a recent tweet that went viral: “another day of staring at the big screen while scrolling through my little screen so as to reward myself for staring at the medium screen all week”. I think it touched a deep part of many of our routines.
Mark Fisher, author of Capitalist Realism, articulated this relationship to cyberspace: “no one is bored, but everything is boring”. I can’t help but feel my psychological state being exposed by his words:
“Perhaps the feeling most characteristic of our current moment is a mixture of boredom and compulsion. Even though we recognise that they are boring, we nevertheless feel compelled to do yet another Facebook quiz, to read yet another Buzzfeed list, to click on some celebrity gossip about someone we don’t even remotely care about. We endlessly move among the boring, but our nervous systems are so overstimulated that we never have the luxury of feeling bored. No one is bored, everything is boring.”
Constant scrolling between social media and emails, instant work messages and Zoom calls at home, creates two compelling drips of overstimulation. Work becomes one notification out of many. This creates an often dizzying state with no binary between one “task” and another. As Fisher put it, “in the 24/7 environment of capitalist cyberspace, the brain is no longer allowed any time to idle; instead, it is inundated with a seamless flow of low-level stimulus.” The continuous menial tasks that bullshit jobs create: instant chats, excessive internal communications, form-filling and checking online information, embody the flow of low-level stimuli. Before, there were some boundaries. But now, everything exists in our homes.
There has been no void in lockdown that hasn’t been accompanied by a social media stream, email or YouTube distraction. We spend our days moving from one screen to another. In the first lockdown for example, the UK were watching on average 6 hours of TV a day. Fisher writes about a nostalgia for boredom 1.0:
”[…]the night hours after television stopped broadcasting, even the endless dragging minutes waiting in queues or for public transport for anyone now connected to the endless stream this empty time has now been effectively eliminated.”
Bullshit jobs do not just feature in these loops of stimulation - they create them. The people doing bullshit jobs are working between these hours of boredom and compulsion; their jobs create similar distractions in the first place. The PR executives, administrators, social media managers… We’re all in a cycle of constant information overload.
Psychologists are pointing to a new fatigue: ‘working from home burnout’. My hunch is that WFH has simply sparked a realisation, as the endless pursuit of unfulfilling tasks (and awareness of this fact) that already characterised people’s work hours now comes from inside people’s homes. Rather than call it burnout, it could be described as a new form of alienation, similar to Karl Marx’s depiction of factory workers on the assembly line. Repetitive actions by workers, carrying out simple tasks again and again. Now, we are alienated from the same production line that exists through spreadsheets, emails and endless logging of information which has infiltrated our bedrooms, kitchens and studies.
We’re never fully away from work just as we’re never away from our phones. Using similar systems for work and for hobbies, leisure and friendships, binds us to an ever-present sense of duty and stress. There are always tasks to be done, people to text, apps to check, feeds to update, emails to send, etc.. We can never truthfully claim to have genuinely missed a phone call, an invitation or an update, because we know, and everyone around us knows, that we always have access to our devices. We’re never offline, we’re never alone, we’re never free from the pressure of the virtual world. And these pressures can’t be alleviated simply by turning your phone off at 9pm each night, or going on a meditation retreat. The reality is that life off-grid would colossally hinder our everyday lives.
We’re in a time of sweeping change. Graeber’s last piece of work was published after his death. In it, he stated that after the pandemic’s rupture, “we cannot go back to sleep”. He reminds us that in the 2008 financial crisis, after a window of time spent questioning the legitimacy of “the financial sector” and the scam that was sold to the masses, we fell for the false promise of “getting back to work”. The individual took the burden, rather than the system changing for the better.
If there is anything that we can learn from this moment in our world is that, in our endlessly complex societies, we are fragile beings who are reliant on the care and work of others. We have realised during this time that those workers fulfilling those needs are underpaid and undervalued. This re-calibration that brought to light the mechanics of how society really works; that we can exist without PR managers but not bin men must be a humbling antidote to the bullshit that sustains our culture. And that a world with a four-day work week is entirely possible.
However, we are already seeing a nauseating sleeping of the alarm. In spring 2021, nurses were offered an extra £3.50 a week, whilst Trident nuclear weapons spending was increased by 40%. When the world shut down, the workforce was cut back to basics. The pandemic brought about a situation that may never otherwise have occurred: Western governments and workforces were forced to publically distinguish between crucial and non-crucial jobs. We were forced to shed our naivety and recognise the army of people with jobs that are not bullshit: supermarket workers, delivery drivers, nurses and factory workers.
We have been granted a new perspective, it must not be for nothing. I know when I end my bullshit job, I will never take for granted the work of those who actually ‘do’. We need to stay awake. Cut out the bullshit and embrace boredom.
Thank you to this anonymous worker for a potentially worldview-changing article and posthumous respects to David Graeber. Is your job bullshit? Get in touch with your thoughts - email@example.com.
David Graeber, ‘Bullshit Jobs. A Rant’, Strike Magazine (August, 2013)
David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: the rise of pointless work, and what we can do about it (2019)
David Graeber, ‘After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep’, Jacobin (March, 2021)
Hilary Osbourne, ‘Home workers putting in more hours since Covid, research shows’, The Guardian (February, 2021)
Mark Fisher, ‘No One is Bored, Everything is Boring’, k-punk: The Collected and Unpublished Writings of Mark Fisher (2004 – 2016), Repeater Books (2018)
Alex Christian, ‘Bosses started spying on remote workers. Now they’re fighting back’, Wired (August, 2020)
Imogen Watson, ‘Dettol gets itself in a mess after commuters criticise ‘cringe’ back to office ad’, The Drum (September, 2020)