It might seem strange to be writing about underemployment, when the executive branch of the most militarised and powerful nation on Earth is, through its legions of official goons and flunkies, bureaucratically, permanently orphaning jailed small children and babies, just to prove their point, but I assure you it is a manifestation of the same phenomenon I am addressing here.
Having a large sector of a population engaged in work that doesn’t need to be done at all, or which does enormous harm, is a problem which nobody talks about, but one which has terrible consequences. It denudes those so engaged of their very humanity and the consequences of inhumanity are atrocities.
We have this problem because of a failure of ideas and imagination about how to run an economy and put people into gainful employment. If we don’t address this problem now, numerous unsuspected atrocities, some perhaps even worse than “tender age shelters”, will compound and cascade. We’re sitting on a giant time bomb.
Feudalism is alive and well, flourishing like a noxious weed, inside contemporary corporations and organisations that model themselves on top-down hierarchies. You know what practically every org chart looks like – it’s a pyramid, with a pinnacle at the top. This is the classical shape of a feudal society, with a CEO or founder, where the baron or lord would be, layers of middle management, in place of vassals and courtiers and masses of ordinary workers and servants, where the serfs would be. It’s a medieval structure.
The rules and constraints bear striking similarity to feudal systems of governance. You must know your place, or risk the capricious punishment meted out by those above you, in the hierarchy. Compliance, conformance and obedience are valued over autonomy, initiative and individuality. Collaboration is undermined by the competition that hierarchies foster, as each person within the structure tries to climb up to the next level in the organisation, by any means necessary. Lower orders do not reap the full benefit of the value they create through their efforts, as it must be paid, in tribute, to those designated as their superiors.
Within such hierarchies, jobs are created for no other reason than to enhance the status and standing of some middle manager, whether or not there is any real work for them to do. Taskmasters surveil, cajole and discipline the employees, assigning work assignments and supervising people that actually need no supervision. Scams and games are played in order to siphon off funds and resources from the centralised treasury, using people’s working lives as mere pawns. There are box-tickers and duct-tapers, whose only function is to give the appearance of compliance, or to avoid doing the hard work of actually addressing and correcting systemic, organisational dysfunction.
All of these jobs create no value whatsoever and very often destroy it. If these jobs didn’t exist, nobody would miss them. Even the people that hold these useless jobs are often acutely aware of the purposeless of their occupation. That knowledge is corrosive to their spiritual, physical and mental health.
Managerial feudalism ensures that thousands of hours of creative effort will literally come to nothing. PowerPoint decks and reports will be prepared, replete with impressive graphics, animations and charts, pitching proposals to people that will never green-light these projects. Scripts and treatments will be written and rewritten, for shows that will never be made. Drawings, plans, business proposals, risk analyses and strategy documents will be laboured over, to tight deadlines, for products that will never be manufactured. Millions of status reports, Gantt charts, burn down and velocity graphs and task backlogs will be regularly revised and redistributed, sent to people that won’t read or believe them. Filed documents will be recategorised and then filed differently, with refreshed indices. Literally billions of words will be carefully chosen and written, which nobody else will read. More unsuccessful grant applications will be written than meaningful research papers.
If your job involves any aspect of these different species of “Development Hell”, you may, at some point, come to realise your working life has consisted almost entirely of making rejected plans for things you haven’t made. Had you, instead, spent that time and effort making the thing you were proposing, it would at least exist and would stand or fall on its own qualities and utility. You would also have learned a lot more about your craft.
You may also come to realise that many, if not most of the people that said “no” to your proposals had no other job function than to look like they could tell a good proposal from a bad one. In the absence of them actually bringing any similar thing to fruition, absolutely nothing qualifies them to be able to tell, legitimately, which proposals were the good ones. They lack the applicable skills to know. Their job was as pointless as yours.
To quote David Graeber, author of the book “Bullshit Jobs” (which I highly recommend), “we now have a world of funding proposals, strategic vision documents, and development team pitches—allowing for the endless elaborations of new and ever more pointless levels of managerial hierarchy, staffed by men and women with elaborate titles, fluent in corporate jargon, but who either have no firsthand experience of what it’s like to actually do the work they are supposed to be managing, or who have done everything in their power to forget it.”
Anybody that has ever worked in a contemporary organisation will have observed, first-hand, that there is a whole stratum of employees that spend all of their time and energy looking out for number one. Getting ahead in your career, by gaming the dysfunction evident (to some degree) in every organisation, has become their primary occupation. Clearly, their contribution to the shared mission of the organisation is not net-positive and quite often markedly negative, but they’ve learned not to care. From their perspective, the sole purpose of the enterprise is to provide them with the means of obtaining a good living. This phenomenon, often overlooked in the literature on underemployment, is the reason so many service organisations only pay lip service to the primacy of the customer. No doubt, you must have encountered organisations totally disinterested in serving your needs, on an almost daily basis. It’s not rare.
Again, if you have any experience with getting budgets approved, in a modern corporation, you’ll know there are tortuous, Byzantine approval chains that you must conquer, as if on a quest to find the Holy Grail, before you can spend the necessary few hundred bucks your proposal requires. Elaborate approval chains were never about minimising risk – they were always more about avoiding responsibility for potential failures and boosting the feudal status of the approvers, who are busy siphoning off the funding, before it gets near anybody that will actually create something valuable with the funds. These gatekeepers, while appearing to serve a necessary function, are in fact just a species of box ticker.
When you stop to consider the scale of the accumulated human effort that goes into producing nothing worth having at all, it’s staggering. If you’re employed in one of these bullshit jobs, what a waste of your talent and your one short, precious life!
I come from a decidedly working class background. The culture of working people is that they value highly their ability to make, mend and do. I crave personal agency and utility. We never feel content unless we’re creating something, building it or maintaining it. These are our ingrained values. Even (or especially) when we have leisure time, we feel an itch to get on with doing something useful and are seldom happier than at the workbench.
Unlike my parents and grandparents, I went to university and became a professional engineer, imagining that this would be like making things with my own two hands, only much better, because of the scale and scope of the creations that degree education equips you to tackle. The trouble is that this inevitably leads you toward engineering management, if you want to do anything big and complex. This can be a very slippery slope – away from actually making things and toward being a mere taskmaster, duct taper or box ticker.
You can find yourself allocating work to people quite capable of initiative, who could easily identify and execute the tasks themselves. You may be required to fight fires constantly, reacting to a constant stream of crises, instead of addressing root causes. Papering over the cracks in broken organisations can feel absolutely Sisyphean. Preparing endless revisions of weekly status reports, to appease upper management that don’t trust the people they’ve hired to do the work, is also very unsatisfying, particularly when you know the manager is only demanding those reports so that they appear to be doing something. Even though there is value in coordinating collaborative efforts and orchestrating a grand result, management can easily become a trap.
My antidote to the insanity and frustration of enforced taskmastering, duct taping and box ticking was to paint, make music and write. Art, for me, was a way to get back to making imaginative things, instead of fighting for budget approvals and navigating office politics. It was and is my salvation.
Engineering management evolved into product management, for me, because I was very interested in making better things than those that currently exist and in the processes of innovation. I love applying imagination to problems and designing delightful solutions to them. This is genuinely work I love to do. However, nothing feels as utterly pointless or futile as endlessly debating about how to do the work we’ll never do, as a company. As the designated Product Manager, you frequently find yourself being the meat in the sandwich of such internal, philosophical disagreements. Identifying what kinds of products people want and would value can be very exciting, because they represent opportunities to make lives better, but never making those products is soul-crushing.
Spending your working life not actually creating the things you’re charged with delivering, because you’re supposed to leave that work to other people, is corrosive. It undermines your confidence in your ability to construct things. For example, even though I have modified and maintained large, commercial code bases, comprising literally millions of lines of code, I have a self-imposed blind spot about knowing how to start a brand new code base. I know what to do, intellectually, but because I’ve seen the weeds and spaghetti that large, old, software projects can become choked with, its daunting.
You don’t want to make an innocent error in the initial code architecture that comes back to bite you hard later and this fear can be enough to cause paralysis. I don’t start for fear of embedding a fatal flaw, in sheer ignorance of the right way to go about it. As with most things, you only get good at making software by messing up and learning from your mistakes, but I’ve seen too much extreme pain and peril, in companies only a few years old, that resulted from those early mistakes.
Bad software decisions tend to hang around for a very long time and get harder to correct, the older they are. This is because everything else gets built on top of these shaky foundations. You risk bringing the whole house down, if you try to tamper with the footings. Not being hands-on makes you doubt your ability to make sound initial technical judgements (even though you’re probably fine). You feel like you’ve been too removed for too long. It’s a pure phobia.
Since taking refuge in art, I’ve learnt that even independent artists spend much of their time marketing and selling, rather than making their art. It seems like the economic system we operate within tends to bullshitise even the purest of creative endeavours. You wind up spending most of your time doing pointless, purposeless, diversionary activities, in the hope of making a living. It’s not enough to do the actual creative work and offer it. No, you have to compete and promote, steal attention and beg for people to buy it, with money that is kept needlessly scarce, due to an arbitrary decision to issue all new money as private or socialised debt, at compounded interest. Things could be very different.
Why do we tolerate this bullshit? I think the answer is that the world has been thoroughly financialised. Everybody is simply following the money, because there is no money elsewhere. As a consequence of ubiquitous, saturation financialisation, you have to pay for the very right to live. Given that backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that people will do almost anything to pay their bills, including doing work they know doesn’t need to be done, instead of doing the work they love.
Here is economist and commentator (and disco musician) Umair Haque’s assessment of the situation in America, though it applies equally well to other countries:
“Obviously, predatory capitalism is one system which has produced cowardice in Americans. But so have patriarchy and supremacy. These three great systems, intersecting, have created a traumatized people. People who, constantly living at the edge of life and death, one missed paycheck away from disaster, have no real psychological or developmental choice but to end up “cowards” — a moral way to describe a deeply damaged personality. People trapped in titanic hierarchies of vast inequality, who are always hoping to climb upwards, by pulling everyone else down. People who have come to believe that all that is the only way to order and organize human society.”
We seem to be hopelessly bound by our moral attitudes toward work and working for a living. These morals were indoctrinated by people who benefited from our unquestioning belief in working to live (and, coincidentally, from our co-opted labour, which enabled them to live comfortably, without having to work at all). We’ve been duped. David Graeber explains:
“There seems a broad consensus not so much even that work is good but that not working is very bad; that anyone who is not slaving away harder than he’d like at something he doesn’t especially enjoy is a bad person, a scrounger, a skiver, a contemptible parasite unworthy of sympathy or public relief.”
That’s why people hate immigrants who, like Schrödinger‘s cat, are both lazy parasites that infest the nation, but simultaneously take away all the jobs that “rightfully” belong to the people that have lived here only a generation or two longer. In working harder and longer, doing work that nobody enjoys, out of sheer desperation, immigrants thereby imply that everybody else is, by comparison, a bad person. They make so-called native inhabitants feel like relative scroungers, skivers, contemptible parasites and unworthy of sympathy or public support. It’s a paradox. Instead of admiring the hard work of immigrants, doing the least pleasant work, they’re despised because they suffer more intensely than non-immigrants. This prejudice and inverted logic is all because of our arbitrary and implanted belief in the sanctity and holiness of hair-shirted stoicism, in our working lives.
And yet, it almost doesn’t matter how many new skills you acquire or to what level of proficiency you develop them, if there are no jobs or paying opportunities that use them. The need to pay to live drives you into whatever bullshit jobs there are. This is why we wind up not doing the work we love. Not only would we feel like bad people, for enjoying what we do, but our society positively discourages enjoyment of work, by paying derisory, penalty wages for it, because why should you be paid to have fun, while everybody else must suffer? The possibility that everybody could do what they love and be paid a living wage for doing it, is never entertained as a possibility – only because of our twisted, self-contradictory morality about work.
We never acknowledge that the richest in society, while often bone-idle and living lives of pure opulence, don’t feel like bad people for not toiling unpleasantly. Some do, but they typically make far more unearned income, from interest payments and rent, than they do from what they produce and they’re seemingly ok about it. On the other hand, they seldom engage in meaningful, purposeful work that they love to do either, even though they have ample wherewithal to do so. They’re also denied the joy of doing what they love.
We’ve been taught to define our identities around what we consume, but what if we, instead, defined ourselves by what we produced? Further, what if the measure of our production was not our productivity, but how much we cared about other people, whenever we produced something, and how much we cared about what we made and the resources we made it with? It’s an intriguing thought. Consumption need not be a badge of honour. Productivity need not be the gold standard for goodness, when we make things. Other quality standards and metrics are possible.
Here’s a therapeutic, motivating, but challenging activity you might like to try. List all the things you wanted to make, or wish you had made, but never made. Then, ask yourself why you haven’t made them. Life is short. It would be tragic to check out before you’ve done the work you would dearly love to do. Do the work you love.
If you could live comfortably doing the work you love, would anybody be jailing babies at the border? Who’d take those jobs? By eliminating the unnecessary jobs, estimated to be at least 50% of all jobs, there would be a better than 100% improvement in creating worthwhile goods and services as a direct consequence. Why would you even worry about immigrants, if your community invested in you and gave you the means to do the work you love? Those immigrants you think take opportunities away from you, steal, run drugs and engage in urban violence, would be doing the same as you are – doing the work they love instead.
All of this is within our means today. There is ample money sloshing around at the top, desperately seeking a return, but its terribly unevenly distributed. Those that hold all the wealth lack the wisdom or imagination to do anything better with it than hoard it, use it to vainly signify their power and importance, or blast it into space (quite literally). With a bit of creative redistribution, we could all be living happier, saner, more purposeful, meaningful lives. Even billionaires are, at heart, unhappy. We just need to decide to do it.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with a very simple question: How could the world be worse if everybody simply did the work they love to do?