David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs is loaded with real-life job stories that meet his definition of “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” One of those stories rang a bell: turns out that “Eric” and I had the same job. The details are different, but our experiences involved the same issues of social capital and upward mobility.
Eric grew up in a working class neighborhood, left to attend a major British university, graduated with a history major, landed in a Big 4 accounting firm training program, and took a corporate position that looked like an express elevator to the executive suite. But then the job turned out to be… well, nothing. No one would tell him what to do. He showed up day after day in his new business clothes and tried to look busy while trying in vain to solve the mystery of why he had nothing to do. He tried to quit a couple times, only to be rewarded with raises, and the money was hard to pass up. Frustration gave way to boredom, boredom to depression, and depression to deception. Soon he and his mates at the pub back home hatched a plan to use his generous expense account to travel. gamble, and drink.
In time, Eric learned that his position was the result of a political standoff: one of the higher-ups had the clout to fund a pet project that the responsible mid-level managers disagreed with, so they colluded to make sure it would never happen. Since Eric had been hired to coordinate internal communication on the project, keeping him in the dark was essential. Eventually he managed to quit, kick his gambling and drinking habits, and take a shot at the artistic career he had envisioned in college.
My story isn’t quite so… um, colorful… but the themes are similar. I also came from a strong “work with your hands” ethic and was in the first generation of my family to go to college, where I joined the children of lawyers, neurosurgeons, professors, diplomats, and other upper echelon white collar professionals from all 50 states and several foreign countries, At the first meeting of my freshmen advisory group, my new classmates talked about books, authors, and academic disciplines I’d never heard of. When I tackled my first class assignment, I had to look up 15 words in the first two pages. And on it went. Altogether, my college career was mostly an exercise in cluelessness. But I was smart and ambitious, and did better than I deserved.
Fast forward nine years, and that’s me again, this time signing on with a boutique corporate law firm as a newly minted MBA/JD. I got there by building a lot of personal human capital, but my steel thermos and metal lunch bucket upbringing was still so ingrained that a few weeks after getting hired I asked a senior associate why nobody ever took morning and afternoon coffee breaks. He looked puzzled, and finally said, “Well… we don’t really take breaks.” Or vacations, evenings, weekends, or holidays, as it turned out.
A couple years later I hired on with a Big 4 accounting firm as a corporate finance consultant. My first assignment was my Eric-equivalent job: I was assigned to a team of accountants tasked with creating a new chart of accounts for a multinational corporation and its subsidiaries. Never mind that the job had nothing to do with corporate finance…. Plus there were two other little problems: I didn’t know what a chart of accounts was, and at our first client meeting a key corporate manager announced that he thought the project was ridiculous and intended to oppose it. Undaunted, the other members of the consulting team got to work. Everybody seemed to know what to do, but nobody would tell me, and in the meantime our opponent in management gained a following.
As a result, I spent months away from home every week, trying to look busy. I piled up the frequent flyer miles and enjoyed the 5-star accommodations and meals, but fell into a deep depression .When I told the managing partner about it, he observed that, “Maybe this job isn’t a good fit for you.” He suggested I leave in two months, which happened to be when our consulting contract was due for a renewal. Looking back, I suspect my actual role on the team was “warm body.”
Graeber says that, at first blush, Eric’s story sounds like yet one more bright, idealistic liberal arts grad getting a real-world comeuppance:
“Eric was a young man form a working-class background.. fresh out of college and full of expectations, suddenly confronted with a jolting introduction to the “real world.”
“One could perhaps conclude that Eric’s problem was not just that he hadn’t been sufficiently prepared for the pointlessness of the modern workplace. He had passed through the old educational system … This led to false expectations and an initial shock of disillusionment that he could not overcome.”
Sounds like my story, too, but then Graeber takes his analysis in a different direction: “To a large degree,” he say, “this is really a story about social class.” Which brings us back to the issues of upward mobility and social capital we’ve been looking. We’ll talk more about those next time.
In the meantime, I can’t resist a Dogbert episode: