Eric and Kevin’s Most Excellent Career Adventures

thermos

 

lunch bucket

 

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:

Dilbert

Bullshit Jobs

 “Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.”

Oscar Wilde

Radio journalist Studs Terkel interviewed hundreds of people for his 1974 book Working. Here are a couple quotes from it:

“Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

“Most of us have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.”

Apparently not much has changed in the 43 years since Working came out. Consider this from The Power of Meaning, by Emily Esfahani Smith (2017):

“Today, about 70 percent of all employees either are ‘not engaged’ in their work–that is, they feel uninvolved, uncommitted, and unenthusiastic about it–or are ‘actively disengaged’ from it, and less than half of all workers feel satisfied with their jobs.”

Or consider anthropologist David Graeber’s widely circulated 2013 article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs:  A Work Rant:

“In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.”

“Virtually no one talks about it.” Why not? The Financial Times ran an article a couple months ago called Britain’s Joyless Jobs Market Can Be Bad For Your Health. (It’s here, but you’ll have to subscribe to read it.) It makes the same point as the following quote from the article published by the Lawyers Assistance Program of British Columbia which we looked at a few weeks ago:

“[I]t is unhealthy to do meaningless, unchallenging, uncreative work, especially for those that are intelligent and well trained.”

Seems like a pretty uncontroversial thing to say, but you can’t tell from the nastiness in the comments that follow the article — one more sad case of polarized opinions talking past each other and the loss of meaningful discourse. Not only can’t we talk about economics, but apparently we also can’t talk about how crummy jobs ruin our health.

Why has it become so inflammatory to suggest that boring, meaningless work might not be a good thing? Because of the widespread “truths” about work that have become culturally sacred. To many — maybe most — people, work represents a moral good, no matter how boring, trite, thoughtless, and demeaning.

no more workOne person who isn’t afraid to talk about it is Rutgers history professor James Livingston. He says the following in his book No More Work:  Why full employment is a bad idea (2016):

“Work means everything to us. For centuries–since, say, 1650[1]–we’ve believed that it builds character (punctuality, initiative, honesty, self-discipline, and so forth). We’ve also believed that the market in labor, where we go to find work, has been relatively efficient in allocating opportunities and incomes. And we’ve also believed that even if it sucks, the job gives meaning, purpose, and structure to our everyday lives–at any rate we’re pretty sure that it gets us out of bed, pays the bills, makes us feel responsible, and keeps us away from daytime TV.”

“Those beliefs are no longer plausible. In fact, they’ve become ridiculous, because there’s not enough work to go around, and what there is of it won’t pay the bills–unless, of course, you’ve landed a job as a drug dealer or a Wall Street banker, becoming a gangster either way.”

“[Work] no longer functions as either a moral calendar or an economic calculator. You will learn nothing about character by going to work at the minimum wage because the gangsters or the morons at corporate headquarters control your opportunities; you will learn nothing about the rationality of the market because the same people determine your income.”

More next time.

[1] 1650 is the year René Descartes died.

Whatever Happened to Working For a Living? (Cont’d.)

“Politically, every transformation has begun
with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age.”

– Economist Guy Standing

Last time, I quoted at length from economist Guy Standing’s analysis of how the notion of working for a living has historically fared under the social democracy and neoliberalism economic models. Prof. Standing believes that, as a result of the developments chronicled there, a new class system now dominates the working world. Again, I’ll quote from his book The Corruption of Capitalism (2016):

“Globalization, neo-liberal policies, institutional changes and the technological revolution have combined to generate a new global class structure superimposed on preceding class structures. This consists of a tiny plutocracy (perhaps 0.001 per cent) atop a bigger elite, a ‘salariat’ (in relatively secure salaried jobs, ‘proficians’ (freelance professionals), a core working class, a precariat and a ‘lumpen precariat’ at the bottom. The plutocracy, elite, salariat, and proficians enjoy not just higher incomes but gain most (or an increasing part) of their income from capital and rental income.

“The three classes below them gain nothing in rent. Indeed, increasingly they pay rent in some form to the classes above them. First, there is the shrinking proletariat, relying mainly on labour in stable, mostly full-time jobs, with schooling that matches the skills their jobs require. The precariat, which ranks below the proletariat in income, consists of millions of people obliged to accept a life of unstable labour and living, without an occupational identity or corporate narrative to give to their lives. Their employers come and go, or are expected to do so.

“Many in the precariat are over-qualified for the jobs they must accept; they also have a high ratio of unpaid ‘work’ in labour — looking and applying for jobs, training and retraining, queuing and form-filling, networking or just waiting around. They also rely mainly on money wages, which are often inadequate, volatile, and unpredictable. They lack access to rights-based state benefits and are losing civil, cultural, social, economic and political rights, making them supplicants if they need help to survive.

“This precariat is all over the world… For instance, more Americans today see themselves as in the lower classes. In 2000, according to Gallup polls, 63 percent saw themselves as middle-class and 33 percent as lower-class. In 2015, 51 percent saw themselves as middle-class and 48 percent as lower-class. Similar trends have been reported elsewhere.

“Below the precariat in the social spectrum is what might be called a ‘lumpen-precariat,’ an underclass of social victims relying on charity, often homeless and destitute, suffering from social illnesses including drug addiction and depression. … Their numbers are rising remorselessly; they are a badge of shame on society.”

Prof. Standing’s unique contribution to the conversation about work, happiness, and meaning is his identification of the new social strata. The balance of his analysis is not unique — as he says above, it has been reported “all over the world.” In the coming weeks, we’ll look at various implications of these findings:

  • The old job market’s last stand — “bullshit jobs”;
  • Whether the middle class is truly vanishing;
  • Whether a rising tide truly does float all boats;
  • Why this might be a good time for a new vision of utopia; and
  • Why law firms might want to make their next associate hire a robot.

And much more. Stay tuned.

Whatever Happened to Working For a Living?

“Politically, every transformation has begun
with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age.”

– Economist Guy Standing

Guy Standing is a research professor at the University of London and a prolific author and world-traveling speaker. In his book, The Corruption of Capitalism (2016), he analyzes how the concept of working for a living has fared under the two economic models we looked at last time (the Fabian Society’s social democratic model and the Mt. Pelerin Society’s free market). I can add little to his analysis by rephrasing it, therefore I’ll quote excerpts at length in this post and the next.

“The period from the nineteenth century to the 1970’s saw what Karl Polanyi, in his famous 1944 book, dubbed “The Great Transformation” — the construction of national market economies.

“[T]he model that underpinned the Great Transformation made “labour,” not all forms of work. Socialists, communists and social democrats all subscribed to ‘labourism.’ Those in full-time jobs obtained rising real wages, a growing array of ‘contributory’ non-wage benefits, and  entitlements to social security for themselves and their family. Those who did not fit this model were left behind.

“The essence of labourism was that labour rights — more correctly , entitlements — should be provided to those (mostly men) who performed labour and to their spouses and children. As workers previously had little security, this was a progressive step.

“Labourism promoted the view that the more labour people did, the more privileged they should be, and the less they did the less privileged they should be. The ultimate fetishism was Lenin’s dictate, enshrined in the Soviet constitution, that anybody who did not labour should not eat.

“The labourist model frayed in the 1980’s, as labour markets became more flexible and increasing numbers of people moved from job to job and in and out of employment.

“Labour and social democratic parties everywhere became ‘reactionary’ — reacting to events rather than forging the future — and regressive, allowing or even fostering inequality.

“Around 1980 saw the beginnings of a Global Transformation — the construction of a global market system. As with the Great Transformation, the initial phase may be called ‘dis-embedded’ because the emerging economic system rendered old forms of regulation, social protection and redistribution obsolete or ineffectual.

“Politically, every transformation has begun with a repudiation of the certainties of the previous age. This time the attack was on labour-based security, previously the objective of governments  or both left and right. Now it was seen as an impediment to growth. Once again, policy changes were dominated by financial capital. Intellectual justification came from the so-called ‘Chicago school’ of law and economics at the University of Chicago, whose leading lights went on to receive Nobel Prizes. Their agenda, honed in the Mont Pelerin Society set up by Friedrich Hayek and thirty-eight like-minded intellectuals in 1947, evolved into what is now called neo-liberalism.

“This meant the liberalization of markets, the commodification and privatization of everything that could be commodified and privatized and the systematic dismantling of all institutions of social solidarity that protected people from ‘market forces.’ Regulations were justifiable only if they promised economic growth; if not, they had to go.

“As a consequence of these developments, ‘in-work poverty’ has rocketed. In some OECD[i] countries, including Britain, the USA, Spain and Poland, a majority of those in poverty live in households where at least one person has a job. The mantra that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ is simply false.”

I.e., according to Prof Standing, historical and contemporary adherence to the Fabian and Mt. Pelerin ideals has skewed and will continue to skew the notion of working for a living in ways that are unsustainable in current economic reality.

Ironically, Lenin’s dictum  that “If any man does not work, neither let him eat” was first articulated two thousand years ago by none other than St. Paul. 2 Thessalonians 3:10. Thus the idea of “working for a living” has long persisted as a cornerstone belief in communist, socialist, and capitalist economic theory, giving it nearly universal sacred status. To question this ideal is truly to trample on hallowed ground.

More next time.

[i] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has 34 mainly industrialized countries as members.

The Lost Joy of Working (It’s Worse Than I Thought)

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.
Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to
answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

Albert Camus, An Absurd Reasoning (1955)

The last few posts had a lot in them about suicide. I really didn’t plan to write about suicide. I meant instead to talk about happiness and meaning in our work, particularly for lawyers and the legal profession — nice, safe topics. I mean, who can argue with enjoying our work?

Trouble is, as I did my research, suicide kept coming up, along with other topics I didn’t plan to write about. Some were predictable, like globalization, technology, and disruptive innovation. I’ve written about those before, although they came up in new ways that merit re-examination. But then a whole lot of uninvited, touchier subjects jumped onboard. such as income and wealth inequality, poverty and the welfare system, nationalism and immigration, and more.

Uh oh. If last year’s election taught me anything, it’s that public discourse has been largely displaced by what this Aeon Magazine article calls “moral grandstanding.” As a result, if you write something, it’s likely to be slapped with an assumption that you’re on mission to convert other people to a point of view. and thus the fight begins. I learned that the hard way when a Facebook “friend” pounced one of my shares, and before I knew it our other “friends” were cheering us on like students making a circle around us in the high school cafeteria after I accidentally stepped on his potato chips.

How about we don’t do that? At least not here.

I recently shared some of the economic research I’ve been doing in connection with these posts with a friend who’s a hedge fund manager. He immediately demanded that I define my terms. Whoa! I replied that I wasn’t pretending to be an economist, I’m just trying to figure out how the world of work is changing, and how that affects human beings. (If you’d like a book list of what I’ve been reading, you can check out my Goodreads page. Or email me.) Guess I won’t bring up economics again, I thought. And yet here I am, risking it in this column. Why?

joy of cookingMainly, because my research keeps linking all those touchy subjects to the safe ones I started with, and because all of them — controversial or not — seem to be symptomatic of a worldwide clash of social and economic narratives. And that interests me, very much. Work as a life-giving human activity has been an enduring passion of mine since college, when I cut a headline out of a magazine that was based on the iconic “The Joy of Cooking” cover, except it substituted “Working” for “Cooking.” I pasted it on a bookshelf I lugged around for decades until it got lost in a recent move.

The headline was lost, but not the interest. I plan to keep writing about The Joy of Working because I care about the human beings getting squeezed by the cultural and commercial shifts that are currently revolutionizing the world of work. I care that the legal profession is at Ground Zero for many of these developments, with its endemic high levels of career dissatisfaction and related loss of personal wellbeing. And I care because my research shows that things are worse than I thought:  feelings of a lack of meaning about our work aren’t just a complex and difficult social and economic phenomenon, they’re a plague that too often ends in self-inflicted death.

I also believe that, if anyone is positioned to steer public discourse toward constructive outcomes, it would be those directly engaged with how the law is learned and practiced, created and applied. We’ve already sailed some stormy seas together in this series, and we’re heading for more. I think we’re up for it.

One last that thing:  I have no illusions about my own objectivity; I am as prone to cognitive bias as anyone. (We’ll take more about that, too.) Thus I invite you to remember that I intend this be about conversation, not conversion. Plus, I’ll make the customary disclaimer that I write my own thoughts, not the CBA’s.

I will brave the discourse if you will.