Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

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blink2ce
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Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

Hi all,

After several years of professional jobs and hearing similar experience from my brother, I believe that there are a LOT of white-collar jobs in the USA's economy that are nearly (if not fully) completely bullshit.

I'm talking about people who go to work every day and do pretty much nothing meaningful. At best, their work is just busywork. Not only are they doing nothing, but their manager, and their manager's manager, are not giving them any work to do and have no plans to give them any real work to do.

I personally have had two jobs like this, at two different companies -- both of them in software development.

Other people have noticed this too (See the book Bullshit Jobs David Graeber.)

Thank the Lord that my current job is not bullshit. It is demoralizing to be in a bullshit job because it requires you do intentionally do nothing. It made me feel useless and impotent on a primal level.

I am writing this post because I intuitively feel that the number of bullshit jobs in today's economy cannot be sustainable and I want to hear your thoughts.

All of the people actually providing real value -- Fixing pipes, growing food, making stuff, repairing roads, etc -- mostly don't get paid all that well. A lot of those people are struggling. Meanwhile, there are thousands of software engineers, healthcare administrators, and finance bros who are working on projects that provide NO REAL ECONOMIC VALUE and they are getting paid in the mid-$100ks and higher.

The economy seems to have all of the wrong incentives for business owners and workers. There must be a reckoning sometime sooner or later to restructure the economy in a way that benefits the people providing real value and also discounting the people who are receiving large rewards without providing commensurate value.

What do you all see in the economy? Do you see the same thing?

chenda
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by chenda »

blink2ce wrote:
Fri Sep 16, 2022 1:21 pm
All of the people actually providing real value -- Fixing pipes, growing food, making stuff, repairing roads, etc -- mostly don't get paid all that well. A lot of those people are struggling. Meanwhile, there are thousands of software engineers, healthcare administrators, and finance bros who are working on projects that provide NO REAL ECONOMIC VALUE and they are getting paid in the mid-$100ks and higher.
I'd question some of this. Yer plumber is installing goods designed by engineers on CAD developed by a software engineer. The finance bods are providing credit to companies to develop new healthcare drugs which require administration. I don't deny theres plenty of waste and inefficiences in the industries as a whole, but I wouldn't say these are bullshit jobs inherently.

ducknald_don
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by ducknald_don »

Back when I was consulting it would be really common to visit a small IT team and find only one or two people would be doing nearly all the work. It seemed 80% of the people just weren't capable despite having the paper qualifications. The bigger the company the more apparent this was.

I have no idea how a company the size of Google gets anything done.

blink2ce
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

@chenda -- Yes, that's true. There are plenty of software engineers working on products that provide real value, and people in finance who are doing something useful, etc. These lines of work are not by definition wasteful. But there is so much bloat these days in these industries that things feel kind of ridiculous.

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Stahlmann
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by Stahlmann »

Where can I apply?

blink2ce
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

@Stahlmann -- LOL! Large telecom companies and large banks. Don't be customer-facing. Must be an operations/administrative job. Good luck

bostonimproper
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by bostonimproper »

Check out The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen). More or less, the societal elite justifies its own existence with non-productive work.

WFJ
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by WFJ »

Ending ZIRP and QE will solve this. Most of these BS jobs are a feature of zombie companies and will go away over the next few years. During the dotcom era, I had a job on a team with 7 other people. All performance measures were tracked and me and another team member were more productive than the other 6 people combined. The organization would place top performers on teams with duds in the hopes that the duds performance would improve. It did not. Almost all the duds were fired in the 2001-2004 time period, a few were rehired at diminished roles. Free money creates these issues (Y2K was the free money issue in 1999-2000 that created the issues).

In many work environments (large corporate and government) where one is not tracked and individually compensated (Law or Accounting firm) if you don't know the team member that is going to do all the work, it's you.

Slevin
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by Slevin »

Hmm... how to explain my understanding from basic principles…

Our global economic system is built to capture and optimize for "good production". Now, "good production" has had positive benefits for humans, we have cars, we have the internet, we have AC and cooling, and we are about to tip the scales at more than 8 billion humans on the planet. But, as seen in that last sentence, it is definitely not good for the majority of the other ~9 million other species on the planet. Search for charts of human and agricultural biomass on the earth compared to non-human cultivated biomass on the earth. If you like diversity, Its pretty disturbing. I won't get into warming factors, etc, but I could expand here a lot, as we all know.

But this system isn't designed for increasing or optimizing human wellness, and, in fact, many people argue that the primary initial driver of the system (you must now work to obtain food / shelter / etc) is exactly in opposition to human wellness, as people who have free access to food and shelter will generally choose not to do "productive work", as "what's the point". Now, once you start doing "productive work" and the system scales enough to have dozens or more products, barter systems based on goods start losing their usefulness. You need a middling abstraction to allow for good trading of apples to clay pots to roof thatching, or whatever. So money is introduced. And then people end up storing the money in this new place that gives interest on money stored there, as they lend it out to people who need money. Now, to some people, technically that money holding and "lending" is a bullshit job. They don't directly produce anything of "value". But they do allow a farmer who is cash poor to plant a field and generate more crops, creating more abstracted "value" in the system. The "bullshit jobs" you are talking about are abstracted versions of that, they usually create larger amounts of “abstracted value” in the system. Plus the fact that companies can be "overall positively value creating" while having (sometimes many) pieces that are not "value creating" in themselves. And the "positive value" is the same thing as before, an increase in this ”abstract value” metric, which we now call "the economy".

Overall, that "abstract value" increase in things like software engineering and finance is larger than the value of physical goods because it is in this case literally abstract and thus based on subjective opinions on what other people will pay for it over time (and how it can be used to manipulate even larger abstract growth potentials in the future; see advertising, or speculation of price increases on goods with questionable and volatile actual value like crypto). Thus, now things that have a more subjective value due to easier ability to scale, infinite supply, etc, will gain a bigger "abstract value" weighting than strict "necessary goods" like food, shelter, etc. Just because we can create a larger supply of them. And with that higher slice of the value pie, it is thus easier to pay workers in these fields larger salaries, assuming you use a fixed % of income for salaries. Thus, higher paying "bullshit jobs". This compounds with the fact that food growers are competing globally with farmers in countries with lower costs of living, and so they can afford to sell the food for cheaper. This same phenomenon hasn't yet made its way through software engineering and finance (but it is in progress).

IMO Incentives from large companies to cut the fat away happen only with monetary crises, as the people usually needing to justify the cuts are exactly the people whose jobs would be cut by the process (and aso everyone hates the employees who fire people), so the feedback loop to cutting away the chaff is pretty self limiting.

To tie it in with ERE, I look at ERE1 as someone thinking about the above, and deciding that they should value "human wellness" over "abstract value" accumulation. However, they are still stuck in the system, so they need to pay the piper with a short term "abstract value" accumulation phase. @AxelHeyst and @theanimal are playing v1.5 maybe, where they decide not to pay the piper at all, and use direct skills to substitute for the "abstract value" accumulation of ERE1. @Ego is maybe playing an alternate v1.5b where he and mrs Ego use a "part time work for room + board" and leverage the waste streams of everyone else in the building for resale to generate the "abstract value" just through taking advantage of others not wanting to deal with the friction costs of reselling goods. Overall I'm a fan of the diversity of the approach based on the local conditions and temperament of the person, and the constant iterations here are awesome to see.

Dream of Freedom
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by Dream of Freedom »

I think it is more fundamental and difficult than you realize. Have you heard of Price's Law or Pareto Distribution?

jacob
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by jacob »

The three sector economy is normally split in primary (farming and mining), secondary (manufacturing), and tertiary (services). Many arguments about which one is more "pure". For example, feudal Japan put its farmers on top and thought little of traders. The US worships its businessmen.

Perhaps BS jobs is the emergence of a quaternary sector whose function is yet to be established. One suggestion would be that it's actually preserve people's sanity or control them by giving them something to do. Bread, circuses, ... and adult daycare. Kinda goes with the idea that the self-actualization, which follows taking care of physical and social needs, requires imagination which many adults lost growing up.

ffj
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by ffj »

What you are witnessing are massive inefficiencies in the workplace.

There is a lot of dead float in the blue collar world too, but a lot of times it is hidden by people doing stupid work because it gives the false impression that the ball is being moved forward. If you have an eye for efficiencies, then I would posit that whatever industry you are involved in will eventually cause you to seek out movements like ERE. ;)

blink2ce
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

So far, we have identified a few factors which might be contributing to this situation:

- Monetary and fiscal policy at central banks causing distorted incentives
- Human nature? (Price's law, Pareto distribution)
- Software, finance, and other types of knowledge work create "abstract" value and thus are not constrained by the location and sourcing of physical goods, which allows for large margins at successful companies, which allows them to be wasteful in their hiring decisions
- Advanced Western countries have gotten so good at providing for physical needs that the society has created BS jobs out of psychological necessity, and thus the jobs do not need to contribute materially to the real economy
- People at the highest ranks in society create useless tasks for themselves to justify their level of wealth (this sounds kind of marxist. Might be true though. idk). These highly-ranked people hire other people to help them accomplish their useless tasks, who thus now have BS jobs.

Maybe all of these factors are true and working to create this BS job reality that many people find themselves in.

I don't know guys. The modern world is a very confusing place.

blink2ce
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

After considering this topic for a while longer, I believe that most likely it is the fact that our machines, factories, computers, etc have gotten so good at doing work without humans that humans just don't need to do as much as they used to, per Jacob's post. Secondary factors may include monetary and fiscal policy mismanagement and human nature (difficult to organize the labor of large groups of people efficiently).

The only way I see this changing in the future is if there is a widespread and extended breakdown in global production of goods and services. Something like a nuclear war or an energy crisis. Barring that, I think that this trend will continue as it has been.

I suppose the real answer to all of this what everyone here is already doing (or has already done). Accumulate enough capital so that I can turn my focus towards more interesting and personally meaningful activities.

zbigi
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by zbigi »

I think the predominant cause is the mismanagement. The bigger the organization, the more complex and nebulous its goals, the harder it is to make sure all people in it are working towards them. [1] It's not actually a function of wealth - state officials in very poor countries can also often get away with doing very little, thanks to inefficiencies/mismanagement. I imagine Chinese bureucracy in X century was also quite inefficient and had a lot of bulshit jobs.

[1] That's why Communist economies all failed so miserably - they wanted to make entire economy into a single, top-down organization (a bureucrat in Warsaw was deciding how many pencils a pencil factory in a little town would make, what will be their price, where will they source materials from and for how much etc.). This created absolutely massive inefficiences and pushed millions of people into bullshit jobs, even though the countries weren't rich by any means.

blink2ce
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

@zbigl -- It sounds like we need to have less centralization in order to let more people actually do productive work again. Maybe the federal government (and the large companies which lobby congresspeople) have gotten so large that they are creating BS jobs regardless of the level of access to technology. Just like other times in history.

zbigi
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by zbigi »

blink2ce wrote:
Tue Sep 20, 2022 11:50 am
@zbigl -- It sounds like we need to have less centralization in order to let more people actually do productive work again. Maybe the federal government (and the large companies which lobby congresspeople) have gotten so large that they are creating BS jobs regardless of the level of access to technology. Just like other times in history.
I suspect most people don't care if the work they do is productive or not. They want to get paid (ideally - a lot), have good working conditions, nice colleagues, good hours (ideally - remote with barely any real work), maybe interesting work. (I'm certainly like that. Doesn't matter if I'm coding a website with some real utility or a project that I know will get scrapped before it's even launched.). So, in our current system basically everyone is reasonably happy - the companies are still massively productive in spite of all the inefficiencies, people get good jobs even if they sometimes don't make sense.
BTW, regulation is one of largest source of bullshit jobs. For every law that companies must preserve, they must hire multiple people who are making sure company's compliant, are producing reports for the government overseeing bodies etc. In every big bank for example, there are probably thousands of people who're just dealing with extra post-2008 regulations. And yet, we don't want to live in a world without regulations. XIX century, with Thames regularly setting itself on fire, was just too gritty.

blink2ce
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by blink2ce »

@zibgl -- I suspect you are correct. I know several people personally who don't seem to care if their efforts actually result in any real economic output, as long as the job pays well and is not too difficult.

I have always been bothered at how little of my paid labor turns out to be productive. I think it comes from a need for the world around me to make sense. And also just feeling generally not helpful is a bad feeling to me. It seems that a lot of other people don't see things the same way.

chenda
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by chenda »

zbigi wrote:
Tue Sep 20, 2022 12:40 pm
In every big bank for example, there are probably thousands of people who're just dealing with extra post-2008 regulations.
No bad thing, unless they're looking for loopholes :?

Maybe we should measure value in how little harm the job does. The oil industry generates a lot of economic output but at huge environmental cost....

My own post-apocalyptic plan is to become a priest(ess) which I believe would be in much demand. Funerals, rituals, talking to the dead, exorcisms etc. Economically it would be utterly useless of course but it would have perceived value.

ducknald_don
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Re: Bullshit Jobs and The Future of the Economy

Post by ducknald_don »

zbigi wrote:
Tue Sep 20, 2022 2:29 am
I think the predominant cause is the mismanagement. The bigger the organization, the more complex and nebulous its goals, the harder it is to make sure all people in it are working towards them.
Bigger organisations are certainly harder to manage but I suspect there is something more going on. Modern work has evolved to be less physical and more mentally demanding. That type of work is much harder to measure. If someone writes 100 lines of code it's hard to tell whether that is efficient or wasteful. Could it have been done in ten or was it smart thinking that many would have used 1,000 lines for. Was it quick work or slow. Will it produce any value for the business. These questions have become quite difficult to pin down for management.

Everybody knows this so the obvious result is people engaging in politics in order to further their careers.

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