Bullshit Jobs: The Long and the Short of It

“I’d have written  a shorter letter, but I was a bit pushed for time.”

This is a paraphrase of a famous quote attributed to various people in various forms down the aeons, from Mark Twain (of course) back to Cicero. The idea behind it will be familiar to any writer who takes seriously the notion of brevity being the soul of wit. It takes a longer time to write a short letter than it does to write a long one.

In David Graeber’s essay, “Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs” he uses the phrase “Bullshit Jobs” to describe jobs whose only real value is the job itself. They don’t actually produce much, if anything, and the people who do them spend a lot of time slaughtering time in dead offices overseen by a clock. I had the misfortune to do such a job once. Something I noticed was that the language describing the job expanded in direct proportion to the inactivity demanded by the job.

It quickly became clear that a major part of the job lay in talking up the importance of the job, with increasingly convoluted language, much of it meaning absolutely nothing; just chains of jargon strung together to help talk out the livelong day I guess, while hoping to create a sense of significance in a job that clearly had none. In other words, the use of language was the exact opposite of that which aims for brevity. Where brevity aims to turn a large idea into a short, helpful insight; the language of the bullshit job aims to turn a small idea into something of biblical proportions.

But the richest irony was yet to be revealed when I labored dumbstruck in such an environment, appalled by the sheer waste of time, bored senseless by the endless stream of opaque terminology, and heart-empty in the realization that what I was doing could be so easily automated, but never would be, because to do so would uncreate a job, the exact opposite to what most people believe is a good idea.

Here’s the irony: the convoluted language was so cumbersome and undescriptive, designed as it had been to make the meaningless seem meaningful over a forty-hour stretch, forever, that it was useless for communication. So the people who peopled this place of dense jargon, invoked their natural human wit and creativity, cutting to the chase with artful darts of brevity to speak in acronyms.

Here’s David Graeber talking about bullshit jobs.