Editors Pick

Why you need to have a happy workforce

24th April 2023

Are we in the Age of Pointless Jobs?

Christopher Jackson


It is one of the most astonishing remarks ever attributed to a UK prime minister. The story, as told, by Harry Cole and James Heale in the recent book Out of the Blue: The inside story of the unexpected rise and rapid fall of Liz Truss, is that as Truss’ mayfly premiership wound to its helter skelter conclusion, Downing Street aides were crying as the then PM prepared her resignation statement. But Truss was in philosophical mode and not about to cry over spilt milk. “Don’t worry I’m relieved it’s over,” Truss said. “At least I’ve been prime minister.”

With all due allowance given for the possible casualness of the remark, this is nevertheless revealing. It seems to mark the apotheosis of political ambition whereby holding a position is good in and of itself, regardless of one’s suitability for the role, and what one was able to accomplish in it. One might read the remarks aloud and place particular emphasis on the words ‘I’m’ and ‘I’ve’ and thereby better arrive at the truth of the matter.

Truss aside, do the remarks tell us something broader about who we are, and what we’ve become? Of course, it is important to proceed with trepidation. It was Leo Tolstoy who, in War and Peace, pointed out that anytime you hear the words ‘These days’ prepare to hear a lie. There have always been people ambitious for position; in fact, it’s a safe bet that every prime minister of the past had precisely that same kind of ambition which animated Truss. As Gore Vidal once noted: “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically by definition be disqualified from ever doing so.” Sometimes when one sees a politician assume the highest office, one notices a range of emotions, but often a certain relief is there: a remorseless itch has finally been scratched.

It’s not just presidents who have ambition, but those who surround them. Reading Carl Sandburg’s magnificent biography of Abraham Lincoln, we find the president issue the poetry of his first great inaugural speech and then settle into the prose of governing. In that spring of 1861, job-seekers descend on the President in to the extent that Lincoln invented the humorous salutation: “Good morning, I’m very pleased to see you’ve not come here asking for a position.’

Sandburg picks up the narrative: “Of a visit of several days in Washington Herndon wrote that Lincoln could scarcely cease from referring to the persistence of office seekers. They slipped in, he said, through half-opened doors; they edged their way through crowds and thrust papers in his hands when he rode.” On another occasion, Herndon quoted Lincoln directly: “if our American society and the United States Government are demoralized and overthrown, it will come from the voracious desire for office, this wriggle to live without toil, work, and labor, from which I am not free myself.”

In these words it might be said, is squirrelled away a far-sighted prediction of the Truss administration, where the PM knows only one thing: that they want to be PM.

Lincoln was too wise not to include himself within his own criticism, but also too humble to differentiate himself from all those office-seekers who hemmed him in during those first months of his presidency. History has shown abundantly that Lincoln did have a reason for being there: he is one of those people, like Churchill, with a historical mission to fulfil. In Churchill’s case, he was always the preserver the British Empire and the foe of Hitler before he was Prime Minister. Lincoln, meanwhile, was always the defender of the Union and the enemy of slavery before he was President.

It’s possible that an advocate for Liz Truss might argue that she was the evangelist of lower taxes before she was the occupant of Downing Street, but it seems likely that this won’t quite wash. In a sense Truss also represented the real life embodiment of the comedy of Armando Iannucci, the leading satirist of our times. Iannucci is the creator of not only The Day Today but Alan Partridge, The Thick of It, Veep, In The Loop and latterly a satirical prose poem Pandemonium. The common thread of Iannucci’s comedy is that people in his world occupy roles which seem to lack real meaning: Alan Partridge wants to be TV star while having no talent to entertain or inform; the civil servants and spads in The Thick of It, are rushing around Westminster bereft of real political beliefs; in Veep, an entire position – the vice-presidency of the United States – has no discernible function.

It is as if the world has itself turned into satire – making it increasingly difficult for satirists to mock. This sense of futility regarding the roles we need to carry out is far worse beyond Westminster than in Westminster itself. In his 2018 work of sociology Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the late writer David Graeber identified the way in which numerous jobs have cropped up in contemporary society whose fundamental value is highly questionable.

Graeber’s point is not just that many contemporary roles are pointless, but that their pointlessness is known even to those who carry them out. Furthermore, this lack of meaning is made to rub along with the contemporary tendency to tie work to status. He writes of ‘a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.’

This, Graeber says, in what amounts to a searing indictment of contemporary life, is ‘profound psychological violence’. So what kind of jobs is he talking about? Firstly he refers to ‘flunkies’ whose purpose is to make important people feel more important: he is discussing the whole raft of receptionists, assistants and assistants’ assistants who populate the typical corporate setting. Graeber’s second category is ‘goons’, those who set out to deceive or do harm on behalf of their employers: he is thinking of lobbyists, some lawyers, telemarketers, and the like.

Thirdly, there are ‘duct tapers’ – those who fix temporarily something which ought to be fixed permanently, like software engineers, or those working in computer science. Fourthly, there are ‘box tickers’ who create the appearance of utility without actually doing anything such as compliance officers, or survey administrators.

Finally, Graeber refers to ‘taskmasters’, those whose primary function is to create unnecessary tasks for others: Graeber is thinking of the whole realm of middle management which is often blamed, with a degree of justice, on the Blair years.

None of these calls to mind the prime ministership. Is it then that during the Truss administration we temporarily saw the Graeberisation of 10 Downing Street – a strange, fleeting glimpse of what happens when the highest office of state somehow cannot be injected with any particular meaning? This probably cannot be complete because the affairs of state will always have inherent meaning and so it is hard to see how the role of prime minister could ever become as numbing as Graeber’s other listed roles. Nevertheless the fact remains, that insofar as is possible, the spectacle of Truss holding the position of prime minister, predominantly for the pleasure of holding it, represented a nadir in the office, and makes one realise that a position isn’t a static thing, but a space which one fills – above all, an opportunity, around which one needs to deploy initiative.

In general, it should be said Graeber’s target isn’t the public sector, where one imagines a fair number of ‘taskmasters’ not to mention ‘flunkies’ and ‘box tickers’ reside, but the private sector. And I think his reticence on that question is probably related to his solution for all these problems: universal basic income. This, in one (expensive) swoop, would get rid of the need to work for those who don’t want to, and in theory free people up for more meaningful activity.

The jury is out on how sensible this is. We had a glimpse of how it might look like during Covid-19 when something almost resembling Universal Basic Income had a morbid parody of a trial run. The results for productivity are already there to see with the economy in recession, and some businesses struggling to find momentum amid the pervasive malaise. It would also likely lead to inflation, since earnings would increase while productivity would remain the same, or even decline.

Therefore there has probably never been a time less propitious for UBI than the present one. It would appear we need an alternative.

Happily, a recent film suggests it might all be rather simpler than we think. This is Living, starring Bill Nighy and written by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is remake, deriving from Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ and tells the story of a middling civil servant, Mr Williams, played by Nighy, who discovers he hasn’t long to live. He is one of Graeber’s taskmasters. In the opening scenes, some women turn up lobbying to change a dilapidated part of East London, by building a playground in a disused slum. There follows a tragicomic scene where the women are – as they had been on the previous day – taken from department to department all of whom absolve themselves of responsibility. The playground won’t be built, not because it’s not a genuine possibility but because nobody is using initiative in their roles.

But as Mr Williams begins to accept his diagnosis, it becomes clear that he hasn’t been granted so much a death sentence, as a heightened sense of life. In fact, he seems strangle in possession of a kind of superpower, all the more vivid because it is contrasted with what he had been before.

He comes to realise that with the right mindset and creativity his role can be put to use. He begins to lobby for the playground with a mixture of persistence and smarts until, without giving anything away, his sense of himself and his role’s potential is transformed.

It seems to me that many of us enter our roles in life with too much passivity, and that if we are significantly vigilant we can actually make a difference to those around us no matter what our title, or even our function might be. What if the right answer isn’t to unpick the whole world of work with a vast social safety net which might then be expensive and difficult to administer, but to find it within ourselves to do the jobs we do have with the right spirit and creativity? Living suggests that such a thing is possible. It’s also, of course, free.

It can’t be a complete solution. Some people do jobs which beat them down, and the answer to that will be a mixture of technological advance and education. But the Truss administration, mercifully brief for both the country and, one senses, for Truss herself, has perhaps as much to teach us as a more successful administration. It asks us to look inside ourselves and ask what we’re fit for, and then to wonder what we’re capable of. It’s a reminder not to attempt what we cannot do; by getting that decision right, and with the right measure of modesty, we just might nudge the world a little in the right direction.

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