ATTACK OF THE BULL SHITTERS
WHERE IS MY WAITER!!!!
B.S. AT THE RESTAURANT TABLE
LAZINESS LEADS TO WICKED PROBLEM OF MUMBO-JUMBO
WHAT LADY DIANA COOPER TAUGHT ME
VIDEO – EUROPE AS IT REALLY IS
WHAT THOSE HEADS OF THOUGHT LEADERSHIP ARE REALLY UP TO
David Graeber is the American anthropologist who transfixed much of the western world when he wrote a piece about pointless jobs five years ago.
The story, which appeared on the website of radical new magazine Strike!, went viral and scored so many hits the site crashed. Reactions and comments – “Wow! Nail on the head! I am a corporate lawyer … I contribute nothing to this world” – flowed in from places as different from each other as Estonia, Switzerland, Turkey, Korea and here, Australia.
Of course, Graeber, who teaches at the London School of Economics, was helped by the title of his piece which used the words “Bullshit Jobs” prominently.
Goodness, did that phrase strike a chord with almost everyone in the workplace. Everyone who’d had to spend half their productive time doing useless things because the processes of the modern workplace demanded it. Everyone who’d looked at job display ads – for jobs with impressive six figure salaries – and wondered what on earth a “Head of Thought Leadership and Insights” actually was. Or did.
Graeber’s resulting 333 page book, Bullshit Jobs – A Theory, was published here recently by Penguin Random House.
But his original words and arguments had already led to spin-off articles and essays in a multitude of international newspapers in the interim.
In June, last year, The Australian’s Adam Creighton, was inspired by Graeber to dig into Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, revealing that, he argued, bullshit jobs underpinned “much of the celebrated growth of ‘professional services and management’.
“Take the 23,000 strong army of ‘policy analysts’, for instance. Their share [of the Australian workforce] has almost quintupled since 1987 despite debatable progress on actual policy.
“ ‘Nurse managers’ and ‘nurse educators’ have grown about four times as fast as the number of nurses in that period … The nation’s management consultants, now almost 60,000 strong, have seen their share [of the workforce] almost triple [since 1987] …”
Creighton’s article, like Graeber’s original and now his book, is both exhilarating and depressing. Exhilarating because someone is drawing huge attention to a big problem that is affecting fundamental efficiencies let alone dampening productivity and creativity; depressing because, in my experience, history shows the world is full of Cassandras, and Cassandras they remain if there are enough people benefiting from situations that are manifestly wrong and idiotic.
And that is the controversial idea Graeber introduces in his new book.
But for a start, what is a BS job? Graeber listed the ballooning of the administrative sector and the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and heath admin, human resources, public relations, tele-marketing and financial services.
Creighton introduced a rule of thumb for spotting BS jobs: “would anyone realise or care if the occupation went on strike?” We know what happens when nurses, rubbish collectors and teachers down tools.
A second pointer: “Are the words strategy, innovation, engagement, development in the job title?”
And this third point makes me laugh: “Is the occupation called a ‘role’ or a job?”
Graeber isn’t the first writer to seize on the word “bullshit” to describe core aspects of our times. In 2005, American philosopher Harry Frankfurt scored a hit with his essay On Bullshit. He began it with this: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this.”
There have been other books, essays and articles since, irresistibly drawn to the word: Business Bullshit by André Spicer, Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit by Laura Penny, Everything Is Bullshit: The Greatest Scams On Earth by Alex Mayyasi, even Writing Without Bullshit by Josh Bernoff: chapter eight – Eliminate Weasel Words.
Our times alright.
Frankfurt followed his 2005 essay up with On Truth the following year, a key argument being that, as he wrote in the original, “The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether or not their listener is persuaded.”
Or as The New Republic wrote: “Frankfurt put his finger on the essential characteristic of the bullshitter, which distinguishes him from the liar. The latter is concerned to communicate something false as if it is true. The former is indifferent to whether what he communicates is true or false. It is this blithe unconcern that distinguishes the bullshit artist; whether as a result he is merely amusing or a serious menace varies from case to case.”
Thirteen years ago, Frankfurt believed that the subject of bullshit was “so vast and amorphous that no crisp and perspicuous analysis of its concept can avoid being procrustean”. But he did zero in on the words of another philosopher, British-American Max Black who, in 1983, published an essay The Prevalence of Humbug.
Helpfully, Frankfurt goes through Black’s list of what humbug actually is – and here the relationship with today’s BS jobs becomes clear.
For a start, Black defines humbug as “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes”.
This is tough stuff. But maybe not so short of the mark when you look around today. At the findings from the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry for a start.
Or have a think and see how it tallies, closer to home, with your company’s professed mission statement, or the endless claims from institutions and businesses about promoting diversity and opportunity. Or the way your HR department staff promise to look out for the employees’ welfare when far too many of them operate as quasi-policing forces whose main aim is to make sure management always appear to have clean hands and never end up in court.
Which brings us back to bullshit. And why there’s not only so much of it around, it’s proliferating.
Graeber points out something that many of us in industries that actually produce something tangible have speculated or worried about: “While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the lay-offs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing, and maintaining things.”
In my own career, as I saw journalism change with the advent of the net and digital disruption, I wondered if media CEOs were like the old alchemists of the Middle Ages. It seemed to me that all too often they were desperately pouring funds, resources and time into trying to create digital gold or a magic money-making elixir while newsrooms of journalists laboured in increasingly under-resourced and unhelpful conditions to bring in the streams of cash that paid for the alchemists’ frantic experiments.
Not everyone will agree with Graeber’s overall argument – that the massive growth in well-paid bullshit jobs only adds up if you understand it through politics, not economics – but it’s well worth reading and ruminating upon.
He writes that such huge numbers of well-paid BS jobs don’t make sense in an efficient and rational economy. But they do if you take politics into account. He writes: “One had best start by as asking, as the ancient Romans did, ‘Qui bono?’ – ‘Who benefits?’ – and how.”
His argument revolves around the idea that the current economic conditions favour siphoning wealth increasingly up to the one percent who then, like medieval kings, need to surround themselves with a class of people – yes, well-paid people in bullshit jobs – whose interests are served by supporting the one percent and who manage the people below who are doing real jobs but for not much money, people who might actually rebel if not policed and “administered” so effectively.
The top two strata look down on the third, and all three strata look down on the fourth class, the unemployed and destitute. It’s a relentless stew of resentment, elitism and entitlement.
Naturally enough, Graeber’s theories have their critics – and when I did my fact-checking, I could see that the anecdotes he uses to support his arguments didn’t always stack up – but I’ve yet to mention the title of the book to one person and not see their eyes light up in delighted recognition.
For that feat alone, Graeber has done us – and society – a big favour.
WAITING FOR WAITERS
Early in his book, Graeber makes a crucial distinction about service jobs. When we are told that economies are seeing massive growth in these, we think of hairdressers, waiters, hotel staff, sales clerks – anyone who basically services people. Wrong. That proportion of the workforce apparently remained steady, at around 20 per cent for more than a century. But the service sector now also includes information-oriented jobs. That is, administrators, consultants, accounting services, IT professionals and “knowledge workers” –that’s what accounts for the big bulge.
That finally explains a huge mystery to me. That is, why it is now so difficult to find a waiter who can actually remember what they’re supposed to be doing.
It explains why, the other Saturday, I had to ask three times in a Double Bay café for our second round of coffees. (What did the first two waiters do? Agree to the order and then go off shift? Eat the order? Chuck it in a bin?)
Or why you can go to an expensive Sydney restaurant which charges $70 for a steak but be unable to get the attention of staff so you can actually order a bottle of wine to go with it.
Why I can have a lengthy debate in a five star hotel bar-café about whether I can order bread with my oysters at 11.30am. The waiter eventually tells me that the chef says that yes, I may have bread, which doesn’t make much difference anyway because then the waiter forgets to bring it.
A friend takes her family out for a costly meal as a treat and all the four main courses arrive at the table at different times.
Another friend rings a trendy, recently refurbished hotel to book a table for eight. He is told that if he wants to book for that many people, there will be a ten per cent surcharge.
Hello? No service here that I can see.
A WAITER’S LOT IS NOT A HAPPY ONE
Of course, waiters do not have the simple time they once had of it.
The reason we couldn’t get our waiter – “Hi, I’m Sarah and I will be looking after you tonight” – to notice our waving arms and bring a wine list is because she and two other waiters were huddled over an iPad, worrying about something. When we arrived, instead of the maître d’ checking our names off a written list and doing it in seconds as once happened, we had to stand there while she jabbed fruitlessly at a computer screen. The hotel bar-café that dithered about letting me have bread with my oysters – presumably that had the potential to muck up the hotel’s digitised bread order – forgot, on another occasion, to bring an orange juice. But it turned up on the bill. In the past, easy to fix. Not now. The waiter had no authority to adjust the bill on the computer. That involved waiting for a manager – about eight minutes – who then disappeared with the bill for another eight or so minutes. Possibly she needed to access a mainframe.
As the Bulldog character would shriek in Frasier: “This is bullshit!”
Yes, it is, and it brings us to the bullshit of current management practices and processes that now revolve relentlessly around computer programmes, and what the boys in IT have decreed. About everything.
No bread (coffee, orange juice, wine etc etc take your pick) for you, Missy.
I only have two things to say. First off, aaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!
Secondly, from now on, I’m eating in.
AND THE MUMBO JUMBO KEEPS ON COMING
Speaking of Cassandras, here is former Patrick Corp boss Chris Corrigan in mid-2005 on the “dark forces” that threaten reform.
He meant consultants, saying, “In the process of self-examination we prefer to engage consultants who know as little as possible about the industry. But with the help of a Powerpoint presentation they can present a wonderful veneer.”
He noted, according to the piece in the Sydney Morning Herald’s CBD column, that consultants “can construct any result you want and are not burdened with any knowledge”.
He particularly admired their knack of concluding that “further studies are needed”.
And yet here we are, 13 years later, Corrigan-Cassandra ignored, and federal government spending on consultants has risen, according to a government audit, from $200 million in 2012/13 to $500 million in 2016/17.
In his 2004 bestseller, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World, British author, Francis Wheen, another Cassandra, came up with the phrase “lucrative twaddle”. In chapter two “Old Snake-oil, New Bottles”, he argued it had captured politicians, public servants, business, publishers, the media – and indeed too many of the rest of us.
He fingered the massive growth in bestsellers in the 1980s like Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence and Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and then traced how their success had prompted the rise of a bunch of gurus spouting “managerial mumbo-jumbo” who then started having influence everywhere from Bill Clinton’s White House to Tony Blair’s 10 Downing Street: “… griz
zled New York police chiefs and four-star generals began babbling about ‘the mobility pool’ and ‘proactive outplacement’…”
Wheen claimed that these “merchants of gimmickry and gobbledegook” were part of a sea-change in attitudes that meant that in the pursuit of easy influence, easy answers and easy loot we had turned our back on the ideals of reason.
There is plenty of lucrative twaddle around today, getting in the way of sound decision-making.
Sometimes, perfectly good concepts that have their basis in solid commonsense and experience, get hijacked by the lucrative twaddle gang and then become the equivalent of Smarties to be handed out at serious meetings so everyone can pretend they’re onto something hot, clever and new – and easily digestible.
I’m thinking of one phrase du jour in particular right now: “wicked problems”.
Take my word for it, if you hear someone use this term in a meeting as if, just by saying it, solutions might be yours in a flash, reach for your copy of Bullshit Jobs to be on the safe side. Black’s definition of humbug – see above – may also come to your aid.
The term “wicked problems” actually dates back to 1967 and to serious policy analysis and problem-solving. It means, in part, problems where possible solutions just throw up new problems (which, frankly, sounds like most problem-solving to me anyway but I’m not a management consultant).
The term still means that, but it has now also become a favourite in trendy, slick and, all too often, meaningless, management-speak. As Tom Ritchie warns in this comprehensive essay: “The term ‘wicked problem’ is currently being transformed from a management science and design theoretical term d’art into a media buzzword and piece of consultancy jargon that has lost its original meaning. This is especially the case since the 2008 ‘credit crunch’, where we find quick-fix policy consultants and self-help management gurus telling us how they can ‘solve your wicked problems’. This only shows that these individuals have, at best, missed the point.”
Over ten years ago, in The Triumph of the Airheads, I focussed on the something-nothing problem. That is, it looks like something, but when you hold it up to the light, it’s actually nothing. Emperor’s new clothes; there’s a lot of it about.
In this excellent piece for The Guardian, author André Spicer gives a very good rundown on the history of management garble and its effects. He covers off everything from the “scientific management” of time and motion study to “ ‘the law of three’ (a ‘thinking framework that helps us identify the quality of mental energy we have’)”. In keeping with this month’s blog theme, the piece’s title is: “From Inboxing to Thought Showers: How Business Bullshit Took Over”.
Spicer argued: “Business bullshit allows us to blather on without saying anything. It empties out language and makes us less able to think clearly and soberly about the real issues. As we find our words become increasingly meaningless, we begin to feel a sense of powerlessness. We start to feel there is little we can do apart from play along, benefit from the game and have the occasional laugh…”
Back in 2006, another hardheaded sceptic, former management consultant Matthew Stewart wrote “The Management Myth” for The Atlantic magazine. It concluded that the problem with business schools is that they can provide generic frameworks for problem solving but these are “heuristics: they can lead you to solutions but they cannot make you think”.
Stewart’s critique, which later produced a book, concluded that businesses would be better off employing philosophers who can not only think but are also much better than management consultants at knowing what they don’t know.
The sad and shameful reason slick management concepts flourish though, and then just as quickly disappear, is because humans are always looking for the easy way out. It’s biology, part of our make-up. Humans are programmed to be lazy.
As Swedish psychology professor K. Anders Ericsson, expert on the growth of talent and skill, told me years ago, in 2009, that the biological body is made to conserve energy; its basic drive is to minimise effort. To excel, one has to over-ride that impulse, push yourself, monitor yourself, test yourself, listen to accurate feedback.
If something promises reward for not much effort, then that’s what far too many of us will plump for instead.
Ericsson was also on to the bullshit problem, telling me of the future that, “Quality is going to be key. We need to be able to identify people who can actually do useful things that they can do again and again, versus people who call themselves experts but it’s bullshit.”
If you doubt what I and all the others are arguing here, add up the numbers of consultants your own employer has employed over the years. Did it really make you better at your job or improve productivity? Did results go up – and crucial question – stay up? After maybe that first sugar rush from all the enthusiasm, group hugging and hifalutin phrasing?
Meanwhile, people who ask the truly tough questions – like, should we be doing this? – aren’t often welcomed by those who want easy answers that don’t frighten the horses.
Once past the tipping point that helped push Wheen into writing his book, the market for “lucrative twaddle” has never stopped growing.
Wheen argues early in Mumbo-Jumbo, “As any three trick hustler knows, legedermain depends for its success on fooling all the audience all the time; any members of the crowd who point out that the entire operation is a con must be silenced…”
Meanwhile, way back in 2003, the Harvard Business Review published a piece titled simply: “What Really Works”. It’s a dry old thing but how I cherish its cut-through
The authors, Nitin Nohria, William Joyce and Bruce Roberson, a Harvard professor, a Dartmouth professor and an ex-management consultant respectively, were intrigued by the management disruption that came with the early dot-com boom. They decided to examine business models in general.
“For years we had watched new management ideas come and go, passionately embraced one year, abruptly abandoned the next. ‘What really worked?’ we wondered.”
This was no idle conjecture. Their five year study examined more than 200 management practices as they had been employed over a ten year period by 160 companies.
Their conclusions “took us quite by surprise”. They discovered no causal relationship at all between superior business performance and most of the management tools and techniques they studied.
Instead, what worked, was “having a strong grasp of the business basics”. Outperforming companies, without exception, excelled at four basics: strategy, execution, culture and structure.
They also incorporated at least two of the following four practices which could be categorised as talent, innovation, leadership, mergers and partnerships.
This is about good old fashioned knowledge, ability, hands-on experience, keeping your eye on the ball, resisting flim-flam and retaining a passion and gut instinct for your business.
If this sounds like your bosses, count yourself lucky.
As for managerial bullshit-speak, here is Spicer’s stirring and important conclusion to his essay after begging us all to balk at using it: “The aim would not just be bullshit-spotting. It would also be a way of reminding people that each of our institutions has its own language and rich set of traditions which are being undermined by the spread of the empty management-speak.
“It would try to remind people of the power which speech and ideas can have when they are not suffocated with bullshit. By cleaning out the bullshit, it might become possible to have much better functioning organisations and institutions and richer and fulfilling lives.”
MY YEAR OF R&R
I’ve worked with so many publishing houses over the years that I now have many good friends there and also thoughtful acquaintances. So when a slim book arrived from Penguin Random House late last week and I saw its title, I could only imagine someone was sending congratulatory if cheeky thoughtwaves on my choice to work for myself again.
The novel’s title was My Year of Rest and Relaxation. A July release, it’s by Ottessa Moshfegh, a short-listed author for the Man Booker prize for an earlier novel, and it is like Alice in Wonderland on Ambien.
The heroine, who has no money troubles because of the death of her parents, a mortgage-free apartment and regular unemployment cheques, decides all she wants to do is sleep as much as possible. A Cinderella figure given her icy mother and beautiful looks, she hopes that when she eventually wakes up, she will have made it through her emotional storms and what people have done to her.
She falls upon a crazy and obliging psychiatrist in lower Manhattan who, while scribbling out copious prescriptions for anything sleep-inducing, says things like: “Fill the lithium and Haldol prescriptions first. It’s good to get your case going with a bang. That way, later on, if we need to try out some wackier stuff, your insurance company won’t be surprised.”
I don’t know what the hell is going on inside people’s heads in America given the turbulence of the political scene there and that, despite the polarising and the Sturm und Drang on the left, Donald Trump could still win a second term, but I can tell you – given my rave about Washington DC author Katherine Heiny’s fiction in the May blog – that country’s angst is producing some truly out there but mesmerising, very, very funny fiction.
ARISTOCRATIC LIFESTYLE TIPS
As for the allure of bed, years ago, when I lived in London, bed on Saturday was often the best idea if you had a lot of reading to do for work and you wanted to save on heating bills. And everyone, even the wealthy then, lived in fear of their electricity meter reading.
My heroine was Lady Diana Cooper who went to bed at 89 and never got up again (she died five years later), entertaining a cavalcade of famous friends and relatives from her grand bed, festooned with lace, in a pale yellow bedroom that overlooked her garden.
At one stage, I lived in a house in Little Venice very close to hers. Then, I was shy. Today, I would have knocked on the door and suggested we swap bed-living hints.
I have been re-introduced to the delights of bedtime reading by Australia’s energy crisis. Sit anywhere else in the house to read and not only is it easy to be distracted by other things that need doing, it requires heaters going at full bore.
Read sitting up in bed, against a pile of fluffy white pillows, gazing occasionally out at a mix of sky, green palms, bay trees and camellias (and a confused blooming bougainvillea), a warm cat nestled contentedly at my side, and I could be downunder’s Lady Diana.
Still, I felt guilty until I confided in a few friends. Oh no, said a public prosecutor, I love bed. Hadn’t I seen the Leunig’s “Hymn for Bed” cartoon?
Another looked surprised. Why wouldn’t you read in bed for hours where it’s cosy and you won’t be disturbed?
So, here we have again the laws of unintended consequences: as Australia’s energy price crisis grows, more of us will take to our beds to do our work.
The price will eventually show up in the country’s health bills of course. Moshfegh’s heroine spends so much time sleeping and dozing that after two months, her muscles have started to waste away.
For now, I am still doing my long walks and lifting my weights.
But then, yes, it’s back to bed to read until this country – so incredibly rich in coal and gas – can find the politicians with the guts to give us easily affordable energy in our homes.
TROTTERS IN THE TROUGH
But at least here in Australia we don’t have the Brexit headache, explained so beautifully years ago here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvYuoWyk8iU