Class Act: A worldwide need for work satisfaction

Not happy: Many employees worldwide believe their work makes hardly any valuable contribution to society.
Not happy: Many employees worldwide believe their work makes hardly any valuable contribution to society.

I have recently read an interesting article by David Graeber who claims that many of the jobs we now perform in our neoliberal world are “bullshit jobs”.

He cites surveys in Britain and Holland that show 37-40 per cent of workers in those countries believed that their jobs made no meaningful contribution to the world at all.

An American survey of office workers similarly showed that most reported they only spent four hours of their eight-hour working days doing any real work, and the rest of their time was spent attending “useless meetings and pointless administrative tasks”.

I suspect most in Australia would agree that their jobs are characterised by “galloping bureaucratisation”. Certainly in higher education, Graeber writes: “Academic staff find themselves spending less and less time studying, teaching and writing about things, and more and more time measuring, assessing, and quantifying the way in which they study, teach and write about things.”

This, of course, is happening at the same time as we see a significant increase in the numbers of non-academic staff working in higher education. At UNE, the ratio of non-academic staff to academic staff is around 1.4:1 with an increase of 73.6 non-academic staff in the top three levels of appointment between the years 2007-2017 and a decrease of 71.2 staff from the lowest three levels of appointment.

Over the same period, there was an increase of 11.3 academics at the top two levels and 9.2 at the bottom two levels of appointment.

Eternal damnation is a group of people performing unnecessary, unpleasant tasks that they are bad at and can’t stand doing...

David Graeber

Benjamin Ginsberg writes in his 2011 book that between 1985 and 2005, the number of students and academic staff in American universities increased by about half, and the number of administrative staff increased by 240 per cent.

This kind of change is reflected in the way we think about and name the university. In the past the term “the university” was taken to mean all the relevant stakeholders: academic and non-academic staff, students and alumni. Now more and more, the term is used to refer to management only, and a management modelled on corporate management at that.

In corporate management, status is usually determined by the number of people reporting to the managerial position.

Graeber suggests that positions are created to reflect managerial status, and only then is there thought given to what people in those positions will do. He argues, based on his research: “Many of these people don’t end up doing much … but it’s generally considered good form to give all staff members at least a few hours of actual work to do each week.”

This contrasts somewhat dramatically to the increasingly loud claims made by management that budgetary constraints require academics to work significantly more in order to ensure the survival of their organisation. Associated with this are increasing demands for academics to perform “tasks which exist only to make overpaid academic managers feel good about themselves”. 

Graeber is somewhat pessimistic about the chances of change: “Eternal damnation is a group of people performing unnecessary, unpleasant tasks that they are bad at and can’t stand doing – but spend all their time on anyway because they are so indignant about the prospect that anyone else might be doing less. Change, if it’s to come, will have to come from outside the academy.”

I hope that Graeber is not right in his stance. I hope that those working across the education sector are able to step outside their experiences of meaningless competition with each other and work together to resist “galloping bureaucratisation”.

I hope that colleagues see the benefits of collective discussion and action and do not allow themselves to remain so enmeshed in “bullshit jobs” that they cannot see any way to gain freedom.