Lockdown measures have prompted many office workers to question the future of their occupation. While an increasing number of city dwellers have decided to move to the countryside to get closer to nature, others plan on changing jobs in order to find a position that is more meaningful.
Laetitia Vitaud, a French expert on the future of work and consumption, offers us her insights on some of the issues many of us are currently facing with our jobs as well as several ideas for enhancing well-being at work in these complicated times.
If the global pandemic has raised questions within us about the usefulness of our jobs, it’s a phenomenon that echoes David Graeber’s “bullshit jobs” concept, which dates back to 2013. The American anthropologist passed away last month, putting this term back in the spotlight along with his definition of these comfortable, often well-paid jobs that can seem pointless. His sociological theories gained widespread attention in recent years as many workers found themselves identifying with his writings.
This year the covid-19 crisis has further reshaped the way we work, and for some office workers these shifts have intensified the feelings of uselessness among many.
Here is Laetitia Vitaud’s take on this phenomenon. The co-author of Welcome to the Jungle, Vitaud has also created a newsletter on the future of work from a feminist perspective.
How can we tell if we have a ‘bullshit job’?
David Graeber’s thesis has been somewhat reduced to a cliché about executives working in a City setting and whose jobs seem useless. In reality, “bullshit jobs” extend to numerous sectors, because they mainly rely upon people’s perception.
If for instance you have the feeling that an aspect of your job is meaningless, or if there is a component to what you’re doing that involves “lying” in some form, or if you sell things that pollute the planet or in which you don’t believe, in that case, you may have a “bullshit job.”
What kind of professional practices should we be wary of to avoid falling into a ‘bullshit job’?
In reality, the concept of “bullshit jobs” depends less on the mission or the position we are in than the conditions in which we work. For example, a company governed by poor organisation in which there are endless streams of meetings or “paper-pusher” tasks could feature a mass of “bullshit” jobs.
And even those working in professional categories deemed useful to society are no longer exempt from these types of paper-pushing tasks. Caregivers and teachers, for instance, now have many administrative documents to fill out and thus have less time to devote to their primary function.
What are the essential criteria for well-being at work these days, especially considering the health context?
In the past, in France at least, we used to sign a “labour contract,” meaning that our job was not necessarily fascinating but it entailed many compensations (vacation, good pensions, the prospect of social advancement for future generations, etc).
But in recent decades, these compensations are being eroded. As a result we are increasingly questioning hierarchies, repetitive tasks, as well as the detrimental consequences of several industries on the environment.
All these criteria are relevant when pursuing well-being in the professional sphere. We can achieve it in various ways: with digital transition, or seeking more autonomy by becoming self-employed for instance.
I find the question of autonomy fundamental: If every company implemented more ways for employees to achieve autonomy, we would see more gender equality in workplaces.
This would also lead to a profound questioning of hierarchical statuses… which would at the same time reduce “bullshit jobs” within companies. Because when you function independently, only the “real” work counts.
Does working from home play a role in this search for autonomy?
It does. Working from home can genuinely contribute to the gain of independence while working. If you are a parent of young children, for example, you may be forced to take part-time work to look after them, especially if you are a woman. Whereas with working from home, it is much easier to manage your schedule.
In France, unfortunately, on the corporate side many are still reluctant to implement remote working, although many employees would find it useful. In order to function efficiently, working from home has to integrate more horizontal management policies, a system that is still rare in many places.