Chicago - Jun. 11, 2021
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Shit Jobs

My first ever job in 1967 was loading cases of orange-flavored, drink-generating powder Tang onto truck pallets at a General Mills facility.

It was a sweaty job for minimum wage. The minimum wage in 1967 was $1.40 an hour. Various calculators assert this is $11.08 in 2021 dollars. But that judgement is an optical - and fiscal - illusion, wrought by economists who would not work for minimum pay, no matter what century it is.

That pay scale was exactly then what it seems like now. Roman galley oar rowers got more for sea duty. They were fed nutritious slop.

Zag of the Pleistocene Era would not work for $1.40 an hour, even if you tossed in free brontosaurus filets as a bonus. That's about 2.5 pennies per minute. Even Cro-Magnons won't work for that.

Yes, I sweated blobs of orange-colored Tang breakfast libation powder for 2.5 pennies per minute.

Being generous with the federal tax bracket, I paid 14 percent of my hourly pay to Washington. About 8 cents. I also sent 3.23 percent to Indiana's government. About 4 cents.

So I got to keep 120 pennies for every hour I hoisted the 50-pound cases. Ah, yes. Death and taxes, I reminded myself.

I had been informed that I would be uplifted as a youthful working citizen, but I found the experience vaguely disquieting and unfulfilling.

In truth, it was a shit job for shit wages. And I felt like . . . shit?

If you are getting $1.40 every hour - 140 pennies every 60 minutes before taxes - you also are counting every second to keep track of how much this miserable job is worth. And by inference, how little you are worth. And by further inference, how little do I value my own miserable life to spend it doing this?

And thinking after two minutes, "Hey I just earned 4 cents." In 1967, you could buy one drink from a friend's Coke bottle for 4 cents.

Of course, you don't actually make 2 cents a minute. It's actually 2.334 cents. It's the last four-thousandth of a penny that makes you feel special. It's a performance bonus, just for really miserable people.

The current environment suggests some self-interested employers view such experiences of job misery as noble moments of human growth. Yours. Not theirs.

Yes, it's the modern post-Depression version of, "When I was your age, I walked to school four miles in the snow every day. Uphill. With no shoes. It was six miles back home."

That rearview mirror education has reinforced to me that the Tang Experience was, as I have come to judge such things, a shit job paid by a shit employer for shit wages.

In the approaching aftermath of the pandemic, America seems to acknowledge that it's awash in such job openings that no one wants or should. Employers are disturbed and perplexed by the rejection, as if government unemployment benefits were better at feeding a family than a shit job with shit pay.

Of course unemployment benefits are better. You can almost live off them.

Shit employers are shocked and angry at this disloyalty, though what they tangibly contribute to the nation is debatable. Their business model depends mostly on someone else's shit experience and galley slave pay.

You can see placards on many storefronts announcing snarkily that they cannot open because no one - the ungrateful louts - will take the offered positions they once had before they were ditched.

The concept of "shit jobs" and the harm they do is not merely a crude observation. It's a scientifically studied phenomenon.

As opposed to the vulgar but colloquial "shit for brains," "shit sandwich," "shit storm" and "shitload," the term "shit jobs" is the scientific term invented by the late cultural anthropologist, professor and author David Graeber. He had a doctorate from the University of Chicago and taught at the London School of Economics. He did not have shit for brains.

In 2018, he wrote Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, postulating the existence of meaningless jobs and analyzing their harm to our humanity. He suggested more than half of societal work in private enterprise is pointless, and "becomes psychologically destructive." These jobs drain us every day, We are told they are good for our self-worth.

The dead-end pathways to nowhere are ubiquitous.

Graeber broke down the categories of uselessness as flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. Yep, that sounds like my professional life.

Here's the useless roster as Graeber labeled them:

1) flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants.

2) goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists.

3) duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive.

4) box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers.

5) taskmasters, who manage - or create extra work for - those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals.

We once thought - at least predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 - that automation would create 15-hour-a-week jobs. It hasn't. But it did spawn lots more meaningless jobs that no one would choose if they had a choice.

The premise of shit jobs is they pay shit wages, though this is not universally true. Aaron Rodgers is willing to pay the Green Bay Packers $23 million from a returned signing bonus not to play for them. He suggests the Packers are a shit organization.

I firmly believe I have held several of those meaningless jobs and earned just enough not to starve to death. It was a close call.

A few points of historical enlightenment.

That idea that work was intrinsically valuable was invented by 16th century European aristocrats so somebody else could do the work. The Puritan Capitalistic Work Ethic turned that arrangement into religious philosophy. Shit jobs apparently are God's will.

Current politicians worry about having enough jobs so they can take credit for them. But they do not much care that such shit jobs are worthless.

Does this sound like your life?

The Urban Dictionary immortalizes the term in its definition: "An unfulfilling, tedious waste of 8+ hours of the day, five days of the week, that you only persist with in order to pay the bills and the ever mounting debt that comes from having to increase your spending in order to entertain yourself outside of working hours as you are so brain dead from the hours you spend in work."

Yep, that about covers it, except for the "entertainment" motivation. After eight hours of lifting cases of Tang, you are not capable of entertainment.

-

David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, and more importantly, the former author of the Beachwood's late, great "The Week In WTF" column. His most recent piece for us was BMW Is The Answer To The Begged Question. You can also check him out at his Theeditor50's blog. He welcomes your comments.



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Posted on May 5, 2021


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