When anthropologist David Graeber set out to write his provocatively titled book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, he invited the internet to share stories of occupations that people believed may contain a high concentration of faecal matter.
Among the hundreds who shared stories was an online marketer whose team spent its days crafting and designing online banner ads for pedantic clients, while being fully aware that no one ever clicked on their ads — at least not intentionally.
"They later had to make up these new kinds of statistics and measures on how many people see these things from the corner of their eye," Graeber, based at the London School of Economics, tells the Herald.
"They're doing this tiny detail work because the customer wants everything to be perfect, all the while knowing it makes no difference."
Graeber is quick to distinguish himself from annoying self-help "do what you love" gurus, and draws an important distinction between jobs you may not like, and "bullshit" jobs, which he broadly defines as pointless. It's not about whether the job or your work environment is enjoyable, but rather, it's whether the worker believes the role serves a purpose.
Online advertising creators aren't alone in the struggle with meaninglessness among white-collar workers in the marketing, communications and media industry. Talk to a PR professional churning out press releases that are never picked up, a web content editor uploading content that's never read, or a designer laying out an advertising catalogue destined for the recycling bin and you'll quickly find evidence of an industry producing quantities of manure rivalling the country's biggest dairy farm.
While Graeber's book has already faced backlash in its first week, he says most feedback has been "interestingly confessional", particularly from workers eager to add to his growing encyclopedia of workplace superfluity.
A few prickly PR executives have also come forward to separate their "real" PR from all the other "phony" PR in the market. But Graeber laughs when he notes that this defence implicitly admits there is a fair amount of utterly useless enterprise going on in the industry.
The size of this sort of enterprise also appears to be on the rise, with Statistics NZ data showing that the number of local businesses registered as "Management Advice and Related Consulting Services" (which includes PR) nearly doubled in the past two decades, increasing from 10,500 in 2000 to 19,600 in 2017.
"You have armies of these people and most of them will admit to you that the industry is nonsense and if the whole thing didn't exist it wouldn't make any difference," Graeber says.
"It's a little like medieval lords. They're only there to protect you from other medieval lords. And if there were no medieval lords you wouldn't need them."
Graeber's concern is that the widespread sense of the meaninglessness among white-collar workers could have a major impact on productivity and mental health.
This is starting to materialise in the local market, with Gallup's State of the Global Workplace survey released this year showing that only 14 per cent of the workers in Australia and New Zealand considered themselves as engaged with their job, showing up every day with enthusiasm and the motivation to be highly productive. The remaining 86 per cent largely trudged in and out of the office with autopilot set to "meh".
"It's often said that levels of depression go up as consumerism goes up, but I think it's bullshit jobs," Graeber explains.
"The uselessness of employment almost directly mirrors depression. How do you get motivated if there's no meaning to anything? That feeling is, in fact, an accurate description of what a bullshit job is like."
A carrot often dangled in front of those in white-collar work is that today's meaningless job could potentially lead to progression up the corporate rungs and an opportunity to do work that actually matters. In other words, that producing banner ads is only a stepping stone to interesting creative work that actually changes consumer behaviour.
But Graeber says the reward of career progression sometimes takes employees away from things they're good at and places them in token supervisory roles, where they manage people who don't need to be managed. This can be evident in the media and creative industries, where the best writers and designers are sometimes shifted up the ranks into management roles, where they find little time to do the things that earned them the promotion.
"If you work hard, they eventually move you to a place where you pretend to work. They take the meaning away," Graeber says.
There are signs of change brewing in the way we think about the workplace. Rather than simply focusing on GDP and fiscal matters, the Treasury announced this year that it also planned to adopt a wellbeing framework that could eventually inform policy decisions. And while this obviously comes with a range of practical issues such as how wellbeing is measured, looking at how to increase workers' interest in the work they're doing seems a worthwhile pursuit.
Graeber's five categories of BS jobs
Goons: These are people who act aggressively on behalf of their employer, even if their actions are pointless or harmful. Lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers and PR people fall into this category.
Flunkies: People serve only to make other people feel important. They include admin assistants, door attendants and receptionists.
Duct-tapers: Graeber describes duct-tapers as those employed to attend to problems caused by other employees. This is a bit like hiring people with buckets to empty the water out of a leaking ship.
Box tickers: These are people who manage the performance of a business, compiling reports and presenting a breakdown of what needs to change. One bank employee who spoke to Graeber said the vast majority of the reports he developed were ignored or not taken on board by his employer.
Taskmasters: This category broadly refers to middle management, the group largely responsible for managing people who already know what they have to do on a day-to-day basis.