Dire Trend #3: Busywork?

Fourth in an ongoing series about the deeper reasons behind the difficulty of finding work

(Adapted from an essay originally presented on 4/4/05)

Most Americans are familiar with the phenomena of “busywork” –time-consuming tasks of dubious meaning and value, which much be completed according to precise but arbitrary parameters. Such tasks –generally consisting of pieces of paperwork to be laboriously filled out –compose a large portion of many people’s jobs (as trenchantly chronicled in the movie “Office Space” in which the main character’s entire career hinges around the use of one form versus another).

Few people realize, however, the extent to which busywork has come to dominate the American workplace, or have questioned the sinister implications of such a seemingly innocuous phenomenon.

The reason for the existence of busywork is as follows: In a money-based economy, wealth is relative. My spending power increases when the spending power of those around me decreases. However, there are some absolutes, and one of the most foundational absolutes is human labor. In order for anything to actually be produced, there must be human labor involved, and the value of human labor is physically bounded by the amount of productive work a person can do in a day.

What this means is that, in order for a people to become wealthier than the limits of their own labor, they need to me able to control, directly or indirectly, the labor of a large number of people. Direct control of other people’s labor, as in slavery, is ultimately inefficient, because one person can only exploit the labor of a limited number of people before facing the inevitability of a revolt. However, indirect control of labor solves this problem through the magic of hierarchy. If I control a small number of people –ten, for example –it takes relatively little force and coercion, particularly if I share the benefits of their labor with them.

A part interest in the labor of ten people is not enough to create immense wealth. If each of those ten people controls ten other people, however, and those people control ten other people, then I quickly reach a situation where I have a part interest in the labor of a thousand people (or, to extend it another level, ten-thousand). Now my wealth is greater than those of my laborers by several orders of magnitude.

One of the problems with this setup is that the vast majority of the actual productive labor that keeps the company running takes place at or near the bottom. There are other functions that take place higher up the hierarchy –skilled labor and technical work such as engineering and design for example –but the need for such labor is generally not extensive enough to fill the vast pyramids that compose mega-corporations.

This is where busywork enters the picture. The filling out of forms, shuffling of paper, and completion of meaningless tasks keeps people in the middle of the corporation busy, and thus prevents them from causing trouble. The busywork also structures the organization and keeps it from collapsing, by limiting opportunities for advancement and by placing barriers to productivity.

This last point demands some explanation. Why is productivity in the middle a bad thing? The answer is that the function of middle management is to maintain the organization and to keep the hierarchy from collapsing. Productivity is not the chief function of the middle. If people in the middle are too productive, it calls into question the need for the vast numbers of people in the middle. If I, as a mid-level employee complete tasks too efficiently and effectively, then why does the company need all the other workers at my level of the structure? It is only a useful fiction that my employment is maintained primarily for my productivity. Rather it is maintained for my utility as a channel through which wealth can flow upwards.

Thus, success in middle management is largely dependent on the ability to keep people busy, but not productive. In other words, the function of middle management is to create busywork. The more busywork that is available, the more the company can expand, and the larger the structure will be, thus creating a greater concentration of wealth at the top.

This explains a phenomena noticeable in many offices. One or two people may be the ones doing all of the actual productive work in the office, but they are surrounded by a vast number of other employees who are essentially supernumerary and parasitic. The employee who does the actual work, however, is less likely to be promoted or recognized than a co-worker who continually creates meaningless projects, and thus increases the workload on those around them.

Why is the hardworking employee disdained and the parasitic employee celebrated? The former endangers the employment of those around him or her by demonstrating their uselessness, but the latter ensures the continued employment of his or her coworkers by disguising their needlessness .

Unfortunately, this phenomena creates employment at the price of the death of creativity and human potential.  To restate the problem, our society is unable to generate a quantity of meaningful jobs sufficient for the working population, and so, in order to avoid mass unemployment, it must create jobs whose only real justification is their own existence.

NEXT WEEK:  The Bright Side of Unemployment

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