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Ask Slashdot: Does Your Job Need To Exist? 343

An anonymous reader writes "PBS has an article about the growth of jobs that really don't need to exist. It includes an interview with professor David Graebner, who's known for his 2013 article 'BS jobs.' The premise is simple: as technology has automated huge portions of work that used to fill the days for millions of workers, many jobs simply involve less work. How often have you sat at your desk browsing the internet instead of being productive? If your company is such that you can aggregate that lost time across a bunch of workers, you could probably reduce the headcount significantly if everybody just stayed on task all the time. But that's not even an expectation at a lot of companies. Graebner ballparks the number of effectively useless jobs at around 20%. (It's not that the individual workers are useless, just that there are, for example, 12 people doing the work of 10.) So, how about it: how much actual productivity goes into your 40-hour workweek? What about your co-workers? How many people could your company fire if everybody just paid attention all the time?"
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Ask Slashdot: Does Your Job Need To Exist?

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  • Obviously (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 10, 2014 @04:58PM (#46968669)

    Obviously "work" fills other purposes for the human experience other than pure productivity. Just like the stated mission of school is academic education, but you certainly miss out if you don't mingle.

  • by fey000 ( 1374173 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:00PM (#46968673)

    Yes, because human beings can totally stay 100% focused and productive during the entire day. Unless you're an unethical and lazy communist ofcourse.

    I wonder how many CEOs actually believe in this drivel...

  • moronic work model (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:07PM (#46968723) Homepage Journal

    If your company is such that you can aggregate that lost time across a bunch of workers, you could probably reduce the headcount significantly if everybody just stayed on task all the time.

    Only if you're an idiot who doesn't understand that downtime is necessary for every job that involves even rudimentary cognitive skills, and doubly so if you want creativity, no matter if it is artistic or problem-solving.

    The human brain is not designed to perform at 100% for extended periods of time. It evolved to run on a fairly lazy average level most of the time, and have reserves for bursts in times of need. Then it needs time to recover.

    In simple terms for managers: If you condense workload to eliminate low-performance times, your top and average performances drop and you end up with the same or less total productivity.

  • by MiKM ( 752717 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:08PM (#46968727)
    What's worse is that many of those same CEOs probably aren't constantly focused/productive themselves.
  • by mspohr ( 589790 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:10PM (#46968741)

    The history of the past 30 years has been that all productivity gains from people working harder, etc. have gone to the corporate owners, not to employees. It's not in their interest to work harder or longer because they won't get paid any more.
    Slackers unite!

  • Re:Seems low (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Tom ( 822 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:10PM (#46968743) Homepage Journal

    Bad managers (i.e. 80% of them): Yes.

    Good managers, on the other hand, are worth their weight in gold. Especially if you're a geek and want to spend your working hours with fun tech stuff, someone who handles the office politics for you and maintains your work environment, secures you the resources you need and generally removes obstacles from your path is priceless.

  • by khasim ( 1285 ) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:14PM (#46968773)

    Not only that but from the summary:

    How often have you sat at your desk browsing the internet instead of being productive? If your company is such that you can aggregate that lost time across a bunch of workers, you could probably reduce the headcount significantly if everybody just stayed on task all the time.

    Even if I was focused 100% for an 8 hour day that still wouldn't account for problems happening AFTER work.

    Or to put it another way, why aren't fire fighters putting out fires 8 hours a day and then taking 16 hours off (not accounting for lunch and breaks).

    Things do not happen on an orderly schedule. Tasks do not perfectly fit the time available.

    And who says that browsing the Internet is not helping me be more productive?

    This guy seems to have the assembly line mentality. If only the workers would stay focused we could speed up the assembly line by 15%.

  • by Todd Knarr ( 15451 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:16PM (#46968793) Homepage

    The problem is that if you do this, you remove all your slack. If you cut it to just enough people to do the work if they work 100% of the time, the first time someone calls in sick you don't have enough people to do the work. If you get a sudden spike in business because of a holiday or special, you don't have enough people to handle the extra work. If something goes wrong, you don't have anybody to assign to handle it without leaving you short-handed. And that's before you even get to the need for workers to take breaks during the day to avoid burning out.

    It's the same problem that's plagued just-in-time delivery of inventory. Sure it saves money to have stock and raw materials delivered just as they're needed. But the moment a storm or a port strike or anything delays deliveries, you're in a world of hurt because you don't have any inventory on hand to tide you over. Sure it's saved you money, but it's made your business much more fragile and the costs of even one shut-down can easily eat up any savings.

  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:27PM (#46968851) Journal
    Almost all the senior managers, are total time wasters. They either spend time plotting meaningless metrics like, "the user story points burn down rate" or "team velocity" etc. Clueless idiots add up story points from divisions that use 1 story point = 1 engineer day with other divisions using 1 story point = 1 engineer week. They think fixing one bug that was remotely root exploit is 10 time less productive than fixing 10 dialogs with mis aligned text field with radio buttons.

    We can easily lop off the 80% of the top 20% of the management, and since they are the one pulling in 80% of the total wages of the company, you might reduce payroll by a staggering 64%. But rest assured, they would rather cut 10 low wage employees rather than let go one of their own, even if that one fired VP can save more money, improve morale and increase productivity.

  • by swb ( 14022 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:37PM (#46968917)

    I'm told that's what you get if you're a shitty (in any or all ways) place to work.

    The good people will leave. They always have options.

    The shitty people without options will stay. The ones who are just good enough not to get fired but not good enough to move someplace else.

  • Re:Seems low (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ATMAvatar ( 648864 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:46PM (#46968959) Journal
    Sadly, many of the things that good managers take care of are caused by bad managers. One of the many reasons there are so few good managers is that they can get fed up with the bullshit, too.
  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @05:59PM (#46968995)
    CEO's don't do *any* "work". They direct. They lead. They don't do. Most management is about control and verification, not actually doing anything. The more managers, the less work done, as the actual workers must spend more time in meetings and reviews and such, and less time doing anything.
  • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @06:10PM (#46969033)
    I noticed it in 2008 when the economy crashed. Companies fired like crazy, and when the economy recovered they only did modest hiring but maintained the same level of productivity.

    We're running out of work to do, but we don't have any socially acceptable way to distribute wealth w/o work. This should be fun.
  • Necessary waste (Score:4, Insightful)

    by radarskiy ( 2874255 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @06:43PM (#46969191)

    Let me introduce you to toe concept of "necessary waste".

    In your business process, there is some limiting factor that is directly tied to how much you can produce: if had some more of that factor you could produce more, and if you run out you produce less.Maybe it's some machinery for which you can't yet swing the financing to get more units; maybe it's a skill for which there aren't many people tried for yet. If you can't get more, then your next move is to make sure you are utilizing that limiting factor as much as possible.

    That means that the other factors that are inputs or outputs of the limiting factor need to be ready and waiting to make sure the limiting factor is never idle. If you are an input you need to have work prepared but your average rate can never exceed what the limiting factor can consume. If you consume an output of the limiting factor you need to be ready to pick up what the limiting factor gives you.

    If reduce the labor available for the inputs and outputs then you run the risk of creating artificial limits on your business process. You can actually be less productive when you try to eliminate idleness if you don't know WHY things were idle. Idleness isn't actually your target, it is productivity.

    Of course, all of this flies in the face of the slashdot conventional wisdom that management provides zero contribution to productivity.

  • Re:Obviously (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @06:45PM (#46969203) Homepage

    Some work is in not in a linear form - it can be intense periods broken up with idle periods.

    Another factor is that a person is not always producing, but a competence resource. What is a five minute action for a person with competence can be a week long investigation for another - it doesn't matter if you have documentation, sometimes the volume of it makes it hard to sift through - especially if you don't know what you are looking for.

    Unfortunately not all companies values the knowledge an employee has and only looks at productivity figures - not the loss of production that may occur when the person isn't there.

  • by Xeno man ( 1614779 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @06:50PM (#46969231)
    When work comes in spurts and bunches you can look forward to the downtime in between. It can be a reward for getting stuff done. You can think that if I get this work done, I get a small break after or, if I work harder and faster to get it done sooner, I can have a big break. Think of roofers shingling a roof on a Friday. You don't see anyone standing around, they are on each others asses and by 2:00pm or so they are done the roof, packing up and starting their weekend early.

    When you have a constant workflow that never ends there is no real incentive to work harder. You look around and see one guy doing the bare minimum and another guy doing 3 times the work load. Both get payed the same amount and the work never ends. The hard worker might think he is more likely to get a promotion but management thinks if we promote that guy, we would need to hire 3 guys to replace what he does. Lets keep him right there so we can keep our production numbers up.

    The worst thing management can do though is fill an employees down time with more work. Basically you have punished a hard working person with more responsibility and work with zero pay increase. Unless you are trying to kill productivity.
  • by roman_mir ( 125474 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @07:00PM (#46969265) Homepage Journal

    I am a CEO / chief architect. I built my own software, found my clients, eventually hired employees, trained them, managing them to do useful stuff my clients need and pay for. According to you none of what I am doing is work. Funny, none of my employees know what to do or where money comes from that ends up being payed to them. Lets eliminate my useless job and see what happens to the company in a week.

  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @07:27PM (#46969389)

    Yes, because human beings can totally stay 100% focused and productive during the entire day. Unless you're an unethical and lazy communist ofcourse.

    I wonder how many CEOs actually believe in this drivel...

    Most. I'm a pretty big advocate of the idea that happy people are more productive people. Every place I've worked at I end up on whatever "Improve everyones view of work!" committee they have. This usually means I get to have meetings with CEO's and VP's about how to get people to like their jobs better. The nonsense those people come up with is crazy.

    It's pretty typical that we'll have a few meetings where the VP wont even bother to read the minuets... then suddenly they appear one day out of the blue and it's inevitable that they have some trade magazine in tow that states that it's finally definitive! Workers don't really like money! What they like is company sponsored jogs before they clock it! or A plaque that rotates between team members to recognize special achievement! It never dawns on these 6 or 7 figure business geniuses that they've fallen for the typical "Tell them what they want to hear" nonsense that Seventeen magazine fools teenage girls with every day.

    I can show them pretty consistent scientific studies that show people like being VALUED by their employer. And while it's true, there is a threshold for wealth that once you've gone over it, further raises have little impact on their dedication to work, there's is also a lower threshold where if they are consistently under paid, they'll also feel as if they're not valued.

    The most important thing to convey to an employee is that they are important to the companies goals. They are valued and trusted. If none of those things are true then fire them, they're going to cost you more money than they'll make. Even a data entry person can do nothing all day if they really don't give a shit about your opinion anymore.

    My goals when in such groups is to get management to understand this. To make it obvious the company needs it's people. To not only value them, but value their entire family. Good health insurance. Programs for family members to deal with mental health issues, child care, etc... Then some big ticket things. Re-reimbursement for rare disabilities and such. You can do that and maybe a couple of your employees will take advantage of the programs. But the other 1000 employees will see that and think to themselves "Wow, that's great. If I leave and go work at that other place for $10k a year more, will they care about me that much?" Granted, in the grand scheme of things they probably will. But perception is reality.

    When your company has a major outage that costs a couple of hundred grand an hour while it's down, and a little known employee rises to the top and fixes it in a very creative way most executives will tell their manager to do something like give them a $50 gift card to Starbucks. How do you think that employee feels about that given that they're well aware of how much they just saved you? You know what's cheaper? Get off your ass, walk down there, and say "John, we really appreciate what you did last night. Really, personally, thank you. If you need to leave a little early today you go ahead, your manager told me how late you were up. Good job." That employee will be glued to that chair for the next 6 months guaranteed. Yet this never, ever, happens.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 10, 2014 @08:02PM (#46969557)

    Turns out that they viewed their primary role to be a provider of jobs within the county. Providing telephone service was considered secondary.

    If an organization thinks its role as a buyer of labor outweighs its role as a seller of services, that's when you break out the illustration of the broken window [wikipedia.org]. If the organization's leaders refuse to understand the fallacy they've fallen into, complain to the local newspaper's editor.

    I'm not sure that this case is a good example for the parable of the broken window, in fact it could be considered a counter example.

    I do believe that the county telephone company's manager had jobs as a major consideration, but I also doubt that JimCC's observation "Providing telephone service was considered secondary" is accurate. In this case, they saw their choice as firing local people and sending the revenue from sales out of county.
    Sure, the money saved from automation could be then used for something like infrastructure improvement (don't say "or lowering rates" because that does not happen), but infrastructure improvement versus local jobs still comes down to how to benefit the local people.

    Speaking as someone who used to have to travel a large territory in a rural state, I saw the consequences over the last few decades this kind of decision, of letting money flow out of the local small city/county area. Everyone suffers except for a few at the top who leave because they don't want to live in a depressed area.

  • by rundgong ( 1575963 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @08:07PM (#46969577)
    If 12 people spend 40 hours each doing the work of only 10 people, there are two ways of eliminating the wasted time.
    They think two people have jobs that don't need to exist. A better solutions appears to be that all 12 people spend less hours at work.
    How would society benefit from having two more unemployed people instead of having 12 people that can spend more time with their kids (or doing whatever they want to do instead)?
  • by LihTox ( 754597 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @10:03PM (#46970059)

    Asimov and others predicted a future where there wouldn't be enough jobs to go aroundubt they saw that as a GOOD thing. Humanity was clever enough to build machines to do all the work, and now we can kick back and enjoy some leisure time. George Jetson had a three-hour workday. But that vision can only work if we view our increased productivity as a benefit to *everyone*, and compensate everyone accordingly: a dividend for being a member of the clever human race (or if you want, a dividend for being a citizen/resident of a first-world nation).

    As more jobs are automated, it seems to me that there are three options: 1) we share the wealth, either with a guaranteed income or by raising wages while simultaneously cutting the number of hours people work; 2) we make a lot of fake jobs so that we can pretend that people are earning the money they need to live, and avoid the horrors of socialism (horror! horror!); or 3) a LOT of people drop into poverty.

  • Re:Obviously (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Austerity Empowers ( 669817 ) on Saturday May 10, 2014 @11:35PM (#46970379)

    Not to mention that we're expected to work long hours or "challenged" to hit pretty incredible deadlines, but there's only so much gas in the can. Periodically you just cannot code another line and need a break, but if you're not at your desk or otherwise online, you're not looking good. So you're off task, recharging. If you were out digging ditches instead of coding, they can hit you with the whip but the shovel can't move any further no matter how in shape you are.

    Some corporate cultures fill this down time with meetings, in which a lot of people's time is collectively wasted in the name of communication. Some see this as a form of productivity. I see it as waste every bit as much as looking at funny pictures of cats. Either way there's a limit to productivity, firing 20% and driving everyone harder is just not going to work.

  • by schnell ( 163007 ) <me@sch n e l l . net> on Sunday May 11, 2014 @12:46AM (#46970613) Homepage

    ARRRRRRRGHHHH! Sorry to interrupt the Permanent Slashdot Management Hate-Fest, but please RTFA. This theory does not come from some MBA enclave or CEO roundtable. It comes from an ultra left-wing, anti-capitalist academic. It's sort of an extension of Marx's idea that capitalism dehumanizes workers by alienating them from their right to free creative labor by sticking them in brain-draining jobs that consume all their time. It's actually a bit of a muddled critique ("I will say 20% of jobs are BS but I won't say which ones") that attempts to convince people that they shouldn't criticize other jobs they might think were overpaid (like unionized auto workers, as specifically cited) just because the complainer has a job they are unhappy with. In short, it's a load of academic twaddle, but interesting as a conversation starter.

    Not to introduce Occam's Razor into a Slashdot discussion, but if CEOs actually believed this, wouldn't they, you know... just fire everybody with useless jobs? You know, to, like, make more money?

    And yet somehow Slashdot managed to turn a Bolshie professor's theory on the perils of capitalism into a thread about CEOs. This is part of why I dread clicking on any Slashdot story that involves money or capitalism because so many commenters here think they understand those things but so few actually do. There are many perfectly good reasons to dislike or disrespect most corporate CEOs, you don't have to go fabricating new ones.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday May 11, 2014 @01:34AM (#46970727)

    A class in the Peloponnesian War does not teach a lot of critical thinking - mostly laborious reading of texts written by self important academics trying to find a way to make themselves relevant in a world that doesn't need their skills. Sure, at West Point, such a class might make sense, but most of us are not training to figure out how to apply ancient war strategies and tactics to the modern battlefield with drones being operated halfway around the world by guys in Missouri who work eight hour shifts five days a week.

    Critical thinking is figuring out why the bare iron you just loaded your microcode on doesn't work -- sorry, there's no debugging tools below you. Sure, you could flash a light on the console from your code, but that would probably change the timing and give a register time to settle from a load from memory that you forgot to issue a WAIT for (or, in this case, NOT). You, a bottle of scotch, a listing of your microcode w/hex microcode shown (a luxury actually), the behavior you don't understand, and a platform reference manual (that, in the end, this version of the iron actually doesn't quite implement as it should). Been there, done that. That's critical thinking. (Turned out the machine hadn't implemented the spec correctly and it hadn't been reported (or fixed) in the ten years since the machine was built/loaded -- the current version of the machine had the same bug!

  • by Dahamma ( 304068 ) on Sunday May 11, 2014 @02:23AM (#46970799)

    Problem is, quoting the summary doesn't help understand the article, because the summary completely misrepresented it. It says "the premise is simple: " and then proceeds to totally mischaracterize the premise.

    I was about to add on to your indignation, but I went back and read TFA - and agree with much of it. Now the only thing I'm indignant with is the horrible title and summary posted on /. about an interesting article. I'm assuming you didn't RTFA or the article TFA was based on, since most of your points actually have nothing to to with the author's premise, just the bad slashdot summary.

    The real premise is NOT that the *employees* slack and so you can do math like "12 jobs doing the work of 10", etc. It's that the jobs themselves have a lot of useless make-work (often paper pushing) where there really isn't enough to do to even occupy someone in a 40 hour week, so people "browse the Internet" to look busy. And those people in that situation often know it (and based on feedback the author got, often hate it). It's browsing the Internet because there's nothing else to do, not to avoid doing something.

  • by khchung ( 462899 ) on Sunday May 11, 2014 @05:02AM (#46971093) Journal

    I can show them pretty consistent scientific studies that show people like being VALUED by their employer. And while it's true, there is a threshold for wealth that once you've gone over it, further raises have little impact on their dedication to work, there's is also a lower threshold where if they are consistently under paid, they'll also feel as if they're not valued.

    I think you've missed the point here, it's not about what my expenses are. The basic idea is that I do a good job for the company, the company recognizes that and pays me a good salary - it's a win-win situation. Severely underpaying me means you're trying to exploit me, to pad your profit margins at my expense. Why should you stay with a company that's trying to screw you?

    Exactly. Fools in HR like to parrot the idea that raises have little impact on morale, and use that as justification for not giving raises.

    Guess what? Giving raises IS one of the most clear signal that the company VALUES a staff, regardless of whether that person need the extra money or not. And the opposite is also true - NOT giving a raise is a sure fire signal to the staff that the company DID NOT VALUE his contribution, regardless of what management said.

    And if there really is a point where more money doesn't matter, why aren't there a maximum compensation for the CxOs?

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats