Märt Väljataga: To work or remain oneself?

Märt Väljataga.
Märt Väljataga. Source: Screen capture

In Estonia, the public sector stands out as the main manufacturer of pointless jobs. Sometimes indirectly, for example, by obligating state-funded foundations to commission internal audits that (unlike external audits) are examples of pointless work par excellence, Märt Väljataga writes in a comment originally published in Sirp magazine.

Henry Thoreau remarked in the middle of the 19th century, "It is remarkable that there is little or nothing to be remembered written on the subject of getting a living… One would think, from looking at literature, that this question had never disturbed a solitary individual's musings."

Perhaps the question did not come up in the olden days because people were largely born into their means of subsistence. Later, it was overshadowed by romantic ideas of self-realization, finding and following one's star whether it was financially rewarding or not.

The Soviet period had "vocational aptitude" offices, while "career counseling" is offered today. However, the latter is increasingly difficult to do because the changing economic environment is doing away with permanent vocations. The mantra heard most often – sometimes sincerely, but increasingly with irony – is: "Learn to write code!" Followed by, "retraining."

Two polar approaches have been used when attaching meaning to working. First, that it is the curse of Adam, a close relative of slavery that robs us of our humanity. And adversely, that it is work that has turned ape into man and continues to be the medium through which we practice our humanity.

Go figure which is correct. But even should it be the former, the torture could be alleviated if only a little through decent pay and a short workday. Man could switch off his consciousness and scruples for a few hours every day for some mindless toil to allow themselves to spend the rest in physical or metaphysical enjoyment.

It seems that Thoreau's realization is as true today as it ever was. People are reluctant to talk about how to make an honest living, it is almost taboo – especially if we place the emphasis on the word "honestly." Man is also a rationalizing animal, capable of justifying whichever activity provided it is sufficiently lucrative. And if not, there is always oblivion to fall back on.

There are plenty of justifications for various ways to make a living: others do it too; if I didn't do it, worse people would; society benefits greatly from my work; that's life; I have myself and a family to feed.

The late and great anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber wrote an essay on pointless jobs that later matured into a book ("Bullshit jobs," 2018). Graeber writes about jobs society does not need and the pointlessness of which is obvious even for those working said jobs.

He identifies five types: 1) lackeys, tasked with emphasizing the importance of their boss' job; 2) the muscle, that is to say lawyers, lobbyists and PR staff to fool and undermine others; 3) fixers, who find temporary solutions to problems for which there are permanent solutions; 4) box tickers, who create the impression of useful work where none is being done; 5) taskmasters, who manage those who require no management and come up with addition work for them to do.

As a humanist, Graeber found that the person in a given job had to consider it to be pointless for it to qualify as such. Personally, I do not hold the latter aspect to be all that important because people, as mentioned, are capable of rationalizing even the most unnecessary or downright harmful tasks.

Graeber wrote that pointless jobs aren't an exclusively public sector phenomenon. They are also thriving in its private counterpart. The latter is difficult to explain if we consider that the private sector should be especially sensitive to efficiency. One possible explanation is that the private sector largely depends on the public one these days. It has been suggested that this is the reason companies are forced to pay heads of communication, internal auditors etc. But it hardly explains the whole problem.

However, the public sector still seems to be at the forefront of pointless jobs in Estonia. Sometimes indirectly, for example, by obligating state-funded foundations to commission internal audits that (unlike external audits) are examples of pointless work par excellence.

Working in the fields of science and culture is nice and appears meaningful to those involved as these are usually also people's hobbies. This convenient coincidence might put other people off, however, as not everyone is entitled to such happiness.

Perhaps we can interpret as an attempt to appease the resulting qualms the fact that even educational, cultural and scientific workers tend to jump on the bandwagon of pointlessness with a masochistic zeal to try and attach meaning to playing the fool as if to say that we can evaluate, survey, visualize, strategize etc. just as well as the big boys in ministries and agencies.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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