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The rise of managerial feudalism

We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so,” writes Joshua Ferris in his debut novel, “Then We Came to the End,” which casts a poignant look at the modern workplace. “We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy.”

Ferris joins a long list of literary works that paint a picture of our love affair with our office cubicles. There is “The Devil Wears Prada,” which is about a job that “a million girls would kill for.” There’s Scott Adams’ Dilbert comics, which gave us “office humour.”

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That these works of fiction capture our weary attention and cause us our nervous chuckles belie the fact that what they depict may not only be funny, but also true. And that they are funnily true only makes reality bleak and dispiriting.

Last June, The New Yorker published an article by Nathan Heller that only seemed to confirm what many members of the labor force may have already felt. We live in an age of the “bullsh*t-job boom.”

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If you grew up in a typical Filipino household like I did, you’ve probably been brainwashed by this seemingly universal formula to success: earn a good education to get a good job that pays a good life. That “good life” is good in an economic sense, of course.

With this mindset, we grew up deeply desiring to become just like one of those busy bees rushing along Ayala Avenue. Royalty lived in the topmost floors of tall skyscrapers, where they can be closer to the divine. We aspired for that, too.

Until it materialized for most of us eager beavers. Then, we opened Twitter one day and read about a friend who has either already quit and moved on or has chosen to stay but is brooding. For a generation

so white-collared and so much more advantaged, why did so many of us become cubicle zombies?

When did the glamour of boardroom meetings and strategic planning lose their shine? Why do you keep on rolling your eyes at the new consultant? When did the daily grind become exactly that—grinding, tedious and oppressive?

An anthropologist has hypothesized this: that people feel their jobs do not contribute to making the world a better place. That if these consultants, lawyers and managers would just vanish, the absence would hardly be felt. Thus, David Graeber’s term “managerial feudalism” and his book, “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.”

These BS jobs are not necessarily the most stressful, because these jobs are not much in teaching, which can also be stressful. Neither are they the most constricting, because they exist in creative industries, too. BS jobs are called such because, in a nutshell, the people manning these jobs feel like they are not making a contribution to the world.

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That’s why it feels like grinding toil. Managerial feudalism adds more managers and more employees, and, to compensate, more useless work is also added. People work harder, the rat race intensifies and more people go home tired. Managerial feudalism keeps capitalism humming along, central and influential in people’s lives.

Surprisingly, not a lot of people know that industry is a virtue. There is a lot of nobility in working. Our jobs are our avenues to exhibit our energies and our abilities so that they may be used for the collective good. We leave no impact on our communities unless we work.

Today, jobs are seen as a means to an end. Sometimes, they are also seen as a means to other, grander means. Our white-collared dreams have become selfish things.

I have learned that the only way to live life is to live it for others. Our purpose is not only for our own advancement, but also for contributing to the greater good. Surely, my current academic work comes with its difficulties. But its impact on others is not arguable.

Likewise, my career in finance is purely BS if it’s all for profit. But if it becomes a platform for efficient financial institutions for all Filipinos, then my work goes beyond me and moves toward a higher cause.

In the end, we don’t need fancier positions, bigger offices and swankier business travels. We only need to be able to make a difference. A million girls—and boys—would kill for such a job.

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TAGS: education, good job, good life, managerial feudalism
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