On youth work and bullshit jobs

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash

Before I was a fairly educated and passionate individual about social change, I was the almost-all-encompassing poster child for Canada’s oppressed and marginalized group: A young, poor immigrant black girl living in one of Toronto’s priority neighbourhoods.

Fast forward a few years and post-secondary education, I was elated to have stumbled into the field of youth work.

It felt amazing to find a career in uplifting young people, like myself a few years prior, who would otherwise be left to struggle in the margins of society.

In the deepest part of my heart I believed that since youth work wasn’t the most lucrative field, people would get into it purely because of the passion they felt for the work itself. I was excited to be around passionate individuals putting all their efforts into revolutionary social change.

Boy, was I wrong.

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My expectation of community work to be progressive and meaningful was met with pure disappointment as I slowly came to the realization that there might be a lot of fluff in the field.

The fluff that kills your passion. The fluff that makes you cynical. The fluff that makes you become indifferent to the spirit of youth work: critically challenging social issues that impact the lives of young people.

I wasn’t entirely sure if that was just unique to my own experiences, a personal bias, or a pressing issue that the field wasn’t critically addressing.

Was I alone in feeling that there was a lot of fluff in community work and not enough actual, useful, progressive work? Is the work even about the population we claim to serve and support? Do we care about the work? Did the youth really matter?

In my search for answers to my work dilemma, I stumbled upon an article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant, and subsequently the book by the same author: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.

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According to David Graeber, bullshit jobs are “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Not all bullshit jobs are created equal.

Graeber identifies five ranks of bullshit work that include the flunkies, the goons, the duct tapers, the box tickers, and the taskmasters.

If you have ever felt like your job was to make your boss feel important, or as an underpaid psychiatrist for their personal-issues-dump-ground, then you are part of the flunkies.

I personally also call this the ego management of management.

The goons are there to convince everyone else that the work being done is actually important, especially if it’s not.

Next time you are in a meeting, really pay attention to the way people describe the work that is being done. Most of the time, we’re all dozing off but if you manage to actually pay attention, you might be pleasantly impressed by how so much can be said and still nothing can be said at the same time in a span of an hour.

The duct tapers‘ job is to fix issues that the boss is either too lazy or too incompetent to fix. The box-tickers‘ task is to  produce paperwork, database, or serious-looking reports that suggest that things are happening when they really are not.

Lastly, we have the taskmasters, the bosses and managers whose job is to manage people who don’t need management and/or to create bullshit tasks for others to justify the existence of their own positions.

READ MORE: The Bullshit-Job Boom

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In theory, youth work should be far from Graeber’s theory on many pointless jobs that exists in today’s labour market. After all, supporting the future generation in actualizing their potential should be a priority and a worthwhile endeavour for individuals and society as a whole.

However, politics, egos, inept management, useless tasks, and pointless infrastructures seem to infiltrate the field.

Sometimes, it almost feels as if the main goal for many youth organizations, programs, and services is to sustain their existence, and not about changing the lives of the young people they claim to serve. The youth are there as props to secure funding.

Empty statistics, visually appealing graphs, and fluff reports that don’t really tell us anything meaningful about the true impact of the work are used to sustain the existence of the organization or program.

And, I couldn’t help but notice that the youth also notice the fluff. They might come for the free pizza and honorariums, but deep down, they might know that the compensations are compensating for more than just their time, efforts and inputs.

The compensations are part of the fluff to cover up the lack of meaningful contributions of these services to youth and the issues that young people face.

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This does not mean that all youth work is bullshit.

I am forever thankful for community initiatives, youth programs and youth services that have supported my journey.

There are plenty of amazing organizations and passionate individuals doing work that matters. Work that is changing the lives of thousands, if not millions, of young people in our society who otherwise would be left in the margins of society.

Through my research, I have come to realize that youth work suffers from the thesis Graeber proposes about bullshit jobs, but I don’t have solutions or answers for it.

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Currently, I am on a personal sabbatical from youth work, at least emotionally. I feel frustrated and cynical.

In the meantime, I’m working on beefing up my skills and resume so that I can be a suitable candidate for work that is actually meaningful and useful to society, and satisfying to my personal needs.

Another great book that implicitly touches on the bullshit job theory: Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford.

P.s. The amount of times I said bullshit in this article is alarming, but it’s all for educational purposes.

Until next time… 🙂


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