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Unemployment Down – But is that good news for everyone?

By November 8, 2018One Comment

Headlines this week have been the stuff capitalist dreams are made of, as the number of people unemployed in New Zealand hit a 10-year low. Flying in the face of relentless reports citing low business confidence, the stats now reflect what we in recruitment have been seeing for months: appetite to hire is high, with plenty of businesses growing, creating new roles or quick to replace incumbents as they exit (where historically, many would spread that responsibility among a team, heaving a collective sigh of relief at ‘saving’ one entire salary). The good news hasn’t gone unnoticed – at an event on Wednesday evening, the usual “So what do you do?” niceties were immediately met with a crowing, “You must be loving it now then!” as soon as recruitment was mentioned. And, yes, we are loving it, if in a slightly bittersweet way – loads of roles don’t automatically generate loads of quality candidates. Nor can we say, hand on heart, the roles are all actually good ones.

29,000 jobs were created by our economy in the three months ended September, most in utilities, construction, retail, health and recreation services. Looking at roles currently advertised, it is clear administration and office support, I.T. and sales are only narrowly behind in terms of market demand. Which leads me to wonder: how good are these new jobs?

In my line of work I have cause to meet a lot of people with the express purpose of learning all about what they do. I also like to find out how much they enjoy said work. I ask, what do you do in the day-to-day that you really love? What do you get a kick from? And then I ask for the opposite: what sort of things do you find yourself doing that take an awful lot of energy, with not much personal reward? What is really hard for you? What feels like a waste of time, or a ‘soul sucker‘?

Increasingly – sadly – I hear people say, “Well, lots of it.” And when I ask, “So what gets you up in the morning? What attracts you to the office each day?” there is often a mystified silence.

This relates perfectly to what anthropologist David Graeber defines as a ‘bullshit job’ – “pointless but you have to pretend that it’s different.” Graeber estimates nearly half of the working population feel like they’re in bullshit jobs, and a lot of souls are getting destroyed as a result. As discussed earlier this week with Jesse Mulligan of Radio NZ, Graeber believes part of the reason so many bullshit jobs exist is the political pressure for job creation. “The only thing that the left and the right seem to totally agree on is that jobs are always good … the solution to anything is more jobs.”

But at what cost? So often, following an interview the best word I could apply to somebody’s opinion of their own work is ‘ambivalent’. They have totally, utterly mixed feelings. I see far too many people who are miserable, and it’s not always for the reasons we’re led to believe people hate jobs for – poor leadership or working conditions. It’s because they don’t feel they really have purpose; that their work is not meaningfulThis is an especially bitter pill for people in human resources and recruitment to swallow, who were so often drawn to their careers in the first place by truly altruistic motivations.

Bullshit jobs lead to depression, anxiety and also terrible workplace dynamics such as bullying. So how good is it really that we keep creating them? And where do they come from? Why are they there? Graeber first published an (excellent) article on this precise topic in 2013, citing some fairly terrifying statistics including that over the course of the last century, the number of workers employed in manual labour jobs fell dramatically, while ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales and services workers’ tripled. “In other words, productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away (even if you count industrial workers globally, including the toiling masses in India and China, such workers are still not nearly so large a percentage of the world population as they used to be.)”

But this hasn’t freed us up to to pursue work that lights our fire. Instead we have seen continual growth of bullshit jobs, “including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.”

There we have it. Graeber himself lumps human resources in the mix as a bullshit job. It’s no wonder so many of my candidates struggle to sound excited about what they do. I’m not tarring all of HR and Recruitment with the same brush. There is a lot of important, valuable work being done, and I’m lucky to meet with people who fall happily into that camp, too. However the news of “more jobs!” doesn’t immediately fill us all with glee. Especially not when so many of our mates are nurses and teachers.

Or were, before they gave up and moved into education recruitment or pharmaceutical sales…

Natasha Foster

Recruitment Consultant at New Zealand firm Rice Consulting, shaking things up in the HR world. Photographer on the side, Te Reo student, rock climber and learner surfer. Most happy off the grid.

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