Meaningless Jobs and Quiet Quitting

“No one wants to work.”

“The great resignation.”

“Everyone is quitting.”

We have all heard it. Following the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people quit their occupations in large numbers. They decided to pursue the “more important things” in life. They demanded flexible working arrangements. To keep them on the job, employers were compelled to increase their pay.

So yes, you might say that no one wants to work anymore.

However, I think that this interpretation is too simplistic.

People do want to work. Perhaps because I feel compelled to defend my fellow millennials. But still, I must say that people still enjoy working.

The issue isn’t that the ‘strawberry’ generation hated work; rather, it’s that many of the jobs being given to them aren’t actually work at all. Although jobs are provided to us, the mundane, spreadsheet-filling and mid-level manager-dominated roles we perform can barely be considered “work”.


The Unplugged Controller

I’m not sure if I’m the only one that does this. In my younger days, I would give my younger brother an unplugged controller so he feels like he is “playing” console games with me. In actual fact, you are in complete control of the game the entire time.

The unplugged controller

Today, a lot of “jobs” are just like unplugged controllers. The work will still get done whether or not we participate in the process. Most of us are only moving numbers, pushing buttons, and keeping ourselves busy. There is no concern for genuine productivity. These have become meaningless jobs.

We never stop to ask “is this job necessary?” We are paid increasingly higher and higher salaries for our participation in this ever-growing proliferation of pointless jobs. I have worked in a white collar job where they pay your performance bonus in portions spread over the whole year. We used to joke that it’s to make us get hooked on our bonus payouts, like drugs so that we wouldn’t leave (I left eventually).

American journalist Sebastian Junger once said,

“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

Sebastian Junger

Everyone want to work. The majority crave for real work, but we have somehow removed “work” from the majority of our jobs. Work has been replaced by an abundance of pointless, meaningless tasks.

A Personal Anecdote

I was in my school’s Track & Field team for 6 years. For most of the part, it truly sucks. Yes, taking part in competitions hosted in large stadiums is awesome. But these competitions, 2 hour events that occur 3 to 4 times a year, are only a minuscule fraction of the total Track & Field experience. What about majority of the time spent?

  • Dreading your school holidays because from 8 AM to 6 PM, you have to report to school to train and lift weights with your teammates while your classmates are enjoying their break.
  • Spend three-hour practice sessions training in 35-degree Celsius heat.
  • Tearing labrums, wrist ligaments and pulling muscles that you didn’t even know you had, just to spend weeks recovering so you can do it all again.
  • Enduring physical training sessions that even the Singapore Armed Forces wouldn’t dare allow their soldiers to go through.
  • Giving up on your hobbies in order to commit your time to training. This is scheduled 4 times a week, 2pm to 6pm, during the school term.

So yeah, being on the track team sucked. Anyone else who is in the team will also tell you that it sucked.

But guess what? I loved it. Most of my teammates loved it. We were all grateful to have experienced this in our lifetime. There was beauty in the struggle. A beauty in the “suck”.

It’s beauty in the struggle, ugliness in the success

It’s about working together to achieve a shared objective and create something exceptional while understanding that everyone’s contributions were crucial to the team’s success or failure.

For me, being an athlete was overbearing, painful, and straight-up frustrating at times, but from day one on the team, I felt like my contributions mattered.

All About That Report

Now I compare that to the experience I had working as a white collar employee a few years back.

I had the opportunity to work with wonderful colleagues and superiors. My coaches abused us with offensive words that cannot be shared online. My supervisors fared better than my coaches and were friendlier (which wasn’t a difficult bar to overcome). Furthermore, it wasn’t a difficult job. It was simple and easy. And I could learn everything I didn’t already know in a matter of days.

The best thing, though? I was paid a decent salary for putting little effort in my work. It sounded as if I struck a gold mine right? No. Somehow I hated it. Okay wait a minute, maybe the word “hate” is far too strong.

The word should be “indifference”. I had a blatant disregard for my work and is indifferent to my job.

Over the years, I realised how little “work” was actually required to do my job. Sure, occasionally I still have to put in a serious 10 -12 hours day of work. Other than those days, I filled my hours by fiddling with files, excel sheets, and writing meeting minutes just to pass the time. I realized that my presence and actions does not matter and will not impact the project. My superiors are only very particular about the contents in that weekly progress report that I write to our immediate bosses.

I was pretty sure that if I didn’t show up for a day, week, or month, the show would go on. I actually tested it out by being absent for a day and nobody knew (or maybe they just didn’t bothered) that I wasn’t at work. It was obvious that I had become the one playing with an unplugged controller.

I traded my time for a paycheck, with no regard for the actual work being done. I found myself working for a meaningless job.

Many of my coworkers and friends working in different industries were also engaging in the same activity. One large façade of bullshit jobs.

Bullshit Jobs

There used to be a direct cause-and-effect relationship between your labor inputs and outputs. A farmer’s labour in the field would result in yielding crops. A carpenter would build homes. A mechanic would repair machinery. A captain would commandeer his ship.

Fast forward to today, we see millions of well-paying positions exist now that need us to write emails, play office politics, manipulate figures, and report to multiples levels of higher management.

I believe that half of all white-collar jobs could be replaced by technology, and in fact, productivity might even increase.

We aren’t working. Sure, we have jobs. We make money. Some of us make a lot of money. These jobs are not work. They are distractions at best, just like an adult day-care at worst.

To quote David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs:

“We have become a civilization based on work—not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself.”

David Graeber
Bull Shit Jobs Book Cover

The Paradox of Modern Work

Often we see that the most prestigious jobs require the least amount of effort.

Also, you can make a lot of money if you can toil away at dull jobs longer than anybody else. However, it is done at the expense of your sense of independence.

To quote David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs again:

Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. But at least they know they’re doing something useful.

Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers – as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do.

Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing; they feel they have done nothing to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it’s all based on a lie – as, indeed, it is.

David Graeber

We deceive ourselves about prestige in order to save our “bullshit jobs.” We detest the work and secretly feel as though we are trading our time for money. Nevertheless, prestige is addictive and continues to pull us forward.

The thing about prestige is that it isn’t real. It’s a vanity metric. Look at all the fancy names we have for a middle management position (eg. deputy director, assistant vice president, assistant manager. etc.)

Prestige has soothed the anxiety about our existence at work. Prestige has imprisoned those uncomfortable self-realizations into the back of our thoughts.

The show can continue thanks to prestige.

If you adjust your values, and if prestige loses its luster, the meaningless of these jobs will become impossible to ignore.


Of Meaningless Jobs and “Quiet Quitting”

Recently, we can see that there is a shift in this sentiment. A new trend going on.

People are starting to weigh up the value of their labours, not just in monetary terms but in terms of quality of work and life (also known as work/life balance). If the sums do not add up, they would not want to hang around. It is no wonder that the service industry is facing a severe labour shortage. It depends largely on people working long hours in suboptimal conditions. Not to mention having to deal with Karens everyday.

The new phenomenon has a pejorative term called “quiet quitting”. It means not taking your job too seriously. It does not mean getting off the company payroll. In fact, the idea is to stay on track—but to devote your time to activities outside of the office.

I believe that one of the reasons is that these people believe that their job is meaningless, no matter how much work is put into it. It probably has something to do with the fact that Millennials want to do something with their life other than just earn a living. Gone are the days of adhering to what is comfortable, “normal,” and safe.

People who are “quiet quitters” work passively and prioritize themselves over their employers. This generation is no longer subscribing to the hustle-culture mentality that work has to be your life.

Work ≠ Life

This was something I wrote on my Medium account a few months back. I think it somehow relates to this topic.

No, I don’t want to read 50 books in one month
No, I don’t want to pick up 10 hobbies
No, I don’t want to train 7 times a week
No, I don’t want to focus my weekends on my personal growth.

I want to read when I feel like it and I want to read books that give me joy.
I want to do 1 maybe 2 hobbies whenever I feel I want to do them
I want to exercise at a time that feels natural to me. Maybe that’s just a 5:00 am jog every morning and a weekend hike, no gym sessions.
I want my weekends to be enjoyable. I don’t need the added stress to be focusing on personal development. Sometimes that may feel like exploring new cafes or going to a bar, other times it could be playing the piano or failing miserably at fishing.

Stop with the hustle culture. Stop making me feel bad for deciding to be human.

The Great Resignation is more like the Great Realization

After struggling to make things work during this pandemic,

We realize that..
– there is more to life than work
– purpose & fulfillment played a big part in “why are we still working here”
– we take human connection for granted
– the value of meaningless jobs and quiet quitting.

We want to feel like human beings and not a cog in the machine; we have feelings, dreams, and family commitments.

Think about what you are currently working on now. Are you making the most of your time? Is it satisfying? Or are you simply playing with an unplugged controller, doing your part to keep the machine chugging along?



2 thoughts on “Meaningless Jobs and Quiet Quitting

  1. Working in meaningless jobs where the focus is on wayang shows (example, perfecting the weekly reports) rather than substance is what drives people to seek financial freedom.

    Some people who quit their jobs after reaching financial freedom get criticised for not contributing to the workforce. From experience and observation, many well-paid jobs actually add lesser value than the salary paid out. Some even subtract value, particularly those selling snake-oil products.

    Instead of blindly raising pay, companies should look at the job scope/tasks and cut off the meaningless ones.

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