Does anyone actually have a real job?

10 July 2016 - 02:01 By Ndumiso Ngcobo
Ndumiso Ngcobo
Ndumiso Ngcobo
Image: Supplied

Ndumiso Ngcobo remembers the days when his job was to describe other people’s jobs

Karl Marx was a great thinker and intellectual-about-town. One of the products of his ginormous brain is the Theory of Alienation, which he published circa 1844 when he was barely 26.

In it Marx argued that people experienced something called Entfremdung (estrangement) from their Gattungswesen (species essence) as a consequence of working within a capitalist system that doesn't give them job satisfaction. Or something like that.

(Disclaimer: I freely admit that I don't really know what I'm talking about, so there's no need to e-mail 2,000-word essays correcting my flippant summary.)

This week I had conversations with two individuals who reminded me of this theory. The first text landed in my WhatsApp inbox at about 10am: "There are aspects of my job that I don't think I will ever understand. At work we have such-and-such policy but now we're being told that we need to develop a strategy from the policy.

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My problem is that, despite many attempts at getting people to explain it to me, I don't understand what the difference is between a policy and a strategy. I don't see why I can't simply write an implementation plan directly from a policy."

I giggled like a rabid hyena. My response was something along the lines of, "This sounds an awful lot like pointless work creation to me; working hard at being busy."

My next step was to copy and paste the question to another friend who works for the government, asking him to explain the difference. His response was equally hilarious: "I think a policy is a statement of intent and the strategy is more about the how."

When I put it to him that his answer sounded like the sort of bullshit I've read in Dilbert, he threw up his hands in the air: "I don't really know what I'm saying. I'm just speculating."

By this point I was cackling and making hissing noises like an incensed goose trying to bite an intruder's nuts.

I don't believe that this phenomenon of people being busy with tasks they don't understand and that add no value is an exclusively public sector malady, even though the government seems to specialise in this area. Let's suppose the mayor decides to "prioritise" the issue of cable theft in his/her metropole.

A meeting will be called to discuss the outcome of a prior conference dealing with cable theft so as to produce a discussion paper meant to create a policy document that will require another three-day conference, at Birchwood Hotel, Boksburg, for the purpose of aligning all millennium goals as they pertain to the strategy document that will also require another three-day lekgotla, at St Georges Hotel, Centurion, in preparation for the all-important inter-departmental conference at Gallagher Estate where a programme of action will be drawn up ...

OK, I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

block_quotes_start If you cannot explain to your 80-year-old granny in one sentence what you do for a living, you're probably not adding much value to society block_quotes_end

To quote my policy/strategy friend, "You know, oftentimes I think the lady who sells vegetables on the street is more productive than me."

I totally identify with this. My last job at the multinational corporation I used to work for can be described thus: reporting on what people with actual jobs did. My job was setting up meetings with folks in order for them to tell me what they did, so that I could create an Excel spreadsheet to send to a different set of folks.

Of course, everyone knows that the more complex, busy and fancy an Excel spreadsheet is, the less practical use it has. Ditto PowerPoint presentations. I have a friend who has worked in marketing for about a decade. She even plans holidays using PowerPoint. In her words, "Spending your working hours creating PowerPoint presentations is God's way of letting you know that you're useless."

By the time I left the corporate world I had burrowed deep into a cocoon of inertia, like a tapeworm in Boris Johnson's bowels.

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During this corporate stint I'm talking about I remember a NatGeoWild episode featuring David Attenborough crawling on his belly, observing a dung beetle ferrying its load from Point A to Point B. My kneejerk response was to laugh out loud and go, "White people's boredom knows no bounds!" I laughed until it occurred to me, "Hang on, dude. You spend days reporting on people with real jobs' work! The dung beetle possesses more Gattungswesen than you do."

I can't think of anything more depressing than realising that a creature which rolls balls of shit all day makes more sense than you.

Back in 1989 I went to university for the first time and one of the most colourful characters I met was one Simphiwe "Majoni" Mgoduso (RIP), a comrade from Sansco (South African National Students Congress, the precursor to Sasco) . One thing he said will stay with for me forever: "Young man, if you cannot explain to your 80-year-old granny in one sentence what you do for a living, you're probably not adding much value to society."

It was a valuable lesson. I have turned down many opportunities in my life purely because I couldn't satisfactorily answer the question, "What am I exactly going to be doing here?"

I'll be damned if some beetle that spends its days ferrying excrement laughs when it hears what I do for a living.

E-mail lifestyle@sundaytimes.co.za  or follow him on Twitter @NdumisoNgcobo