Can Associations Lead Workers Out of a Rut?

Employees are feeling disengagement as much as ever. Those workers may be an opportunity for associations to help.

Economic trends come and go, but dead-end office jobs are forever.

A few generations back we were satirizing the “organization man” who drably punched in and out of a desk gig. In his 1991 novel, Generation X, Douglas Coupland described a host of Xers stuck in lousy “McJobs” that bore little connection to their college majors. Today, London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber argues that we are now in an era of “b.s. jobs.” (I’m using the polite form of the phrase; the title of his new book on the subject spells it out.)

To be clear, Graeber’s definition of such jobs is very broad-brush: It encompasses “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers,” which would encompass (just as a for-instance) the whole of the association industry. His book is a larger jeremiad about making long-term changes to the nature and value of work. But in the near-term he’s put a spotlight on the kind of disengagement that employees feel when they’re relegated to grunt-work, make-work, and so on.

Graeber is tackling a culture overstuffed with workers whose only role is to sit around all day trying to sell things to each other.

And there are a lot of those employees. “Something like 37-40 percent of workers according to surveys say their jobs make no difference,” Graeber recently told the Economist. “Insofar as there’s anything really radical about the book, it’s not to observe that many people feel that way, but simply to say we should proceed on the assumption that for the most part, people’s self-assessments are largely correct. Their jobs really are just as pointless as they think they are.”

That kind of existential anxiety may be why upwards of 70 percent of employees say they feel disengaged at their work. But the problem isn’t necessarily abstract; part of the reason many employees may feel they’re in go-nowhere jobs is because they lack opportunities to move upward. Graeber throws this problem at the feet of middle management, which he argues clogs the processes of organizations. “They keep adding new managerial positions in between the people producing stuff and the guys ultimately paying for it, often whose only role is to sit around all day trying to sell things to each other,” he told the Economist.

Graeber’s argument seems to run counter to the prevailing business philosophy of emphasizing flatness and collaboration instead of more adding more layers to the org chart. Organizations seem to be wise to the ways that many job roles have become automated and have tried to make their workplaces leaner as a result; I certainly know of no association that’s taking pride in its middle-management expansion.

But let’s take Graeber at his word and assume that what we might call “b.s. creep” is a real problem—if not your association’s office, then perhaps your members’. What to do about it? Graeber is an advocate for universal basic income, which may have some virtues as a counterweight to McJob drudgery. For the immediate moment, though, your members have reports to produce and meetings to plan. How can the association you help run fight that battle?

One thought: In 2016, I wrote about white paper produced by Spark Consulting that argued that associations should be playing more of a role in education than it does. Certainly, associations provide credentials for people at the top of their profession, but there are perhaps opportunities to also serve those who are trying to get there. As I wrote at the time, associations “have access to employers, who are often looking for skilled labor that doesn’t necessarily require a secondary degree; they have experience providing credentials and certifications, which may have more immediate relevance within an industry; they can provide relevant training more quickly than the two- or four-year degree process; and they can connect with students who don’t fit traditional definitions of students.” And, if Graeber is right, they have an audience of dissatisfied workers who are looking for more out of their jobs. Associations may be able to do this for people loath to spend on an expensive graduate degree.

Naturally, playing this role benefits the association as well—more members, more potential customers for products and services. Graeber might suggest this process just produces more grist for the mill. But if part of an association’s job is to help everybody in its industry feel more validated in its work, a little bit of education can go a long way.

What does your association do to help fight workplace disengagement, either internally or among membership? Share your experiences in the comments.

(BrianAJackson/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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