Can There Be a Theory of the Email Job?
notes on a book I'll probably never write
I think and read and talk and write a lot about education and its role in the economy. (Read The Cult of Smart!) I’ve been gratified, the last few years, to be able to engage in some discussions and analysis with various academics and thinktankers in this regard, away from my public-facing self online. I wrote a white paper on tests of college learning (the subject of my dissertation) for the New America Foundation years ago; while I haven’t done anything with that kind of official imprimatur since, I always enjoy when I can get into these conversations with policy types. And there’s a consistent dynamic that I think betrays a certain missing part of the picture when it comes to educated labor.
When I talk to people about college-educated workers, even informed people, there’s a constant tendency to immediately think of doctors, lawyers, engineers, data scientists…. Reflexively, people seem to think of educated labor in terms of college graduates who a) tend to go on to some sort of graduate study, b) work in fields that directly utilize domain-specific knowledge from their majors or graduate education, and c) are generally high-income relative to the economy writ large. These professions, combined, are a healthy slice of our labor force, and there’s nothing wrong with paying an appropriate amount of attention to them. But I think the amount of attention they’re given in the educational and economic discourse is in fact disproportionate. And I also think that there’s a kind of profession that is intuitively very understandable but which (despite considerable effort on my part) remains very difficult to classify and thus to quantify. Though it has many names, I think my preferred term is “email job.”
Before I tell you what I’m talking about, I want to tell you what I’m not talking about: I’m not recapitulating the late David Graeber’s concept of the bullshit job. I don’t have a particular beef with that concept or his articulation of it, although I am among those who think that Graeber was a talented polemicist who also played incredibly fast and loose with evidence and citation. I do, for the record, believe that our administrivialstate produces many jobs that can be seen as redundant or unnecessary, depending on your point of view, largely due to the rise of the modern fixation on litigation avoidance. But “bullshit jobs” has a pejorative aspect I’m not engaging in here - in fact, I more or less think we should be championing the email job - and anyway I’m just not concerned with whether or not these jobs should exist in some Platonic sense. I’m sure many or most of the jobs I’ll describe here would fall under Graeber’s metrics, but I’m tackling this thing from a very different angle.
To me, prototypical email jobs
Depend, naturally, on email and other digital communicative tools like video conferencing, online calendars, and networked workspaces for the large majority of their actual productive capability
Are staffed almost entirely by people with college degrees, but while they do take advantage of time management and organizational skills that can be developed in college, almost never call on domain-specific knowledge related to a particular major
Dedicate a considerable amount of time not to the named productive goals of the job themselves but to meta-tasks that are meant to facilitate those goals (scheduling, coordinating, assigning responsibility, “touching base,” enhancing productivity, ensuring compliance with various HR-mediated job requirements and odd whims of the boss)
Have no immediate observable impact on the material world; an email job might involve coordinating or supporting or assessing a project that will eventually move some atoms around, but the email job itself results only in the manipulation of bits
Cannot be considered creative in any meaningful sense - they do not entail the production of new stories, scripts, code, images, video, blueprints, patents, research papers, etc - but may involve the creation of materials that are subsidiary to larger administrative goals, such as PowerPoint presentations, reports, postmortems, or white papers
May or may not be partially or fully remote but could likely be performed fully remotely/on a “work from home” basis without issue
Can involve supervising lower-level workers, even teams, but these positions are not themselves fundamentally supervisory and the holder of an email job is rarely the only “report” for anyone; these positions, in other words, are not executive or executive-track, though some may escape the email job track and gain entry to the executive track
Tend to top out at middle management, and often have a salary range (with a great deal of wiggle) between $50,000 and $200,000/year.
Doctors do not have email jobs because the human bodies they treat exist in the world of atoms, not the world of bits, and their work involves domain-specific knowledge. There are some lawyers who are effectively in email jobs, as their law credentials are used for hiring purposes but their actual task is handling particular kinds of paperwork that a non-lawyer could complete, but most lawyers are not in email jobs as their work involves various functions at courthouses and otherwise away from the computer, and anyway their work too involves domain-specific knowledge. Most accountants and actuaries are not in email jobs as their jobs require domain-specific knowledge that they acquired in formal education. Architects create new things that will someday exist in the world of atoms and utilize domain-specific knowledge they learned in college. Programmers take advantage of skills gained in college to create new things that exist for their own purpose, rather than to satisfy other administrative functions. Professors don’t have email jobs, even those who work at online colleges, as working with students takes place in the world of atoms and they are constantly accessing domain-specific knowledge they learned in formal education. Screenwriters create something new; engineers move atoms and usually get graduate degrees; CEOs don’t have email jobs because they’re on the executive track and enjoy the ability to delegate most of the email work to subordinates. I could go on.
So who does have an email job? Take someone who works in accreditation at a college in a large public university system. He or she didn’t get a major in accreditation (there is no such major) and is unlikely to have majored in education, and even if they did they would have learned about pedagogy and “theory” and assessment rather than anything having to do with their daily work lives. Essentially everything they do for work takes place within the confines of their laptop screen, and the exception is various in-person meetings that accomplish nothing beyond delegating various tasks, defining roles, critiquing past performance, and otherwise reflecting on how to do a better job of supporting the tasks that other people do. A person in this job might have a secretary or lower-level administrative functionary that reports to them, but they are not on a track that makes advancement likely - becoming a VP somewhere will likely require many years of service and going on the job market to get a job at another school. A person in this position will never interact with students in any real capacity, demonstrating the psychic distance between email jobs and the actual function of their institutions. Though they have a clear and defined set of responsibilities written into their job description, their overall impact on the day-to-day functioning of their college is nebulous, and far more time is spent on administrivia than their “real” duties. They live between the 50th and 75th percentile for individual income in their state.
You can generalize the above paragraph to, say, someone working in customer service for an automotive insurance company; an HR professional for a mid-sized architecture firm; somebody who fields phone calls about if and how customers can raid their 401(k)s at ING or Charles Schwab or similar; a salaried employee who works in the “back of house” for the sanitation department of a small city, arranging schedules and drafting reports; an intermediary between vendors and corporate for a company that sells industrial kitchenware; a curriculum coordinator for a local school district who “liaises” with teachers and presents curricular changes to schools but who has no formal training in pedagogy and does not influence curriculum themselves; the benefits coordinator for a trucking company who spends a majority of their time dealing with health benefits and counting sick days; an employee of a major hotel chain who coordinates their customer loyalty points system and identifies potential bonuses for loyal customers; anyone who reports on things that other people do for the benefit of other people’s edification so that they in turn can do things. Though it will inevitably sound to some like I am echoing Graeber’s assertion that these jobs are disposable, I say all of this with perfect neutrality as to the actual value of the work that’s performed. Some of it, I think, is quite useful. What is common to email jobs is that the person who holds the job is often not in a position to assess its usefulness for themselves.
I would love to give you hard numbers for how many people in the country have email jobs, but despite thinking of this topic for far too long over the course of years, a definition that would be expressible in Bureau of Labor Statistics categories isn’t immediately obvious. There are plenty of categories that are obviously out (45-0000 Farming, Fishing, and Forestry Occupations, 47-0000 Construction and Extraction Occupations, 49-0000 Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations) and some that are obviously fertile ground (43-0000 Office and Administrative Support Occupations, 13-0000 Business and Financial Operations Occupations), but email jobs are always a subclass within these categories and other categories often have a layer of email jobs within them even though those categories of jobs are not email jobs, broadly speaking. This post’s headline is a question, as it’s not clear to me that this can ever be an empirically rigorous category. Some will likely say that its boundaries are inherently too vague to be useful. I do think that I’m capturing a real phenomenon in the 21st-century American economy. I concede though that quantifying how many American workers have email jobs is difficult, time-consuming, and involves many judgment calls. If I ever write a book about this subject, I will do that work, but there are a lot of books I have to write, and if you feel inspired to preempt me and do it yourself, please do.
Most people don’t have email jobs; most American adults, after all, still don’t have a college degree, the generally low-paying service sector is the fastest growing in our economy, and a large number of educated workers have jobs that are not email jobs for the reasons detailed above. And yet as a matter of informed speculation I’m willing to argue that many millions of Americans have email jobs, that their share of the workforce is growing, and that the constant tendency to think about college as a route from a particular major (prelaw, premed, computer science) to a particular educated position (lawyer, doctor, programmer) is therefore flawed. Some students study biology, go and get an MS in that field, and then become research scientists for pharmaceutical companies. But a lot of people study history and end up with pleasant jobs at Chase or Amazon or Geico. I think it’s a common, persistent, and serious mistake to believe that the purpose of college is to sort each student into a particular career path, assign them a major that aligns with that career path, and launch them into those careers. For a lot of our students, college teaches meta-skills, developing patience and communication ability, and they then seek out jobs that are far less specific than is assumed, looking for whatever offers a decent mix of competitive salary, acceptable benefits, and tolerable work. A lot of our college graduates go on to email jobs - and, I will contend, should go on to email jobs.
I do admit that email jobs can be parasitic, in certain situations; the prototypical case is in our colleges and universities, where vague administrative roles are helping drive unconscionable tuition increases. But the case I’ve made and will go on making is that email jobs are desirable jobs, and placing people in steady email jobs is a kind of success for our economic model. Everyone reading this is aware that I favor a profoundly different economic model than the current American neoliberal capitalist model. But, now and for the foreseeable future, we have the model we have. And within this model, jobs that provide steady employment, incomes around or above the national median, that do not entail physical risks as many other jobs do, and which provide their workers with a degree of personal autonomy and the ability to waste time - those are good jobs, worth creating. People with education and social capital pursue these jobs because these jobs are attractive, as far as jobs go; they beat many of the alternatives. We should respect that revealed preference and try to expand the number of people in email jobs.
That ability to waste time I mentioned might sound like an indictment. Perhaps, in some sense, it is. But as someone who cares more about working conditions than I do about pure efficiency, I think it’s great that a lot of people are now in positions that enable a certain degree of faffing about. It’s become an internet cliche - “I spend half my day or less on actual work, the rest I spend listening to podcasts, browsing Amazon, or watching TikToks.” Typically this comes packaged with a certain rueful embarrassment about the actual human value of one’s profession, but you can find a ton of people who live this way. Foiling this type of time-wasting behavior is very difficult for an employer, given that even if they put some sort of restrictions on their own network, an employee can just use their phone; it’s essentially impossible to stop those behaviors if an employee works from home. Employers have been trying to stop surfing on the job for a very long time, and they’re getting more sophisticated, but then again so are the employees looking for distraction. Some employers now tout the philosophy that they only care how much work their employees get done, not how they spend their time, but there will always be many who try to regulate employee time, just as many workers will always find a way to escape their surveillance. (Inside your workplace are two wolves….) But I can tell you this: it’s a lot easier to watch YouTube when your job takes place within a web browser than if you work retail or on an assembly line.
Like all jobs, email jobs can be better or worse, for all the reasons a job can be better or worse - a friendlier or more abusive boss, longer or shorter expected hours, higher pay or lower pay, worse or better benefits, and so on. Surely plenty of email jobs are held by miserable employees. But I also think lots of people are quite content in these positions, and I think we need a cultural realignment when it comes to our vision of satisfying work.
Longtime readers are no doubt tired of hearing my usual saw on these issues: in contemporary culture, we have more ways to be a loser than a winner; we’ve comprehensively critiqued and ironized traditional forms of meaning such as identifying with one’s job, but never replaced them with anything; you’re a bum if you don’t have a job but a sap if you have an uncool one; the cultural dictate that the only life that’s worth living is a life in a creative industry is cruel and unworkable given that those fields have limited carrying capacity and they are unusually fickle in whom they reward. (Persuasion just reran my essay on how Peter Turchin’s work can inform our understanding of work and life satisfaction in the 21st century.) People are so hung up on the idea that they need to create to have value as human beings that we now have a genre of video where we watch one person watch another person’s video, and often enough the person watching says almost nothing at all themselves; they chase the high of creation with this bizarre simulacra of creating. Religion is largely absent from the lives of most Americans, even those who officially identify with a given faith. Civic organizations were already collapsing a quarter century ago when Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone. And almost everyone agrees that the old ideal of identifying yourself with your profession, in the habit of the fabled salarymen of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, is an archaic and unhealthy ideology, one that excluded women and people of color and which amounted to participating in your own exploitation by the boss.
Well, I’m certainly not out here trying to rehabilitate the reputation of treating your job as your identity. Besides, all of us who arrived on earth in the era of Office Space, Workaholics, Fight Club, and The Office operate in a culture in which white-collar work arrives pre-ironized. What I am trying to gently suggest, to the kind of people who read this newsletter, is that email jobs tend to be good jobs, many workers in other industries envy those positions, and that however we try to rebuild some sense of civil and personal purpose in our citizenry, we should treat these positions with some dignity. Yes, I yearn for the end of late capitalism; yes, I think we all desperately need to be in unions. But in the realm of the immediately plausible, people need jobs, and we want to create better jobs rather than worse, and if we generally assume that all of this work stuff is a little ridiculous, we don’t need to heap extra derision on email jobs the way a lot of people do. Hopefully, we can build a society where more and more people earn their paycheck in moderately pleasant conditions, and then go do the work of life on their off-hours, whether that’s being a parent, or a musician, or a nature lover, or an activist, or a reader, or a friend.
It could be worse, you know. I worked an email job for four years, and it wasn’t so bad. If you wanted to call my current job an email job - if you even wanted to call it a bullshit job - well, I’m fine with that too.