The first job I ever had was in a small town in northern Quebec, deep in the French-speaking part of Canada, at an astronomy center that had fewer than five visitors each day. There were seven of us on staff. It was before mobile phones, back in the days of analog boredom, when we had three options: read, talk to each other, or stare vacantly into space. The center didn’t need me but my labor wasn’t the point. I was there earning minimum wage on a summer exchange funded by the Canadian government to improve my French. I returned home a few weeks later sounding like a local, with vowels that stretched into diphthongs when I spoke.
I’ve never had a job like that again. But that feeling of tedium—of knowing I had to be somewhere without knowing what I should do—is something that soon became familiar to me, even in jobs that, outwardly, I should have been happy to have: office-based, white collar, decently paid. In his book Bullshit Jobs, the late anthropologist David Graeber borrows a concept from psychology to describe this sensation: “Scriptlessness,” he writes, is when “not only are the codes of behavior ambiguous, no one is even sure what they are supposed to say or how they are supposed to feel about their situation.”
Graeber’s book grew out of a viral article published in the leftist magazine STRIKE! in 2013, a few years after the global financial crisis and on the heels of Occupy Wall Street, in which he’d been deeply involved. He labeled a social phenomenon that was everywhere but unnamed. People, many people, had jobs that they knew were pointless yet had to pretend had meaning nevertheless. I could relate.
I read Bullshit Jobs earlier this year, after encountering several memoirs about first jobs—Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley (internet startups in the 2010s), Kate Beaton’s Ducks (the oil sands in the 2000s), and Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker (investment banking in the 1980s)—and wondering if the genre had gone stale. The problem wasn’t the normal distortions of memoir. It was how the authors approached the larger questions: why the jobs that we have when we’re young matter so much, and what those jobs reveal to us about the societies we live in.
Millennials, he suggests, feel unable to speak about their disappointment with work because they are perceived as entitled whiners from people on both the right and the left.
The classic first job memoir relies on naïveté—the author’s and ours as readers—about work. Wide-eyed ingenue gets job, gets disheartened, quits. (Rarely are the authors still employed in the sector they write about.) These books typically use a narrative double arc, depicting the author both as they were and as the person they will become, while dramatizing the feeling of being on the lowest rung. Often these memoirs are about elite or glamorous professions where the barrier to entry is high. In the opening pages of Liar’s Poker, an exemplar of the form, Lewis confesses he stumbled into his job as a trader through serendipity and luck in 1984 but notes in a parenthetical aside that “6,000 people had applied that year.”
But Uncanny Valley shows the limits of this classic structure. It opens with Wiener as a broke literary assistant in her hometown of New York City, wanting to succeed without selling out, while knowing that publishing is on the perpetual brink of collapse. After a stint at an e-book startup, its founders help her get a job in San Francisco. It is the early 2010s and Wiener doesn’t realize that she is “by many standards, late.” The tech companies she works for are already reshaping everyone’s lives, even as she and her artsy friends deny it.
She’s in Silicon Valley as the darker implications of tech become clear. When Edward Snowden leaks information revealing the National Security Agency’s surveillance of private, personal electronic communications in 2013, Wiener is working at a data analytics startup where she and her colleagues talk casually about “God mode,” a setting allowing them to see all the data that companies paying for their software have on their users. There are no restrictions on access. (It was assumed, Wiener explains, on blind faith, that no one would abuse their power.) She and her coworkers don’t discuss Snowden and don’t see themselves implicated in what Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed “surveillance capitalism.” Discomfited by comments made by a former colleague, Wiener later asks a friend, a digital-rights activist, a question to which she must have already known the answer: “Do you think I work at a surveillance company?”
Uncanny Valley was published in early 2020, and reviewers observed that Wiener leans hard on her naïveté to shape the story. But I found it difficult to believe in her credulousness for the length of the book. By the time she moves from the data analytics company to an open-source startup, the 2016 election is approaching and her existential and political angst are beginning to crank up, but Wiener still doesn’t quit. Only eventually does she realize that the misogyny and hatred she sees swirling around in the lower reaches of the open-source startup’s platform have real world implications.
Why does it take so long for Wiener’s perception to shift? Anyone who is working class is going to have a better bullshit detector, Graeber writes. There are generational blinders too, though. Millennials, he suggests, feel unable to speak about their disappointment with work because they are perceived as entitled whiners from people on both the right and the left. Wiener’s experience aligns with his analysis. She admits both class (graduating college debt-free) and millennial brainwashing contributed to her inability to abandon the free-flow trail mix and feel-good futurism of startups. “I still clung to the belief that I could find meaning and fulfilment in work—the result of over two decades of educational affirmation, parental encouragement, socioeconomic privilege, and generational mythology,” she writes.
As a disaffected millennial myself, I am a lot like Wiener. Yet I found Uncanny Valley frustrating, as though I was feeding my own neuroses as I read about hers. I didn’t want to be plunged back into a mindset I’ve tried to leave behind. I wondered how relevant her story of workplace malaise feels to other readers discovering it now, especially ones younger than us. I couldn’t imagine them still harboring illusions about work; surely economic precarity and the pandemic have made them less naïve than Wiener and I were a decade ago.
In the graphic narrative Ducks, Beaton subverts the conventions of the classic first job memoir in ways that point to a more interesting future for the form. Like Wiener’s, Beaton’s story is one of labor migration. For Beaton, though, it’s economic necessity—paying off her student debt—rather than a questing, misdirected idealism that prompts her to leave the east coast and go west to the oil sands of northern Alberta, Canada.
She’s treading a well-worn path. In a brief introductory section about her beloved Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Beaton tells us: “The only message we got about a better future was that we had to leave home to have one. We did not question it, because this is the have-not region of a have-not province, and it has not boomed here in generations.” Her motives differ from other Atlantic Canadians working in the oil sands, as many are supporting families and don’t take seriously her anxiety about paying off her loans. They’re all subject to the same labor market, however, one that pushes them into an industry that dehumanizes and isolates everyone, whatever their reasons for being there.
Each examine in a microcosm the thing that preoccupied Graeber about jobs in the modern Western world: the moral implications of different kinds of work—bullshit, shit, and everything in between.
Following a tip from an uncle, Beaton looks for a job in the tool crib. It’s the best she can do with her skills. As an arts major and aspiring cartoonist, there are few ways into a lucrative gig in the camps that encircle Fort McMurray, the hub of the oil sands in northern Alberta. Her job isn’t physically taxing. It’s inventory and handing out tools, hard hats and vests—and being ogled by the overwhelmingly male workforce. She develops a grim camaraderie with some of her colleagues. The humor in Ducks is macabre. Beaton is made to watch workplace safety videos over and over, while the companies ignore the actual threat she faces: sexual violence from the men she works and lives with.
Her drawings, which are mainly of people and interiors, are spare and monochrome. Page after page, they convey the claustrophobia of camp life. Interspersed are startling illustrations that open each chapter, depicting at scale and in detail across two pages the sites where she worked. These industrial scenes are darkly beautiful, much like the photos by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky of manmade landscapes and environmental ruin.
Beaton’s relationship to her readers is very different from that of Wiener and Lewis. She’s not trying to challenge the esteem her audience might have for the sector she’s writing about. Ducks was published last year; the sins of the fossil fuel industry are well-known. She doesn’t moralize about the oil sands, apart from including a few scenes in which she realizes she’s helping companies extract oil from indigenous land. And her job isn’t one that most people would envy—that’s not a way for her to draw readers in. Nor is the narrative powered by disillusionment because Beaton never indulged in magical thinking about work in the first place. Her perspective seems very of this moment: she sees her job as simply a job, rather than as a crucible for forging her identity.
In one way, Beaton’s book is similar to Wiener’s and Lewis’s; these memoirs are all coming-of-age tales, two of writers, one of a cartoonist, finding their way. But Ducks differs in how Beaton’s first job is woven into the narrative. Her family is working class and she knows what she needs to pursue her dreams: money. She can’t afford to indulge herself. When she leaves the oil sands and takes a part-time job in a museum, while also doing shift work first as a cashier and then as a maid on the side, she falls behind on her loan payments and quickly heads back to Alberta. Beaton uses her desire to become a cartoonist to drive the story. That’s why she sticks it out in the camps. Wiener’s and Lewis’s dreams are more diffuse—they find themselves as writers through their disappointments with other work.
Another way Ducks feels like an evolution of the first job memoir is in its tone. Beaton doesn’t present her experience comically (Lewis) or ironically (Wiener). She tells it straight. The narrative unfolds chronologically, stripped of commentary provided by her older, wiser self. The lack of artifice makes Ducks intimate, honest, immediate. Beaton invites readers to puzzle things through with her. What does it mean for her and her colleagues to live separated from their families amid a destroyed environment, in constant threat of a grim industrial death such as being crushed beneath a monster truck? She wants us to care, to worry, about the communities certain forms of labor forge in their wake. The camps, she learns, bring out the worst in people.
Ducks, Uncanny Valley and Liar’s Poker each examine in a microcosm the thing that preoccupied Graeber about jobs in the modern Western world: the moral implications of different kinds of work—bullshit, shit, and everything in between. All these books are about the harsh lesson we learn when we first enter the workforce: jobs that have broader social value are not jobs that pay. Caring, creative or crucial labor like garbage collection are difficult ways to pay the bills. Still, our societies expect us to derive self-worth and dignity from work, which is hard to reconcile with what we experience at an individual level in our jobs.
This conundrum is one that both lends itself to memoir and is poorly suited to it. Personal accounts can break silences about work and how it functions in our lives. But if those stories are too tethered to one person’s experience, especially if the narrative plays up the author’s difference from everyone else in the sector, as Wiener’s and Lewis’s do, it’s hard to see where revelations about harassment, abuse of power, and greed lead. Wiener knows well her limits and the limits of her literary form. “I was always looking for the emotional narrative, the psychological explanation, the personal history,” she writes near the end of Uncanny Valley. “I was looking for stories; I should have seen a system.”
She dwells in the ambivalence of her feelings because that is what she, like all memoirists, knows best. The political solutions to the problems of work won’t be found in the pages of any memoir. They probably lie in some combination of protest, organizing, and shirking—all activities that have more power when done collectively. That’s why I liked Ducks: Beaton sees herself as just one of many people buffeted by labor market forces and struggling to find a way to live.