Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Tool in the Kit: Uses of Bullshitting among Millennial Workers

Academic journal article The Qualitative Report

A Tool in the Kit: Uses of Bullshitting among Millennial Workers

Article excerpt

In the following article, we look at how students acquire, define, deploy, and anticipate the use of "bullshitting" as a cultural resource, as they pursue both educational and work aspirations. In everyday conversation, the meaning of bullshitting seems obvious. According to Fergusson's slang dictionary (1994), bullshit is "nonsense, empty talk" and, in the verb form, the meaning is: "to indulge in empty or boastful talk or falsehood, in order to impress or deceive" (p. 31). As a form of narrative action, bullshitting is commonly defined as involving deception or the telling of a tall tale. Bullshitting, then, entails the construction of narrative that may ultimately highlight the ignorance, gullibility, or naivete of the recipient. We use this folk concept in illuminating how students, in both their present jobs and as future workers, understand the structure of relations in the work place and script action in accordance with it. The topic is timely given that members of the Millennial Generation (i.e., those born between 1982 and 2002) are entering the work force in larger numbers. This study adds to insights that have been provided by other scholars on power in micro-structural relations (Collins, 2004), organizational processes (Morrill, Zald, & Rao, 2003), and culture and identity (Holstein & Gubrium, 2000), observing the ways in which power differences manifest themselves in communication.

Bowles and Gintis (1976), in a classic treatise on education, argued that the structure and experience of schooling in the United States shapes students in accordance with occupational and work demands sustaining a broader class system. The culture and normative structure of top preparatory schools and private colleges, for example, mold students for leadership roles encouraging creativity, independence, and identification. By contrast, public schools and community colleges--enrolling students with less cultural capital--emphasize the importance of labor discipline. This ethos is realized as students, qua future workers, learn to empathize with administrative orders, defer gratification, and deliver dependable, consistent performances. However, while Bowles and Gintis provided an insightful analysis into the structural features of capitalist schooling, little is revealed about how students as social agents might draw upon a repertoire of meanings, definitions, identities, strategies, and tactics for either contesting or adapting to the structural arrangements of work. What is left unsaid is how public school students themselves anticipate, experience, and define their participation within the two arenas of school and work. By contrast, expressions of agency among "Millennial Generation" workers have received great attention from those threatened by potential, agentive action. For employers, the issue has gained increasing significance, as evidenced by the burgeoning number of management manuals bearing titles such as Millennials Rising (2000), Managing the Generation Mix (2006), and Bridging the Generation Gap (2007). We propose to shed light on these processes by looking at a particular implement within the "cultural toolkit" (Swidler, 1986, p. 273) commonly found in almost all social contexts--an implement putatively referred to as "bullshitting."

While the characterization of members of Generation X (i.e., those born between 1965 and 1981) paints them as cynical, albeit entrepreneurial, slackers, the characterization of members of the Millennial Generation is one providing a stark contrast: Millennials are said to be optimistic, confident, and involved (Howe & Strauss, 2000). With respect to attitudes at work, a similarity between members of both generations is the observation that they lack requisite levels of commitment to their employers (Oliver 2006). By comparison, the parents and grandparents of Xers and Millennials are noted for working long and hard hours at their jobs. Over the past few decades, rewards for loyalty and commitment to the organization have been overshadowed by down-sizing, re-organization, and displacement. …

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