Every afternoon at 5 p.m., the end of the work day and its accompanying bleak silence falls atop the hills of Ottawa. The two dazzling cars of each bureaucratic family are stationed in the parking garages of their suburban homes. After a few hours of numb-by-Netflix, arms and legs are tucked in bed by 9 p.m. Rest is needed for the 8 a.m. civil servant’s call to action: eight hours at a computer glossing over a library of empty emails from people who, like everybody else, have little to do.
Their children are born and raised to carry on the family legacy. Against all odds, though, by virtue of the unrelenting human imagination, the youth manage to muster a passion and maybe pursue a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy, literature, or mathematics. Perhaps, there, they may come to envisage a world alternative — a radical future without alienated labour. This time of experimentation and imagination, however, doesn’t get too far.
Ottawa youth, like other university students, are soon confronted by the neoliberal reality of the vocation-oriented education system. Nearly everywhere, higher education, which should ideally hold the seeds for edification, has been superseded by employability. Yet in Ottawa, education as employability is curated with one particular end in mind: preparing a mass sufficiently sanitized, docile and non-partisan to work for the civil service.
Early into their education, Ottawa youth are fed unrelenting advertisements encouraging them to enroll in either the Federal Student Work Experience Program, or, alternatively, a co-op position, where they’re prepped and primed to join the public service immediately upon graduation. The co-op programs promoted by the likes of the University of Ottawa or Carleton University encourage students to spend nearly half of their degrees doing “practical” work (often in the civil service) to replace the credits that would normally be garnered by coursework. Whatever edification or creativity that may have been derived from higher education among Ottawa youth, in other words, is soon sublimated into doing low wage labour for the Federal Government.
The benefit to the state of hiring students is twofold. First, student hires are a mass of non-unionized workers that can be paid less, given fewer benefits and, in some cases, be used as a tool for union-busting when unionized employees go on strike. Second, hiring students allows the government to produce fresh graduates with degrees catered almost exclusively to the service of the state. To many student-hires, who often report not being asked to do much on the job, it becomes evident that their supervisors have one objective: to ensure they remain in government work after graduation, often in full-time positions as bureaucrats.
But why does the state go to such lengths to maintain the public service? The default argument is that the Canadian government’s highly centralized nature necessitates a big bureaucracy for the management of its affairs, justifying its persistent recruitment. Based on these assumptions, then, it makes sense that the Canadian government is the largest employer in Canada, growing, according to the Toronto Sun, by about “10,000 bureaucrats per year under [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau, to roughly 380,000 today.”
Yet contrary to this popular position and the government’s own justification, the size of Canada’s public service is hardly a necessity at all. To quote a retired deputy minister in a 2013 Policy Options article about the Canadian public service, “There are far too many people running around pretending to be busy, creating mindless work for themselves and others.” This is a reality reflected by my peers working in the public service: many express that the same amount of work could be accomplished with half the number of employees, and that workers, including hired students, are often left with little to do.
The one noted exception expressed by my peers is client-facing work, where people are waiting on services. Yet even then, the work is notoriously slow, with Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, for example, having a backlog of about 1.8 million immigration applications as of late October 2021. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the Canadian government has increased its budget by about $1.3 billion for third-party consultants (primarily corporations) in order to alleviate demands from the public service.
The slow, inefficient and “little to do” reality of the public service has become somewhat of a universally acknowledged stereotype. This isn’t to say that work should be hard, gruelling or painful to be valuable. But still, the question remains unanswered: Why does the size of the Canadian bureaucracy continue to grow despite the number of people who have little of use to actually do at these jobs? Why does the Canadian government engage in such a concerted propagandistic effort to recruit youth from universities to maintain its size? There are a couple calculated reasons.
First, economies can generally be deemed more competitive and “developed” if they move away from the so-called “low-skill” work of manufacturing and industry, and achieve a higher concentration of “skilled workers,” which are, typically, university or college graduates. Deloitte’s 2019 report on Canada’s “competitiveness scorecard,” for example, defines the “overall competitiveness of Canada’s labour force” through its production of “a highly skilled pool of talent, which attracts multinationals seeking the best and brightest to invest in operations in Canada.” As such, the government of Canada can use its own job manufacturing process to demonstrate considerably high rates of employment for “skilled workers.”
This ultimately serves three functions: 1) As mentioned, the hiring of “skilled workers” manufactures a stellar image for the Canadian economy as developed and competitive; 2) Many young Canadian college and university graduates are able to secure some form of employment through the government, which wouldn’t exist for them otherwise. In this sense, despite having “little to do,” at the very least post-graduates aren’t left out of a job; 3) As astutely observed by the late anthropologist David Graeber, these “bullshit jobs” — which have become increasingly relevant to the nature of work in the Global North’s post-industrial economies — create a stratum of workers who are “in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class.”
The division between skilled and unskilled labour, as I’ve previously written about in Passage, maintains a downward pressure on so-called “unskilled” work and the illusion of distinctness among “skilled” workers. Bureaucrats, like most “skilled” workers, are afflicted by this illusion of distinctness not only through their identification with “skilled” work, but also through their status as “middle class” and seemingly above the struggles of the working class. Pacified by this illusion of distinctness and the comforts of decent wages, benefits, and pensions, many civil servants live in a cozy reality of consumption and indifference to the status quo. The non-partisan requirement of this line of work, and the inherent subservience to the state’s demands (regardless of incumbent), has also contributed to producing an exceptionally docile and comfortable class of workers for the Canadian government.
Second, the concerted effort by the Canadian government to hire large swaths of “skilled” workers, despite having little for them to do, in many ways serves as a new mode of Keynesianism. The cushy wages of public service work serves exceptionally well as a form of welfare-capitalism insofar as it keeps people employed, maintains the illusion of a healthy middle class and provides reliable income to boost consumption. Steady and substantial income supplied to a manufactured, docile middle class through bureaucratic work positions produces exceptional consumers with high wages dedicated to feeding corporate interests.
Rather than cutting down and administering an alternative welfare policy, a bloated bureaucracy also has the added advantage of maintaining the capitalist performance of work and productivity — in a neoliberal context, the government obviously can’t facilitate a mass of people being paid and not at least appear to be working.
The results of this process are, judging by the bleak state of Ottawa, horrifyingly alienating and disillusioning. The fact that youth, fresh graduates and Canadians at large are being pushed into such a manufactured and unfulfilling industry is a matter of great urgency.
Among my peers, limitations on making change from within through innovative or forward-thinking thought is particularly alienating. Among others, the depression that comes with limited tasks for the day is tantamount. To quote Graeber again: “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.”
Of course, I’m not advocating for austerity, privatization nor for cutting jobs without protection, and “efficiency” is by no means a good marker for work we should deem “useful.” But a public service should be able to respond rapidly to the needs of its people. If despite constant expansion of the number of employees and outsourcing to the private sector, basic services for immigrants and asylum-seekers, or even requests for access to public information, remain backlogged, we must acknowledge the short-comings of the government’s current practices, and the need for things to change.
We also must think critically about the number of jobs promoted by the Canadian government, not just to new graduates but to students from a young age. Who does it serve? Why is it propagated? While the Canadian government frames these bureaucratic jobs as a necessity, why is it still marked by slow work, inefficiency and many employees doing little? Moreover, if public servants are ultimately left with little to do, why must they continue to work 40-hour weeks?
By rebutting the argument that the size of such a bureaucracy is “necessary,” we can also open avenues for more truly fulfilling lives outside the realm of work. What would it look like if we resisted work we deemed unnecessary and unfulfilling? What kind of lives could the youth in Ottawa begin to imagine if not recruited into a future of alienation? What could the image of Ottawa look like if its residents were permitted lives outside of a dehumanizing 9 to 5?