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What is a Paper Pusher?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The slang term “paper pusher” is used to describe someone who works in an office environment. People often use this term in a derogatory way, to suggest that the worker does not have a real job or responsibilities, since all he or she does is push paper around the office. This slang term may also be used by people who are unsure about what someone does, knowing only that he or she works in an office of some sort.

Paper pushers are often bureaucrats, such as city employees, government clerks, and so forth. Government employees are often required to do a great deal of paperwork for their jobs, with the paperwork being used to establish clear standards and procedures to confirm that various tasks are performed reliably. The setting of standards is also designed to ensure equal treatment.

A generic office worker may also be a paper pusher, even if he or she does not handle that much physical paper. Cubicle workers the world over tend to handle rote, repetitive tasks which must be performed in accordance with specific standards, and they may be forced to go through onerous procedures to do anything from changing something on a customer's account to assisting with the development of a new product.

A classic example of a paper pusher is the government employee who processes passports. He or she is almost a parody of the classic paper pusher, requiring specific forms from customers and insisting that these forms be filled out in precise detail. Someone who omits a single piece of documentation or leaves a line on a form blank will be forced to start all over again, thanks to the very rigid standards at passport offices.

People may call someone a paper pusher in a fit of anger, expressing the idea that the worker is a petty bureaucrat who is abusing his or her power, or relishing the limited power available. The term is generally meant to be used in a denigrating way to insult someone, although some people may refer to themselves as paper pushers as an act of self deprecation to make themselves or their jobs seem less important.

A closely related concept is a “bean counter,” someone who deals with numbers on a regular basis. This term is also designed to be used as an insult which demeans the worker and suggests that the job is petty and unimportant. It is possible to be referred to as both a paper pusher and a bean counter, as in the case of an Internal Revenue Service agent.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By lluviaporos — On Jun 11, 2012

@pastanaga - Well, that might be true of some offices, but there are still plenty of places where paper still rules supreme. I mean, when you think about all the forms you have to fill in over the course of a month and how many people there are in the world who are also having to fill out forms it can boggle the mind.

Not to mention people still feel the need to print out hard copies of most documentation, including emails, so even if they are sent digitally, they will likely end up needing to be filed somewhere in the real world.

Computers were hailed as the forerunners of a paperless society but that's never been the case and I don't expect it to be the case any time soon.

The words "paper pusher" are going to have meaning for a few decades yet.

By pastanaga — On Jun 10, 2012

@bythewell - I personally think it's a bad term just because most office workers use much less paper than they used to. They don't send out letters and things anymore, they send emails and the newsletters are all on email as well and often so are the forms.

So, it's become a little bit archaic to call someone a paper pusher, just because that's no longer literally the case.

By bythewell — On Jun 09, 2012

It's not a nice thing to call someone really, however much you might think it's true. I think the problem is that people don't think it's possible to really enjoy an office job, but there's no reason why they shouldn't.

You might be working with good people, doing a job that matters and it will still involve a lot of "paper pushing". And often the parts that are frustrating to outsiders, like filling in forms, are no less frustrating to the one who has to do the work. Forms are there for a reason most of the time and no company likes to provide unnecessary work for anyone. It's a waste of time and money. Which is not to say that there aren't petty bureaucrats out there who will try to make your life a misery for what seems like no reason.

But still, paper pusher has such bad connotations to it I think we're better off not using it.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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