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.