In 2013, the anthropologist David Graeber published "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs," a viral essay on the proliferation of pointless jobs. In it, he writes,
"it's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix."
The piece hit a collective nerve, and it went viral, leading to hundreds of responses online; Graeber then also invited people via twitter to share their experiences with bullshit jobs. Responses came in from Europe, Mexico, Brazil, India, South Africa, Japan, Egypt, and all the English-speaking countries. Graeber trimmed and coded roughly 375 of them and proceeded to do a qualitative analysis, expanding the themes and findings of them into this book, Bullshit Jobs.
From the responses, he found that most bullshit jobs fit into 5 categories: flunkies, whose jobs mainly exist to make other people look good, are a vestige of the era of kings and queens when workers of court existed to make royals more, well, royal looking, but had little in the way of function; goons, whose jobs have a manipulative or aggressive element, but only exist because other people hire them (think golf course private security); duct-tapers, or workers who exist to fix the mistakes or patch the problems that are caused by other people in the company, often "correcting the damage done by a superior who holds his position for reasons unrelated to ability to do the work," historically and often women's work; box-tickers, or peoples whose job it is to make it appear as if a company is doing something it is supposed to be doing, but is often not doing (think compliance officers on Wall St. circa 2007); and taskmasters, who exist to oversee people who probably don't need supervision. Graeber also acknowledges an "ambiguous" bullshit category in which jobs combine elements of these different jobs, or are second-order bullshit jobs, i.e. jobs that are created to provide support to the bullshit jobs above, such as cleaning staff that supports such positions.
Standard economic theory would state that people should enjoy jobs where they are well compensated for doing nothing important, as the energy expended in doing so is low vs the level of compensation for that effort, or as Graeber puts it, "the underlying assumption is that if humans are offered the option to be parasites, of course they'll take it." But in fact, he believes, people hate having nothing useful to do much more than any number of the other rote humiliations that come with selling your labor for money, and in reality there are negative moral and psychological effects to working in a job of this type.
Why else, he writes, would depriving prisoners of their work duty be a supreme form of punishment in prison? The work itself is not that fascinating – pressing uniforms in the laundry, packaging computers for Microsoft, scrubbing toilets – and technically since the state houses and feeds prisoners, it's not like they need the work (which according to the Prison Policy Initiative also doesn’t pay particularly well, if it is paid at all: wages run on average $.14/hr on the low end and $1.41/hr at the high end). It is that instead, work gives prisoners a sense of agency, of doing something, that adds meaning to their days.
People also need a feeling of taking action, and our sense of self is bound up in the actions that we take. As he writes, "much of our sense of being a self, a being discrete from its surrounding environment, comes from the joyful realization that we can have predictable effects on that environment. This is true for infants and remains true throughout life. To take away that joy entirely is to squash a human like a bug."
As he identified types of bullshit jobs, he also categorizes the miseries they bring: the misery of ambiguity and forced pretense; the misery of not feeling entitled to one's own misery; and the misery of knowing you are doing harm through your work. Further, many people in Western countries are acculturated to believe that their work is how they have an impact on the world; so to have a job without impact or meaning is a hard blow to one's own self-esteem.
This longing for, and unmet need for meaning "needs to be addressed," he writes, "because this is a genuine scar across our collective soul." And this meaningless "tends to exacerbate the sadomasochistic dynamic already potentially present in any top-down hierarchical relationship" – without the morale building belief that the work you are doing contributes to a higher purpose for others, or contributes anything at all – makes the range of office politics – all the slights, humiliations and indignities at the hand of your superiors – that much harder to bear. Graeber goes so far as to suggest meaningless jobs produce mental and physical decay.
Yet this supposed decay can be hard to shake, as Boris, one of his interviewees writes, "I have tried everything, self-help books, sneaky monastic breaks, calling my mother and crying, realizing all my life choices have been pure shite- but I keep carrying on because I have a rent to pay".
As he sees it, there are three levels to the problem. Individually, why do people take meaningless work? Economically and socially, why have such jobs grown to be a large segment of society? And politically and culturally, why isn't this seen as a problem and why won't anyone address it?
At the political level, the issue is simply jobs. Graeber cites the "smoking gun" example of Obama discussing how, if single payer healthcare were to go forward, anywhere from one to three million jobs at private insurance companies would be lost due to the efficiency gains from reductions in paperwork and the de-duplication of efforts of competing firms. That would create a large problem: where would those people go, and what would they do?
But as the economy has become globalized, and supply chains and production processes are much more complex, doesn't the concentration of repetitive paper-pushing in upper-income countries simply reflect a more interconnected and dispersed production cycle? And since robots are taking over manufacturing, the paper-pushing jobs are those that have not yet been automated? Graeber says not all of the bullshit jobs can be explained away in this fashion, using the outsized growth of administrative jobs at universities relative to overall university growth as an illustration. While this example may be true in the case of universities, it does not address the larger economy as a whole; more data here is needed to refute what on the surface does look to be plausible to some degree.
What can be done? Graeber floats Universal Basic Income as an option, but frankly this book isn't to be looked to for solutions to meaningless jobs overall but more as a meditation on what is wrong in the jobs themselves. Man needs meaning. To be told one is useless or unimportant strips a person of the dignity needed to carry on.
Graeber is an entertaining writer and original thinker, and this book is to be read for the pleasure of that, less for data-backed assertions. The stories of the some 375 people who submitted accounts of their work trials are also entertaining, though as is the case in books by academics trained in qualitative analysis, can get to be a bit repetitive in spots as the researcher seeks to prove his thesis through examples from respondents. Enough of us have been exposed to bullshit jobs in their various forms enough to recognize one from a mile away – we don't need every variation on the theme. Yet, Bullshit Jobs is excellent for the horror and amusement it provides. You may even catch a glimpse of yourself in its pages.