I woke up three weeks ago to some sad news. As I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook feed as all responsible adults do these days, I stumbled across a Bloomberg article that announced the unfortunate death of Dr David Graeber.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t beat yourself up. He wasn’t a movie star or a musician or even a particularly famous public intellectual.
Rather, he was a wise-cracking, eccentric anthropology professor at the London School of Economics who gained notoriety for being a leading figure in the anarchic Occupy Wall Street movement.
But that’s not why I know of him. His last book caused quite a stir when it was published in 2018. It’s immediately apparent why – it was titled Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
In it, he marshals his formidable wit and intellectual rigour to elucidate a burgeoning yet dark and dank corner of today’s workscape – the prevalence of bullshit jobs.
According to Graeber, “a bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case”.
But it’s important to keep in mind that this is an intellectual tirade against bullshit jobs, not shit jobs. In his own words, “shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried. Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. But at least they know they’re doing something useful”.
He continues: “Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honour and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers – as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Yet secretly they are aware that they have achieved nothing; they feel they have done nothing to earn the consumer toys with which they fill their lives; they feel it’s all based on a lie – as, indeed, it is.”
You can see why the topic struck a nerve. Realising that there was a strong undercurrent of mass exasperation here, the pollster YouGov asked Britons “Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?”
A high 37% or more than a third of the respondents said no. When the poll was replicated in the Netherlands, the numbers were even higher – 40% or almost half said no. I don’t expect Malaysians to vote much differently.
So statistically speaking, there is a good chance you have a bullshit job yourself. But how do you tell for sure? According to Graeber, if you fall into any one of these five
categories, you probably do have a bullshit job:
1. Flunkies: These are the people who perform menial work that can be accomplished by the employer and yet are employed largely to make the employer look good or feel important. Think receptionist, doorman, and most secretaries.
2. Goons: Not actual gangsters but rather those that have an element of aggression or deception in their roles and perform work that negatively impacts the world. Think corporate lawyer, public relations specialist, telemarketer, soldier (countries need armies only because other countries have armies), and lobbyist.
3. Duct tapers: Someone who cleans up after others or who spends all their time fixing problems that shouldn’t exist in the first place. Think proofreader and a person who fixes code.
4. Box tickers: Those that create work for the sole purpose of showing that work is being done. One example of this is large companies that have in-house magazines and pay its writers and photographers handsomely even though their work is intended just to tickle the fancy of its executives. Another is companies and governments forming commissions to investigate something but not doing much investigating and in the off chance they do investigate, not doing anything with their findings. This also includes consultants whose advice is rarely acted upon.
5. Taskmasters: Those that either create meaningless tasks or supervise those who don’t need supervision in the first place. Their uselessness can be confirmed if the task gets done even when the taskmaster disappears from the scene. This is most middle management, including human resource management and administration jobs.
To this list, I would add a sixth and a seventh:
6. Rent seekers: Those who work for a company that charges money on a public utility or one that funnels wealth from a system without adding any value to it or the world. Think bottled water companies that sell us a public good that we can freely get from taps everywhere. Much of the financial industry can be included in the category as well, according to the chairman of the British financial regulator the Financial Services Authority, Lord Adair Turner.
7. Partial bullshitters: Jobs that actually do some good but still incorporate elements of the six categories above. I would argue that most jobs are partially bullshit jobs that can be done in some fraction of the time it is supposed to take.
Of course not everyone will agree with this and that’s okay. What’s important is your own assessment of whether your job is a bullshit job. If you fall into one of the categories above and still derive satisfaction and see value in it, then it is not a bullshit job for you.
However, if you do have a bullshit job or know those who do, you might be inclined to think of this “bullshit jobs” phenomenon as a necessary evil of today’s economic machine. But Graeber argues that it’s much more malicious than that.
Holding a bullshit job deprives us of what German psychologist Karl Gloss calls “the pleasure at being the cause”. Because these jobs erode this deep-set, innate human need to produce, create or be the cause of some self-defined good in the world, many today suffer from anxiety, low self-confidence, and sometimes even self-hate – especially those whose job demands they deceive people, pervert reality or worse.
This can be contrasted with non-bullshit jobs, or jobs that employees, irrespective of whether they like it, think it is valuable either to themselves or others. This includes, but is not limited to, teachers, baristas, mechanics, construction workers, engineers, farmers, doctors, nurses, journalists and caregivers.
And the worst part? The number of bullshit jobs is skyrocketing.
Over the last century, administrative, managerial, clerical, sales, and service industry work – the bastions of bullshit jobs have tripled while actual productive jobs in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors have plummeted.
Oh, what a shitty predicament we’re in.
This article is in memory of Dr David Graeber. His body may be no more but his mind lives on in millions who have absorbed his ideas.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.