In 2013, London-based anthropologist and anarchist activist, David Graeber wrote an essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs which went viral. In the article, he argued that the productivity benefits of automation have not led to a 15-hour workweek, as predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 but instead to the creation of a lot of “bullshit jobs.”
What is a “bullshit job?”
Graeber defines bullshit job as, “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.”
The author contends that more than half of societal work is pointless, both large parts of some jobs and, as he describes, five types of entirely pointless jobs:
- flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants
- goons, who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists
- duct tapers, who ameliorate preventable problems, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive
- box tickers, who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy for action, e.g., performance managers, in-house magazine journalists, leisure coordinators
- taskmasters, managers—or creators of extra work for—those who don’t need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professional
He argues that by now we are supposed to be working fewer hours on fewer days of the week, as technology automates production. But this hasn’t happened – instead, there are new industries that are in themselves not very socially useful, and more jobs are designed merely to administer, support and secure them.
His article, in August 2013, had over one million hits, crashed the website of its publisher, the radical magazine Strike! The essay was subsequently translated into 12 languages and became a basis for a YouGov poll, in which 37 percent of surveyed Britons thought that their jobs did not contribute meaningfully to the world.
In May 2018 Graeber revised his case into a book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory in which he presented hundreds of testimonials of bullshit jobs he has received. Although the book doesn’t present any more substance than the article itself, by the end of 2018, it was translated into at least a dozen of languages such as German, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Romanian and Russian to name a few.
Several bogs sprouted. Comments sections filled up with confessions from white-collar professionals people wrote Graeber asking for guidance or to tell him that he had inspired them to quit their jobs to find something more meaningful. One response he got was from the comments section of Australia’s The Canberra Times:
Wow! Nail on the head! I am a corporate lawyer (tax litigator to be specific). I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all of the time. I don’t like it when people have the nerve to say “Why do it, then?” because it is so clearly not that simple. It so happens to be the only way right now for me to contribute to the 1% in such significant way so as to reward me with a house in Sydney to raise my future kids… Thanks to technology, we are probably as productive in two days as we previously were in five. But thanks to greed and some busy-bee syndrome of productivity, we are still asked to slave away for the profit of others ahead of our own nonremunerated ambitions. Whether you believe in intelligent design or evolution, humans were not made to work – so to me, this is all just greed propped up by inflated prices of necessities.
Having worked in a ‘bullshit job’ myself for several years, I know how utterly draining and soul-crushing that existence it is. I finally quit. Yet it was not easy to let go. So addicted we become to that way of living. Another reason we continue to suffer pointless work is we don’t know a way out. I found that way out in creativity. Today I am happier and feel fulfilled.
In the book, Graeber tells the story of a corporate lawyer who went on to become a happy singer in an indie rock band when he became disillusioned with his job as a corporate lawyer. In another story, a Spanish civil servant skipped work for six years to study philosophy and became an expert in Spinoza before being found out. But he was a much happier man by then.
If Graeber is right in concluding that this is not an economic problem but a political and moral one, then the solution cannot be economic either.
How have so many humans reached the point where they accept that even miserable, unnecessary work is actually superior to no work at all?
We cannot continue to justify our bullshit job to support our contemporary living. We can’t keep on feeding ourselves the lie that the pains of dull work are suitable justification for the ability to fulfill our material desires. We can’t let pointless work destroy our mind and body.
We are in a time in history like no other when technology has given so much power to the ordinary people. Couple that with human creativity and each one of us can do amazing things with our lives.