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Bullshit Jobs Are all around Us

Do you think your job doesn’t really make a meaningful contribution to the world? You’re not alone. David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, has come to the conclusion that there are more and more bullshit jobs and that even meaningful jobs undergo a bullshitization. He considers the phenomenon a societal and political problem.

In the year 1930 the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the end of the 20th century technology would have advanced sufficiently so that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a fifteen-hour work week. Well, technology has advanced dramatically, but the fifteen-hour week has never happened. Keynes has been much criticized for his prediction. Wrongly, says the anthropologist David Graeber in his book “Bullshit Jobs – a Theory”. He is convinced that technological progress would indeed allow us to work much less – but that the mindset of our society and our politicians would not allow it. Instead of shortening the working weeks we have created more work – bullshit work.

A Widespread Phenomenon

In 2013 professor Graeber published a short essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. It made quite an impact. An amazingly great number of readers wrote to Graeber as they realized that their own job was indeed bullshit. He began to systematically collect the statements of employees in bullshit jobs and analyze them.

As for the definition of a bullshit job it is important to the professor that it shouldn’t be an academic one. Bullshit jobs are what people consider to be bullshit jobs. After analyzing all the statements Graeber arrived at this definition: “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.”

That the phenomenon does not just concern a small percentage of the working population has been revealed by two reliable polls: “A YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50 percent of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent were quite sure it did not”, Graeber writes. He quotes another poll carried out by Schouten & Nellisen in Holland which put the latter number as high as 40 percent.

Bullshit jobs are to be found not just in civil service, as many may assume, but also in the private sector.

Five Types of Jobs

So what exactly do the people working in bullshit jobs do? In fact, in many cases hardly anything. In other cases, however, their jobs can be very stressful, but they serve no meaningful purpose – they’re carried out just for the sake of the job itself or for the waste paper basket.

David Graeber differentiates between shit jobs – these are jobs which may be disagreeable but benefit society, like toilet cleaning – and bullshit jobs which are of no use to society and could just as well be abolished. This article deals with the latter.

In his book, the anthropologist lists five types of typical bullshit jobs:

  1. Flunkies. Flunky jobs exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important. Examples are assistants to bosses or reception ladies. The more of these a boss or company has, the more important he or the company looks. Flunkies often have no real work to do, they just have to be present. Sometimes, however, the flunkies do the real work and the bosses do nothing apart from golfing and having dinners with other bosses and looking terribly important.
  2. Goons. They, according to Graeber, have a job with an aggressive and manipulative element. Goons are doing something to further the interest of those who employ them. Lobbyist, PR specialists, telemarketers and corporate lawyers belong to this group. Their jobs have, according to Graeber, no social value.
  3. Duct tapers. Duct tapers are employees whose jobs exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization. They are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist. They may be software engineers or office workers. Their jobs could be automated would the company care to fix the fault.
  4. Box tickers. These employees exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing. A typical example is the corporate compliance industry. Banks employ hundreds of compliance officers and still end up paying enormous fines for violating the laws.
  5. Taskmasters. Tasmasters fall into two subcategories. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others. In other words: unnecessary superiors. Type 2 taskmasters create bullshit tasks for others to do, supervise bullshit or even create new bullshit jobs. They are typically the middle managers with fancy job titles (“senior vice president corporate something”) who provide “strategic leadership” or other incomprehensible tasks.

Second order bullshit jobs according to David Graeber are jobs which are not pointless in themselves, but are performed in support of a pointless enterprise – a telemarketing company, say. Which leads him to the conclusion: “If 37 percent of jobs are bullshit, and 37 percent of the remaining 63 percent are in support of bullshit, then slightly over 50 percent of all labor falls into the bullshit sector.”

Why People Work in Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit jobs are, it is no surprise, unfulfilling. They can make their holders very unhappy or even ill. Having nothing or nothing challenging to do does not, as many may believe, feel like constantly being on a holiday. On the contrary, employees are likely to suffer a boreout or even a burnout (cf. Apunto 1/2018 on this topic). What makes them ill is not just the boredom, but the purposelessness of their job – or, in the cases of the goons, the falseness. Nobody in their right mind enjoys tricking or pressuring people into doing something they don’t want to or into buying stuff they don’t need.

But, it has to be stated, at least some employees find their bullshit jobs OK. Of the 37 percent in the YouGov poll only 33 of the 37 percent who found their work served no purpose, found it unfulfilling as well.

If bullshit jobs are so bad – why on earth do so many people put up with them? For various reasons. If there are not enough meaningful jobs available, many will have to take up the pointless ones to make a living (if they don’t have another source of income). The problem is exacerbated by the fact that it is in fact mainly the bullshit jobs that are paid well and the useful ones like care jobs are paid very poorly. So many a single mother is forced to work as a box ticker although she would prefer to work as a preschool teacher.

Why Bullshit Jobs Are Proliferating

How can this obviously twisted state of affairs be explained? Professor Graeber believes that it has to do with our mindset, with our attitude towards work. We think that work is the opposite of pleasure. “Real” work as opposed to play means hardship, toil, boredom. Only if we don’t get satisfaction or pleasure from work do we deserve to be paid well, is what we seem to infer from that. Therefore, we tend to do voluntarily what we really like to do – we forego remuneration. The same applies to what we do for idealistic reasons. We get paid, on the other hand, for what we hate doing. Social workers, we can assume, like their jobs much because they can really change the world for the better. They get satisfaction from their work and thus get enough reward, they don’t don’t deserve a good salary as well. That holders of bullshit jobs envy holders of purposeful jobs like teachers their work may also play a role. Behind all this is, of course, also the protestant work ethic where work serves its own purpose and only the suffering person pleases God.

Governments all over the world have so far been supporting this warped system because there is nothing they are more afraid of than killing jobs. But the price is very high, not just because so many people have to put up with bullshit work. The system also destroys social value, says Graeber. He quotes two studies to substantiate this proposition. One is from the US economists Benjamin B. Lockwood, Charles G. Nathanson and E. Glen Weyl. Their conclusion is that the most socially valuable workers are medical researchers, who add $9 of overall value to society for every 1$ they are paid. For school teachers they calculated +$1, engineers +0.2. Consultants and IT professionals create no social value at all, whereas lawyers (-0.2), marketing professionals (-0.3) and managers (-0.8) destroy social value. The worst, however, is the financial sector (-1.5).

A British study by the New Economic Foundation comes to similar conclusions. City bankers in their estimation destroy £7 of social value for every £1 earned, advertising executives even £11.50. Hospital cleaners on the other hand create £10 of social value per £1 earned, and recycling workers £12. And who have the highest salaries? Surprise, surprise: the city bankers at ca. £5 million a year. Recycling workers make a mere £12,500.

The sad thing about this situation is: Many people find no wrong with it – or at least never think about it or question it.

No easy way out

Professor Graeber explicitly states that he didn’t write his book to suggest solutions to the problem of bullshit jobs and the bullshitization of normal jobs. –Solving it would an extremely challenging task, as one would have to change the mindset of whole societies all over the world. As we have seen, politicians are absolutely not prepared to even attempt such a thing. Neither would unions, as it is their task to keep everybody in work and save jobs.

David Graeber is probably right in suggesting that not much would happen if we dared do away with all the bullshit jobs. The economy would not break down, services would still be available, the world would keep turning. But how could we finance a large part of the population who would be unemployed and wouldn’t pay taxes? We would certainly have to distribute money in a new way. There is no lack of money as such, and further automation would certainly allow us to work shorter weeks.

A possible way of redistributing money would be a basic income program, which professor Graeber considers the best solution for the bullshit job problem. If people received an unconditional income, they would be free to do what they like instead of having to do what they must in order to earn a living. The idea stands to reason. But societies do not yet seem ready for it, as several unsuccessful experiments have shown, most recently in the municipality of Rheinau. If we are indeed going in that direction, it will be a long and arduous journey with lots of obstacles to surmount. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if employers made an effort to rid the jobs they offer from bullshit as much as possible and cut down managerial overheads.

Hansjörg Schmid

Mardi, 11. Déc. 2018

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How bullshit is your job?

Are you a very lucky person and your job is a 100 percent satisfying and fulfilling? Or do you consider at least a part of your job or even all of it as meaningless? Let us know what you do and how you estimate the bullshit factor! Write to hansjoerg.schmid@angestellte.ch.