Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

Reading this was cathartic. Like so many people, I, too, have experienced the suffering that is a useless job—a job that not only lacks any real benefit to society, but which also does not even benefit the company. (Lucky for me, I am now a teacher, which, for all its unpleasant aspects, almost never feels useless.) Even though I got a lot of reading and writing done on the job, the feeling of total futility eventually drove me half-crazy. So it felt liberating to read an entire book about this phenomenon.

But let me take a step back and explain the book. In 2013 Graeber published an article in STRIKE! magazine (a fairly obscure publication) about bullshit jobs, and it immediately went viral. This book is basically an articulation, elaboration, and defense of the points in that short article. Graeber notes that Keynes predicted the rise of automation to cause a startling reduction in the work-week. Yet this has not occurred. Many economists explain this by pointing to the rise of the so-called “service” industry. But this would seem to imply that we have switched from factory-work to making lattes for one another, or giving each other massages. As Graeber shows, this is hardly the case: the number of people in such jobs has remained fairly constant. What has grown, rather, is a vast edifice of managerial and administrative work.

Anyone familiar with the academic world will instantly recognize this. Universities have come to be dominated by a top-heavy administrative structure, and faculty have been forced to spend ever-increasing amounts of time on bureaucratic nonsense. The same is true in the medical field, or so I hear. Really, the story is the same everywhere: an increasingly arcane hierarchy of administrators, leading to byzantine networks of paperwork—all of it ostensibly for improving quality, and yet manifestly distracting from the real work. This kind of ritualistic box-ticking is only one of the types of bullshit jobs that Graeber investigates. Also included are flunkies (subordinates whose only role is to make superiors feel important), goons (jobs which arise from a kind of arms race, such as marketing agents or corporate lawyers), and duct tapers (who are hired to patch over an easily-fixed problem).

Obviously, one could argue all day about the typology of useless jobs. One could also argue about which jobs, if any, are useless. It must be said that Graeber’s reliance on subjective experience of his informants does introduce a worrisome element of capricious judgment. Besides this, some might say that the free market can never give rise to useless jobs, since such things would be obviously detrimental to a company’s profits. But one need only read through the many testimonies collected by Graeber to be convinced that, yes, some jobs really ought not to exist. According to surveys, around 40% of workers report that they believe their own jobs to be useless—so useless that they could vanish tomorrow without anyone minding. To pick just one of Graeber’s examples: a man works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor for the German military, whose job is to fill out the paperwork necessary to allow somebody to move their desk from one room to another room. I do not think this is necessary.

But this raises the obvious question: If so many jobs are really useless, why do they exist? One might understand this happening in the government, but this is precisely the sort of thing that the private sector should be immune from. Well, Graeber is an anthropologist, not an economist, and so his explanations are social and cultural. He cites several factors. There is a huge amount of political pressure, from the left and the right, to create more jobs. This is natural, since being out of work means being poor, or worse. More than that, we have culturally internalized the institution of “work” to the extent that our jobs are the primary source of meaning in many people’s lives, even if they ultimately are disagreeable. Indeed, Graeber believes it is just the unpleasantness of work that makes it a source of value in our culture, as it becomes a type of ennobling suffering.

Graeber also notes the usefulness of useless jobs to the upper classes. For one, they keep people endlessly busy; and, what is more, well-paying, white-collar jobs—even useless ones—make their holders identify with the interests of the upper class. The economy then becomes a kind of engine for distributing favors and resources down an elaborate chain of command. Graeber coins the term “managerial feudalism” for this arrangement: the return of the medieval obsession with ranks mirrored by the modern penchant for inflated job titles. Now, my brief summary does not do justice to Graeber’s writing. Nevertheless, it is here where one wishes most for an economist to contribute to the argument. For even if there are forces countervailing the pressures of profit, the economy is still running on manifestly capitalist lines. So how could a sort of inefficient feudalism exist in this context?

Another point that Graeber examines is the relative pay of people with useful and useless employment. The obvious trend is that jobs which have undeniable social value—like nurses and teachers—are paid less, while jobs that have questionable or even negative social value—such as “creative vice presidents” and corporate lobbyists—are richly rewarded. Now, I do not think you need to be an idealist to see this situation as undesirable. Graeber explains this tendency by analyzing the culture of work (specifically, that useful employment is supposed to be its own reward, while useless employment requires incentives), but again one craves an economic explanation. (This, by the way, is one of the frustrations of social science: that the different disciplines operate with incompatibly different premises and methodologies.)

For my part, my own experience, combined with the many testimonies and statistics in this book, is enough to convince me that some jobs are really bullshit—even from the limited standpoint of a company’s profit. And I think that Graeber may be correct in searching for a cultural and political, rather than a strictly “economic,” explanation. After all, we humans are not exactly renowned for our rational economies. But for my part, I think he may have underestimated the role that corporate mergers have played in vastly reducing competition—and, thus, the pressure to eliminate useless jobs.

While all of this deserves analysis and debate, I think that this book is valuable if only for raising serious questions about the institution of work itself. The more that I read about history, the more I have come to see our modern ritual of work as strange and aberrant. The idea that we would all go to work five days a week, eight hours a day, year after year—regardless of whether we are making cars or filling out forms, and regardless of how much work there is on any given day—would have struck people in nearly any other place and time as bizarre.

To me, it just seems backwards to use a cookie-cutter schedule for every task (from lawyer to salesman), and then expect every member of society to adopt this basic template or risk abject poverty. Considering that the economy requires a certainly level of employment to function, and that the current social safety net could not support a large number of unemployed people anyway, perhaps it should come as no surprise that we are plagued by dummy jobs. And if you think about it, it would be an amazing coincidence if the economy—through all the structural and technological changes of the previous century—always needed between 90 to 95 percent of the working population at any given time.

Graeber’s proposed solution to this problem is Universal Basic Income—providing every person with a regular paycheck, sufficient to cover the necessities of life. Personally I think that this is a wonderful idea, and one which could greatly alleviate many of our social ills. Unfortunately, in the United States, at least, UBI seems just as likely as paid maternity leave. But whatever the means, I think it is high time to change our attitude towards work. We spend enormous amounts of time doing things we do not want to do, and, what is worse, things which often do not need to be done. What fuels this is a kind of masochistic work ethic, defining our worth by our ability to do things that we do not want to do. This ethic has so pervaded our culture that, in America at least, we take it for granted that everything form health care to our self-respect should depend on our jobs.

One of Graeber’s most interesting points is that the phenomenon of useless jobs may reveal that we are using a flawed conception of human nature. One would think that being paid to do little or nothing would be the height of happiness. But most people in useless jobs report profound feelings of unease and distress. Again, my own experience testifies to this. Though I had little work, and was paid decently, I often found myself miserable, even beside myself with a strange mixture of boredom and anxiety. Graeber has a long section on this, but basically it comes down to the way that useless work undermines our sense of agency in the world. There is a reason the gods punished Sisyphus that way. As Dostoyevsky said, having humans perform an unpleasant, uninteresting, and totally worthless task might be the most profound form of torture. In my own case, it gave me a very unsettling feeling of dissociation, as if I really could not control my own actions.

So if we build our economy on the assumption that humans, left to themselves, will choose to get the maximum reward for the least benefit, we may be building on false premises. I think that Graeber is right, and that people generally prefer feeling like they are doing something useful. This is why I think we ought not to fear that Universal Basic Income, or a drastic reduction in working hours, would lead to a society of lazy idlers. In any case, people bored at home may do something more worthwhile than people bored at work, who mostly seem to go on social media. (Graeber notes that the rise in social media use coincides with the rise of useless employment. Certainly it was true in my case, that useless employment led naturally to spending huge amounts of time on Facebook.)

This summary does not do justice to the full contents of the book. Graeber is a sharp writer and an agile thinker. Not only is he the first to really hone in on this strange aspect of the modern world, but he does so within a wide perspective. To give just a few more examples, he connects the rise of bullshit jobs with the slowdown in scientific progress and the decline in quality of Hollywood movies. Perhaps Graeber’s political identity as an anarchist helps him to avoid the basic narratives of both the left and the right, and to develop strikingly original opinions about social problems. While I am not anarchist myself, I think the institution of work deserves far more questioning and criticism. We have accepted work as the bedrock of society and the foundations of our lives’ meanings, and yet most of us do not particularly like it. If I could wax utopian for a moment, I would imagine a movement devoted to the creation of a society of leisure. I would even work for it.

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