Bullshit Jobs

First, David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is an extremely pleasurable read, and you should read it, if nothing else for the accounts of the utterly useless things people have been employed to do. The book was born in the wake of the storm of Graeber’s 2013 article “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs“. The premise is simple: In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted, with the pace of mechanisation and technological advances, that by the end of the century the world would enjoy a 15-hour work week. Given the endless, inescapable, invariably tedious discussions of automation and AI, why hasn’t this happened? The short version of this book is: it has. The reason that it doesn’t appear to have happened is because the remaining twenty-five hours (or in more dire new-world cases, sixty-five hours) have been filled with unnecessary admin and bureaucracy, with some of the worst jobs (from the soul’s point of view) concerned exclusively with increasing that burden. Sound fanciful? The argument is premised mostly on empirical data, self-reported by the people actually doing these jobs. (It also lines up well discussion I’ve had with people in many industries.) Polls in the UK and the Netherlands have shown 37 to 40% of people do not believe, by their own estimation, that their job contributes anything useful to their company or to society. How can this be? Isn’t this impossible under capitalism?

The book, using an array of amusing, shocking, and tragicomic anecdotes, makes the case that many jobs deemed to be bullshit by the people working them exist for reasons other than economic efficiency or expediency. It must be understood that “bullshit jobs” does not refer to unpleasant jobs, almost all of which are extremely necessary and not bullshit at all: cleaners, plumbers, sewage workers, and so on, virtually never rate their own jobs as “bullshit.” Nor is it a value judgement on whether other peolple’s jobs ought to exist or not. It uses the workers’ own testimonies, which seems legitimate (who would claim that their job is bullshit if it’s actually useful?). And it turns out that a significant proportion of middle managers, administrators, and IT workers report that their jobs are either entirely meaningless or have large meaningless components to them. The book examines the increase in administration and bureaucracy of jobs like nursing and teaching—which it calls the “bullshitization of real jobs”. As an example, universities now employ something like triple the administrative staff that they did in the 1960s, but far from reducing the administrative burden on professors and students, they have drastically increased it.

Based on hundreds of reports, Graeber divides the jobs into five categories. The first is “flunkies,” who are there to make other people look important. This can happen in tiny operations hiring idle receptionists just to be taken seriously, or it can happen in big corporations whose upper management can hardly seem very senior without big teams working beneath them. It often happens because people are hired before it is precisely determined what they will do. The second category is “goons,” who exist primarily to keep up with competitors who also employ them, like telemarketers or corporate lawyers. Their job involves some level of aggression that would not be needed if everyone just stopped doing it. “Duct tapers” are cheap labour hired to permanent roles to constantly fix problems solved by not addressing root cause issues, which happens often in IT—but can also happen in areas like customer service, where people are employed to apologise for things being broken rather than to actually do anything about it. “Box tickers” are responsible for keeping up the appearance that certain regulations are being met, when in fact they are not (think compliance departments). “Taskmasters” apply mainly to middle management. He divides them into two categories, the merely useless ones who are like reverse flunkies (i.e. their teams did their jobs just fine before they were hired), and the more sadistic type who invent bullshit, exact punitive timekeeping or performance metrics, and so on. In my experience the most benevolent people in these positions believe their job is mainly to shield their teams from bullshit coming from above.

The book makes a convincing argument that there is an inverse relationship between how highly one is compensated, and how directly useful their job is. The remaining chapters are devoted to why people in such positions find it so soul-destroying, what it is like to work them, why they are proliferating, why society has not objected to the situation, and finally to what might be done about the situation. Along the way Graeber discusses manifold other topics, including what happened to the apprentice-journeyman-master system, how global finance might be seen as a new type of feudalism, and how the dominant labour theory of value lost out to a largely silent capitalist coup in the late nineteenth century. There is far more in this book than I’ve summarised here, but it has a lighter tone and is less formidable and more comical than Graeber’s excellent book Debt: The First 5000 Years, which I also recently read. Overall it’s an entertaining explication of a very real problem, and it is is well-worth reading.

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