Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
by David Graeber
Simon and Schuster, 2018
When David Graeber posted an article in 2013 called “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” he had no idea how much of a resonance his article would generate – millions of readers in multiple languages are still reading it. Four years later, Graeber published a book on the topic, based in part on a semi-formal research project he conducted during the interim years with hundreds of participants.
The basic question of the book is one so many of us wrestle with on a daily basis: “Is there any meaning to my job? Is what I am doing contributing in any way to other people, to society, or to life as a whole?” The answer for apparently close to half of the population, at least in the UK and in the Netherlands, where actual surveys were done, and of those in other countries who responded to Graeber’s request to hear about their experiences, is a simple and resounding “no.”
Graeber’s book engages with a bouquet of challenging topics that all relate to this phenomenon: What is a bullshit job? Why are bullshit jobs proliferating? Why do we suffer when we have one? And, in the end: Is there anything that can be done about the phenomenon as a whole, beyond individuals aiming to exit such jobs?
For me, in the context of writing a review for Tikkun specifically, these questions take on more significance, because some of the insights and analysis that Graeber puts forth in his book are directly relevant to core themes that Michael Lerner identified through his research over 30 years ago through the Institute of Labor and Mental Health, and which he and others have explored on these pages for decades about essential and non-material human needs, specifically our absolute needs for meaning, autonomy, and dignity. Before getting to the areas of Graeber’s analysis that touch on the significance of these insights, I start with the basics: what counts as a bullshit job and why we have more and more of them.
What Is a Bullshit Job?
Here’s Graeber’s definition, which he constructs carefully over many pages: “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.” (pp. 9-10)
The part of the book that defines and describes bullshit jobs and then categorizes them into multiple sub-categories is painfully entertaining, simply because Graeber (like many anthropologists) is a storyteller and knows what to draw out from what his informants have told him. It provides the pleasure and relief of having something we all know so well spelled out and no longer secret. Despite some slippage in the categories -- especially the over-simplification of the distinction between “shit jobs” as useful, undercompensated jobs and “bullshit jobs” as useless, generally better-paid jobs, which also leads to a glaring omission of a whole category of low-paying jobs whose sole purpose is to limit people’s access to resources (e.g., toll booth operators, security guards, low-level clerks), which could easily be categorized as both bullshit and shit -- as I look at the entire project, the significance of naming and exploring the phenomenon far outweighs the few omissions or confusions.
Why Is Bullshitization Proliferating?
Although the book is about bullshit jobs, it may better be described as being about what Graeber calls “bullshitization,” which results both in more bullshit jobs, and in a larger proportion of bullshit aspects to work that isn’t, overall, a bullshit job per se. This topic, too, I leave mostly to the interested readers, pulling out only some of the points I found fascinating and illuminating of what has happened to our society.
Graeber dispels a common myth that bullshit jobs and bullshitization of jobs are primarily a public sector phenomenon. Although quantitative data is relatively scant in the book, Graeber pulls together quite ingeniously some bits of statistical analysis with his phenomenological research, with the surprising conclusion that more than half of all the work that gets done is lacking any social value, and that proportion is growing. His interpretation is that, as has been predicted, more than half the workforce has indeed been made superfluous because of automation. However, contrary to any prediction, and in defiance of “all our assumptions about how market economies are supposed to work” (p.146), they are working in dummy jobs rather than being truly out of work. The reasons, according to Graeber, are fundamentally political, in a re-fusion of the economic and the political through finance capitalism which leads to what he calls “managerial feudalism.” Just like in earlier feudalism, the primary focus and where profit comes from in large corporations is “less and less about making, building, fixing, or maintaining things and more and more about political processes of appropriating, distributing, and allocating money and resources” (p. 177). Despite many differences, just like under feudalism, this results in layers and layers of managers that aren’t adding value, only making work more difficult: “everywhere, managerial feudalism ensures that thousands of hours of creative effort will literally come to nothing” (p. 188).
Within this context, increases in productivity no longer support increases in wages, as was the case for some decades during what is known as the “Keynesian bargain.” Instead, they are being appropriated by the upper classes, for whom, understandably, “a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger” (p. xviii).
As a particularly painful example of the political nature of the maintenance of so much unnecessary labor, Graeber cites Obama explaining why, ultimately, he didn’t heed the clear public vote for socialized medicine and, instead, kept it in the hands of private insurers: this was done in order to preserve millions of jobs that he himself acknowledged would become otherwise unnecessary (p. 157).
Why Is Bullshit Work so Awful?
I believe that Graber’s insights about the devastating effects of bullshit jobs would resonate deeply with Tikkun readers. From a narrow materialist analysis, a bullshit job would be the ultimate satisfaction, since many of them pay well and require very little, at times nothing at all (one of his stories is about a man who didn’t go to work at all for years and no one noticed, and this was not entirely an isolated example). Why, then, are rates of depression, suicidal thoughts, stress, and quitting, so high amongst people who have bullshit jobs, as Graeber’s informants reported? Simply put, it’s because the spiritual violence attendant on such jobs is “directed at the essence of what it means to be a human being” (p. 134). More quantitative research can support us in making sense of this experience. In Dan Pink’s RSAnimate talk, he cites some of this research and documents how, beyond a certain base level of “enoughness,” humans are motivated far more by the capacity to autonomously have “a meaningful impact on the world” (p. 84) than by reward and punishment such as money. Injuries to meaning, autonomy, and dignity are core to what Tikkun has been exploring for years, and why readers would heartily embrace Graeber’s “assumption that human beings don’t have to be compelled to work, or at least, to do something that they feel is useful or beneficial to others” (p. 281) instead of the mainstream economics assumption “that if humans are offered the option to be parasites, of course they’ll take it” (p. 81).
The experiences that Graeber documents are the effects on individuals. Clearly, on aggregate, such high rates of dissatisfaction have significant ramifications on a societal level. Globally, rates of employee engagement – having “a positive attitude towards their organization” and their work and taking “positive action to further [its] reputation and interests” – are remarkably low: only 15% of employees are engaged in their workplace. In Western Europe, the number is only 10%, higher only than in East Asia at 6%. The highest engagement rates are in the US and Canada at 31%, itself a dismal result considering how many of our waking hours happen in our workplaces. How does such rampant dissatisfaction affect societal wellbeing?
Bullshit Jobs and Right Wing Populism
I never expected that a book on bullshit jobs would offer me so much information and insight about the rightward turn of so many voters around the world who, from a materialist perspective, are voting against their self-interest, so to speak. Although Graeber’s premises are very different from Tikkun’s (he is an anarchist, for example), he nonetheless reaches very similar and well-documented conclusions.
Although there are several overlapping threads in his analysis of this phenomenon, the one that most stands out to me in its relevance is the role of resentment in the current structure of society. One aspect of it is the absolute dominance of a relationship with work that would have been incomprehensible to people a mere 300 years ago: wage labor. I often think about how much loss had to have been inflicted – on communities, on the commons, on individual well-being – before the idea that everyone having a job with a wage could ever appear to be an appealing proposition, let alone a symbol of a well-functioning society. Graeber documents how much the cultural understanding of what constitutes valuable and valid work has shifted, starting in the US and propagating elsewhere, into the current “map” of work, in which an inverse relationship exists between how useful anyone’s work is and how much they get paid (with a very few notable exceptions, such as doctors and soldiers, for very different reasons) and “that anyone who is not slaving away harder than he’d like at something he doesn’t especially enjoy is a bad person, a scrounger, a skiver, a contemptible parasite unworthy of sympathy or public relief” (p. 215).
This shift is one of three core reasons that some significant swaths of the white working class in the US and elsewhere have drifted politically to the right. The second and third are related, though separate. One of them is a very real way in which the Democratic Party in the US, and similar political entities elsewhere, have aligned themselves with the interests of the powerful elites and abandoned their allegiance to working people, a commitment they had kept through some time in the 70s. And the other is that, in shifting allegiance, the Democratic Party has come to be seen as the party of the liberal elite – the only group who has meaningful jobs that also pay well, and towards which many in what Graber believes has now become the “caring classes” – those whose livelihoods require them to provide ongoing care to others either as a defining part of their jobs or by virtue of the relationships surrounding their tasks – feel particular resentment because of how much more the liberal elite has come to resemble an impenetrable caste than the result of individual achievements. (Graeber’s explanation of what this means or how it came to be that the vast majority of working class jobs ultimately are about care more than any other unifying theme such as production, is well beyond the scope of this short review.)
What’s left for people in such miserable inner states is, then, solely what he calls “compensatory consumerism” and resentments – towards those who want to get paid well for jobs of meaning, such as auto workers and teachers, towards the liberal elite (who are seen as betraying them), and towards the “undeserving” poor, immigrants, and other similar groups. Very literally, these strategies are what makes it possible for those who have very little autonomy or dignity to make it through their days. Sadly, both consumption and resentments are useful for the political class of the powerful, as they keep people distracted from what’s really going on, which is that their life energy is sapped and stolen in support of the material wellbeing of the ones on top.
The Impossibility of Individual Solutions
Some time ago, in a conversation with a woman who was trying to make room for herself in the world as an alternative lawyer, I got a real visceral sense of why these issues cannot be solved at an individual level. If and when any individual caught in a bullshit job wakes up to what is happening, they face a terrible choice between what I sadly call spiritual suicide and financial suicide. There simply aren’t enough jobs or professions that create enough meaning and enough financial sustainability. Within the corporate and public sectors, and increasingly also in the non-profit sector, jobs are one or the other; there are no “better” jobs to be had if one leaves an existing job; often no jobs at all. There isn’t ever going to be enough demand for coaches, trainers, facilitators, yoga teachers, and the like to absorb all the people who would leave the world of bullshit jobs in a heartbeat if they could. The problem, as Graeber amply demonstrates, is now built into our societal structure. As Tikkun readers are well aware, the patriarchal-capitalist-white-supremacist nexus affects much more than our work lives, penetrating into our relationships, spiritual lives, and the very possibility of our long term existence as a species. What, then, are we to do?
Creating a Freer Society
Graeber rarely engages in proposals for change, especially ones that involve state power and legislation given his anarchist leanings. Nonetheless, he offers a path forward in this instance that he believes can take us some of the way from where we collectively are to “what a genuinely free society might actually be like” (p. 285). Essentially, he proposes a large-scale adoption of universal basic income policies that would enable us to shed the bulk of bullshit jobs and to cash out on the unfulfilled promise of being able to do all the work that’s truly needed in about 15 hours a week. “What Basic Income ultimately proposes is to detach livelihood from work. Its immediate effect would be to massively reduce the amount of bureaucracy in any country that implemented it” (p. 279) because of the simplicity of having no means testing to establish entitlement. If the reason we do bullshit jobs is indeed because of managerial feudalism, then giving all of us, without exception, a basic income package that would allow us to sustain ourselves, without fear of losing our jobs, would mean that we would only work more hours if there is something we truly feel passionate about, something that would support a sense of meaning and contribution to life and others. (Few jobs offer this now, and mostly at the cost of low pay and difficult working conditions.) Because of his faith in humanity’s fundamental interest in contributing to life, in searching for deeper meaning, and in caring about each other, Graeber, and many others including myself, believe the result would be massive reduction in suffering as well as more autonomy, dignity, and meaning for all with far less cost to the biosphere. May we live to see such a day.
 Quotes from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Employee_engagement
 Data based on “State of the Global Workforce,” https://www.gallup.com/workplace/238079/state-global-workplace-2017.aspx