My notes on BULLSHIT JOB: A Theory by David Graeber.
Bullshit Job — What Happened to Utopia?
Pointless, meaningless and, in many cases, harmful jobs constitute more than half of all work performed in Western countries today. If companies eliminated worthless work and automated work that machines could do, people would work only a few hours a day.
“This is not a book about a particular solution. It’s a book about a problem – one that most people don’t even acknowledge exists.”
Why do most people still work 40 or more hours each week with only a small amount of vacation time each year? Consider what they might do with their free time. Might they question events around them? Might a leisure-based economy upset the current economy in which only the top one per cent gets ahead? Might ruling politicians and the very wealthy have orchestrated the current fake economy to keep citizens occupied with work so they have little time for anything else?
Bullshit Job — Junk Jobs
Empty jobs are any positions in which the workers believe their labour has no meaning, helps no one, and contributes nothing to society, or they’re jobs that workers know existing technology could easily do. This is especially true if no one would suffer if the worker didn’t do the job. If a group of people do the same work as you, and if they agree the work has no value, you have a fake job.
“Working serves a purpose, or is meant to do so. Being forced to pretend to work just for the sake of working is an indignity.”
Many jobs mix elements of good, purposeful work and rubbish work, like a doctor who spends half the week treating patients and half of it filling out forms. For many white-collar workers in western nations, useless meetings, email, and paperwork render more than half of their work meaningless.
Most fake jobs garner more respect and remuneration than meaningful jobs. For example, teachers, plumbers, and firefighters, who do purposeful work, receive far less compensation and esteem than bankers, lawyers and advertisers. Empty jobs are not nasty or messy but useful jobs. The former contribute nothing but pay well. The latter, like trash collectors and dishwashers, pay poorly but improve society.
Bullshit Job — Categories of Junk Jobs
Most useless jobs fall into one or more of these categories:
- “Flunkies” – Anyone hired to make someone else look or feel more important is a flunky. These include, for example, receptionists in quiet offices, doormen, elevator operators and various consultants who act as window dressing, including gatekeepers who give the illusion their boss has bigger things to do.
- “Goons” – These workers include advertisers, telemarketers, armies and other aggressive muscle that nations or organizations hire to push people into doing things. That work is necessary only because competitors employ goons, too, so everyone else must follow. Workers who convince people they need things they don’t or push an unattainable standard of appearance or lifestyle on people who can’t afford it are doing something evil. They harm people and society.
- “Duct tapers” – These workers fix unnecessary messes other people leave behind. Bug fixes in software or editors fall into this category. They constantly fix the same problems made by people who wouldn’t need cleaning up after if they did their jobs better or had the necessary tools.
- “Box tickers” – Organizations create meaningless work so they can say they’ve done the task and can check off the box. They do the work for appearance’s sake only. The people who do this work generally know it’s pointless, whether they’re creating pretty but useless slide decks, writing attractive but worthless reports, or sitting on important-sounding, but completely irrelevant committees.
- “Taskmasters” – Many managers and supervisors preside over teams who don’t need them. These teams could do their work as well or better without another layer of meddling management above them. Worse, these useless managers occupy their empty time cooking up useless tasks for their teams to perform so they seem busy and keep their subordinates under pressure.
Bullshit Job — How Bad Jobs Do Harm
People performing junk jobs – even if they receive high prestige, ample salaries and plenty of autonomy, and don’t have to do much – still dislike their situations. Most people seek purpose and meaning in their work and in their lives. They’re sad when they believe their work helps no one, delivers no value and may do harm. Most economists build their models on the assumption that people seek the most pay for the least work; evidence proves them wrong. Lottery winners often return to work, for example, and prisoners clamour for work assignments when they could choose to do nothing. Meaningless work by itself doesn’t cause despair. However, having someone imposing worthless, irrelevant work upon you can destroy your soul.
A fake ”job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence…”
The opportunity for people to force meaningless work on other people arose only recently, with the notion of paying people for their time. For centuries, employers paid people on the basis of their production. Today, most people receive a paycheck based on a standard workweek measured in hours. Those hours belong to their employers, who may prefer that employees do anything – even useless work – instead of nothing. This makes no sense to people who wish for purposeful tasks; it erodes their morale.
“A majority of…information workers do feel that if their jobs were to vanish, it would make very little difference to the world.”
When companies don’t assign pointless, made-up work, people who have empty jobs fake being busy by making up worthless work. Decent managers may tacitly acknowledge the lack of work, but most expect their employees to keep up the pretence. Even when this means playing online games or watching cat videos, most people who know their labour has no meaning experience discontent and disengagement.
“Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment.We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.”
Meaningless labour exacerbates other problems at work. It raises tempers, reduces camaraderie and diminishes tolerance. It contributes to adverse health conditions, including heightened stress and depression. These conditions are often worse in people who enjoy respect, social prestige and high pay for their fake jobs, presumably because all the rewards make them feel guilty. Performing labour of no value for organizations – like non-profits – that exist to do good, erodes morale and harms health even more rapidly.
“Huge swaths of people…spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”
When organizations assign people hollow work they commit “spiritual violence.” Many employees try to keep their equilibrium by surreptitiously using their time at work for other purposes, such as learning a language or pursuing unrelated research of personal interest. Ultimately, however, only a small percentage of people can stay in a hollow job while avoiding serious psychological and physical harm.
Bullshit Job is A Growing Phenomenon
In theory, competition in a capitalist system should prevent waste in business, so junk jobs shouldn’t last for long. Communism deliberately created needless factory jobs, and capitalism creates an equal number of pointless office jobs. The number of fake jobs and those that are made up of junk work has grown quickly over the past few decades. The fast rise of information industry jobs and office work since the 1960s coincides with this trend. Most of those jobs are useless.
Meaningless “jobs regularly induce feelings of hopelessness, depression, and self-loathing. They are forms of spiritual violence directed at the essence of what it means to be a human being.”
Politicians promise jobs and low unemployment to get elected. Whether the jobs contribute anything matters little. Even President Barrack Obama, champion of health care reform, said that millions of useless jobs in health care deserve protection. The US health care system employs at least three million people who fill out forms for insurance purposes. A single-payer system would eliminate these jobs overnight.
“Just as Socialist regimes had created millions of dummy proletarian jobs. capitalist regimes somehow ended up presiding over the creation of millions of dummy white-collar jobs.”
In the private sector, employers hire people to fulfil contracts. They pay workers one amount and then bill their time to customers at much higher rates. The longer those people work, the more their employers can charge. This leads to rampant waste, deliberate obfuscation and perverse incentives to work poorly or slowly. The decades-long expansion of new levels of management and decision-making in Western economies adds layers of bureaucracy, useless paperwork, endless approvals, meetings, and presentations. Many firms put people in purposeless jobs to give the appearance of success and importance.
Why Worthless Work Endures
For almost a century, economists predicted that in the future people would have shorter work weeks, with lives devoted to family, pursuing creative passions or enjoying leisure. Even though these economists were correct – nations could easily shorten the workweek, dramatically and with no discernible negative impact – the last 100 years showcase ever-increasing work hours. People work more hours now than they did 100 years ago, but most of their work is made-up and worthless.
“The more one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it.”
When half of all work produces nothing or harms society, it seems logical to eliminate it. Instead, economies generate more useless work. This issue receives little fanfare because most people don’t recognize useless work as an issue. They might believe that much of government work is worthless, but they believe so strongly in capitalism’s efficiency they can’t or won’t see its enormous waste.
“Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.”
Most people tacitly accept that the more useless a job, the more it should pay, and the more a job contributes and helps people, the less it should pay. This seduces people into fighting for and keeping meaningless positions, like hedge fund managers, lobbyists, and marketers. The prevailing system seems to say that because firefighters and teachers do meaningful work, they should accept the punishment of low wages.
“We could easily rearrange matters in such a way that pretty much everyone on earth lived lives of relative ease and comfort.”
Most people believe in the inherent value of work – they celebrate all legal work as valuable. They believe work builds character, so the more difficult and painful the job, the better. They believe that the real path to responsible adulthood lies not in pursuing your passions but in doing something difficult, even if it damages your body and spirit. This centuries-old Puritan principle – the work ethic – still looms large in Western cultures and values. People see work as the only path to true, responsible adulthood. Whether they would admit it or not, many would have a hard time living in a leisure society.
“Most of us like to talk about freedom in the abstract…but we don’t think a lot about what being free or practicing freedom might actually mean.”
The moral value of work once meant learning a trade or craft and taking pride in making things. Today’s corporate-driven economies emphasize pride not in what you make but in what you can buy – a profound shift. As people graduate from school, start careers, build families, acquire mortgages, and so on, they grow increasingly dependent on the system, even if they hate it – another reason so many people tolerate meaningless jobs.
The End Empty Jobs
The means exist to change life so all seven billion people on the planet could live comfortably. Machines, robots and artificial intelligence make an increasing amount of human effort unnecessary. Firms could relieve workers of mundane, repetitive work, so these people could labour less and spend their time on tasks requiring creativity and emotional intelligence. But companies don’t do this. Even when people acknowledge the proliferation of fake jobs, many don’t see it as a problem. Politicians believe in full employment. The ruling classes – politicians and the very wealthy – fear a citizenry with time on its hands. Companies make money from useless work, and useless props shore up their illusion of importance. Workers participate in this fraud, seduced by the high pay and prestige of worthless jobs. An outdated work ethic and the inability to imagine what they would do if they were free from full-time work to sustain their misguided ambitions.
If nations separated work from making a living, more people might open their eyes to the harmful effects of meaningless work. A universal basic income – a modest, living wage given to every citizen – would eliminate significant empty work. The tens of millions of bureaucrats who operate the current, demeaning social welfare bureaucracies of the world could be let go to help pay for a fair and universal income. This would promote a form of equality for all – young and old, poor and wealthy, black and white, men and women – and reduce the need to accept fake work. Ultimately, if all workers had financial security, some would still choose useless work or do nothing. Their numbers could never come close to the number of workers today who know their work has no meaning, even when working for a good purpose is their highest ambition.
“If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity…how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labor more inefficient than the one we already have?”
Another recommended reading on life and work I would recommend is Ray Dalio’s Principle.
Spectacular and terrifyingly true’ Owen Jones
‘Explosive’ John McDonnell, New Statesman, Books of the Year
‘Thought-provoking and funny’ The Times