In 2013, the late anthropologist, David Graeber published an article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (which he later expanded into a book called Bullshit jobs). Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? Yet virtually no one talks about it. Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error.
The essay went viral almost immediately. Within weeks, it had been translated into German, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Czech, Romanian, Russian, Turkish, Latvian, Polish, Greek, Estonian, Catalan, and Korean, and was reprinted in newspapers from Switzerland to Australia. Blogs sprouted. Comments sections filled up with confessions from white-collar professionals. People wrote to him asking for guidance or to tell him that he had inspired them to quit their jobs to find something more meaningful.
Graeber defines a bullshit job as a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence. He distinguishes between jobs that are pointless (bullshit jobs) and jobs that are merely bad (shit jobs). The two are often confused but might almost be considered opposites. If you mention the notion of bullshit jobs to someone who hasn’t heard the term before, that person may assume you’re really talking about shit jobs.
Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are paid and treated badly. In shit jobs, people are generally treated with arbitrariness and disrespect. Shit jobs tend to be blue collar and pay by the hour, whereas bullshit jobs tend to be white collar and salaried.
Those who work shit jobs tend to be the object of indignities; they not only work hard but also are held in low esteem for that very reason. Those who work bullshit jobs are often surrounded by honor and prestige; they are respected as professionals, well paid, and treated as high achievers — as the sort of people who can be justly proud of what they do. Hardly anyone would trade in a pointless middle-management position for a job as a ditchdigger, even if they knew that the ditches really did need to be dug.
Graeber had thought that the percentage of bullshit jobs was probably around 20 percent but it turned out to be much higher. A poll of Britons was conducted using language taken directly from the essay: for example, Does your job “make a meaningful contribution to the world”? Astonishingly, more than a third — 37 percent — said they believed that it did not (whereas 50 percent said it did, and 13 percent were uncertain). (But only 33 percent of workers found it unfulfilling which meant that at least 4 percent of the working population feel their jobs are pointless but enjoy them anyway.) A poll in Holland came up with almost exactly the same results: in fact, a little higher, as 40 percent of Dutch workers reported that their jobs had no good reason to exist. Graeber writes:
How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment? Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way, . . . to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work.
For instance: in our society, there seems to be a general rule that, the more obviously one’s work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: What would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear?
Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it’s obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dockworkers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science-fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place.
It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs, or legal consultants to similarly vanish. (Many suspect it might improve markedly.) Yet apart from a handful of well-touted exceptions (doctors), the rule holds surprisingly well.
Even more perverse, there seems to be a broad sense that this is the way things should be. This is one of the secret strengths of right-wing populism. You can see it when tabloids whip up resentment against tube workers for paralyzing London during contract disputes: the very fact that tube workers can paralyze London shows that their work is actually necessary, but this seems to be precisely what annoys people.
It’s even clearer in the United States, where Republicans have had remarkable success mobilizing resentment against schoolteachers and autoworkers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry executives who actually cause the problems) for their supposedly bloated wages and benefits.
It’s as if they are being told “But you get to teach children! Or make cars! You get to have real jobs! And on top of that, you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”