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Review: Bullshit Jobs

I’ve previously had cause to link to David Graeber’s moderately famous essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs on this blog, and recently read his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) that follows up on the subject at length. The book covers numerous points that I could follow up on this blog, and even contains a few pages considering economic ideas that appear in science fiction (the book and Science Fiction and the Economics of Utopia were published at about the same time and I don’t suppose Graeber has ever read my essay), but for now I’ll just discuss Graeber’s thesis in general terms.

Graeber defines a bullshit job as one in which the person holding the job sees no reason for it to exist. According to two separate surveys undertaken after he wrote the original essay, somewhere between thirty-five and forty percent of job-holders in Western countries feel that they are in this position. Graeber’s own research is based on qualitative analysis of the testimony of people who feel that they work in bullshit jobs. Amongst this testimony he identifies fives kinds of bullshit: flunkies who exist purely to make their superiors look impressive and/or powerful; duct tapers responsible for fixing up the problems of a poorly-designed system (he suggests that many computer programmers fall into this category); goons (such as telemarketers) employed to pressure people into doing things that may not be in the victims’ interest; box-tickers who exist to ensure compliance with arbitrary rules; and task masters responsible for shuffling tasks amongst teams of people capable of organising themselves.

Graeber’s categorisation goes some way towards explaining how bullshit jobs might come about—duct tapers exist due to an unwillingness or inability to fix the system makes them necessary, and so on—but, since Graeber collected only the testimony of job holders, we don’t really know what the supervisors who created the alleged bullshit jobs thought the purpose of those jobs to be. Nor is it very easy to define or compile objective measures of how valuable an individual job might be, though Graeber points to a couple of rough attempts by economists to estimate the level of “externalities” (positive or negative contributions to society overall) associated with various professions.

Graeber instead questions some common assumptions about what motivates people to work and the way that work is organised. For one, bullshit jobs should not exist at all if firms operating in a market system really do expend resources only if those resources contribute more value to the firm than the marginal cost of those resources—yet if the survey results and testimonies that he quotes are even approximately correct, something like a third of workers may be doing something useless. For another, traditional models of homo economicus and thinking about human motivation suggest that workers should be thrilled to have a bullshit job in which they get paid to do nothing—yet many holders of such jobs report themselves to be miserable with boredom and frustration. Finally, Graeber speculates that there might be an approximately inverse correlation between the financial rewards associated with a particular profession and its actual social benefit—classic stereotypes being teachers and nurses versus management consultants and financial advisers—and the aforementioned economic studies do give some support to this suspicion.

There are plenty of points that could be followed up in Graeber’s research: what do job supervisors say about the jobs they’ve created? How many bullshit jobs of each kind really exist? Since (most) people neither want to be employed in bullshit jobs nor do firms presumably wish to employ people in pointless positions, how might their numbers be reduced (all the while ensuring that the people involved still have means to support themselves)? On a personal level, one might wonder am I in a bullshit job? (I like to think not.) I’m not in a position to answer these questions here but I can recommend Graeber’s book and maybe some non-bullshit academics can follow up on the missing pieces.

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