Bullshit jobs permeate modern society, but do they? It is true that there are plenty of pointless jobs out there, but the situation isn’t as bad as some would want you believe.
Last year I wrote about the importance of understanding the purpose of your job and being aligned with it. One of my LinkedIn contacts, Jacquelyn Soh, replied to the post saying that it reminded her of an essay by David Graeber called The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, and she posted the link to the essay. I found its name intriguing, so I read it straight away. It resonated with me, so I also read the book the author published a few years later.
The premise of the book (and the essay) is that today there are plenty of pointless jobs that don’t add value to society, the individuals who hold them, or even the companies paying them. The worst part is that the jobholders know it, which brings them despair and unhappiness. This is the definition of a bullshit job for Mr. Graeber.
As I said, the concept resonated with me. Even though I don’t agree with Graeber’s entire thesis, I can see some truth in it. Let’s delve deeper into it.
The book and the essay
If you want to read about bullshit jobs, you don’t need to buy the book. Reading the essay should suffice. The book could be condensed into just a chapter, but it feels as if the writer and the publishing company wanted to sell a whole book, so they filled it with more information, examples, and metaphors on the same topic.
Graeber says he was taken aback by the great success of his essay in 2013, so he decided to conduct more in-depth research on the topic. His “in-depth” research consisted mainly of asking for examples of bullshit jobs on Twitter. His request raised around 200 responses, both from Twitter and his private correspondence (people wrote to him to talk about their experiences with bullshit jobs following the publication of his essay).
In the book, he explains the concept of bullshit jobs, goes deeper into his ideas, and then lets his contributors from Twitter and elsewhere speak for him. He adds plenty of examples, some of them funny, some of them poignant and sad.
For example, this British guy with a degree in history was hired to conduct an IT job he was ill-equipped to carry out. He was mainly hired due to internal politics and turf-wars amongst partners in the company, so his boss wanted to keep him in his job even if he didn’t add any value. The poor fellow started to get depressive and sad due to the pointlessness of his job, so he tried to resign several times, but each time his boss increased his salary, and he stayed.
He started going to work hangover or even drunk, making up corporate trips to London to visit friends on the company dime, and displaying other destructive behaviours in order to be sacked, but to no avail. He felt trapped until one day, he decided to resign by dropping a letter to his boss under his door when he was on vacation and forfeiting his final payslip. He really was desperate to leave.
The point of the story is that bullshit jobs, apart from not adding any value to society or the company, are soul-crushing for the jobholder. Getting paid for doing nothing seems like the dream job for many, but it isn’t as cool or fun as it sounds. We human beings need a purpose and to feel useful.
Bullshit jobs are often held by well-educated university graduates and receive high salaries. Sadly enough, many jobs that aren’t bullshit and add real value to society (teachers, cleaners, waiters, farmers) are low qualification jobs with low salaries. The author believes we have the smartest and better educated people in our society doing pointless jobs that add no value and make them unhappy.
It is as if the capitalist system needed to have people occupied and earning a salary to function, even if their jobs weren’t necessary anymore, because of advances in automation and technology. That’s at least the author’s view, but is this correct?
Writings from an ivory tower
Some easy criticisms can be aimed at Graeber and his thesis. The research he conducted isn’t very exhaustive, to begin with. As a social anthropologist, if he wanted to prove or disprove his theory, he could have conducted more comprehensive research and not just asked for anecdotal examples from his Twitter followers. He could have gone into the field and interviewed randomly selected people from different occupations and industries or performed a survey with more than a few hundred responses.
Secondly, Mr. Graeber is an academic who has never set foot in an office or worked in the corporate world, and you can tell that quickly from the way he writes and talks about it. We, the corporate netizens, have our own biases as we look at this topic from within. Still, the academic ivory tower isn’t the best place to evaluate and talk about these topics, especially if you haven’t conducted the proper exhaustive research.
By Graeber’s definition, “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 is not the case.” He puts the focus on the jobholder’s perception. The jobholders themselves need to feel their job is pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious, making the definition subjective, not objective, and therefore not workable or functional.
I may feel my job is pointless, so I’d be holding a bullshit job, but someone else in the same position may see it differently and think they are doing an excellent service to humanity. Two persons with the same job may have very different perceptions of their jobs and their level of bullshitness. So who is right?
And still, there is something about Graeber’s thesis that rings true. Bullshit jobs do exist. Graeber showcases in his book tens if not hundreds of examples, told by the jobholders themselves, of utterly pointless jobs. We all know people in jobs that don’t add any evident value to society, themselves, or the company paying them a salary. If we are honest with ourselves, many of us will also relate to this, and we will probably confess to holding at least one of these jobs at some time during our careers.
Society is becoming more and more complex. This complexity creates new types of work that didn’t exist in the past. It is a system that feeds into itself. Complexity begets more complexity, and more complexity requires new types of jobs. Their added value isn’t always apparent.
If I tell you about someone whose job is to clean a toilet or to serve food in a restaurant, their job’s added value is evident. Without them, that toilet would be dirty, and the consumers of the restaurant wouldn’t get the food they paid for.
If I tell you about a corporate lawyer, a tax auditor or a HR Director (HR is one of the maligned job families in Graeber’s work, we HR folks seem to be especially useless), it is more difficult for more people to imagine how their work adds value, as most people won’t even understand what these people do most of their time. That doesn’t mean these jobs are pointless or pernicious, although I’m sure they will be in many cases.
Like with any other work, there are lights and shadows in Graeber’s work on bullshit jobs. If you allow me, it is a bit “bullshitty” itself, but there are some crucial learnings.
First of all, most human beings crave purpose in their lives, and that includes their jobs. It seems many of us would love to have a job in which we are paid for doing nothing, but at closer inspection, we realise that most of us would be unhappy and wretched in such a setting. We want our work to serve a purpose and add value to someone or somebody. Otherwise, we feel terrible about it. We feel useless ourselves if we have to do useless jobs.
Second, there are plenty of pointless jobs out there. I don’t think this is as widespread a phenomenon as the author would want us to believe, but we cannot deny that bullshit jobs exist and in large numbers, especially in some industries. Think how much waste and inefficiencies we would eliminate if we reduced the number of pointless jobs in society.
Third, from a leader’s point of view, it is worthwhile to carefully evaluate your teams and all the positions and people in them. Are all these people and their jobs adding value? Are they all necessary? What would happen if this or that job disappeared tomorrow?
If the answer to that final question is “nothing or not much”, then you may want to consider why you still have that job in your organization.
Bullshit jobs, wherever they exist, are harmful to both the organisations hosting them and the jobholders themselves, who don’t usually enjoy them much. Let’s be honest to ourselves and our people, and let’s identify and eradicate bullshit jobs. We’ll be all happier and more productive for it.
What do you think about bullshit jobs? Do you think they are as prevalent in our society as Graeber thinks? And if so, what can we do about it?