Do you have a job that you secretly believe is pointless?
If so, you have what anthropologist David Graeber calls a “bullshit job.” A professor at the London School of Economics and a leader of the early Occupy Wall Street movement, Graeber has written a new book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
He argues that there are millions of people across the world — clerical workers, administrators, consultants, telemarketers, corporate lawyers, service personnel, and many others — who are toiling away in meaningless, unnecessary jobs, and they know it.
It didn’t have to be this way, Graeber says. Technology has advanced to the point where most of the difficult, labor-intensive jobs can be performed by machines. But instead of freeing ourselves from the suffocating 40-hour workweek, we’ve invented a whole universe of futile occupations that are professionally unsatisfying and spiritually empty.
This, at least, is the story he tells in his book. Much of it is persuasive, some of it overly simplistic, but nearly all of it is interesting. I reached out to Graeber to talk about the book and the broader phenomenon of “bullshit jobs.”
I wanted to know how we got to this place, if there are any real alternatives, and what, if anything, people can do about it.
A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.
What are “bullshit jobs”?
Bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist. That’s the bullshit element. A lot of people confuse bullshit jobs and shit jobs, but they’re not the same thing.
Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful. In fact, in our society, often the more useful the work is, the less they pay you. Whereas bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely pointless, and the people doing them know this.
Give me some examples of bullshit jobs.
Corporate lawyers. Most corporate lawyers secretly believe that if there were no longer any corporate lawyers, the world would probably be a better place. The same is true of public relations consultants, telemarketers, brand managers, and countless administrative specialists who are paid to sit around, answer phones, and pretend to be useful.
A lot of bullshit jobs are just manufactured middle-management positions with no real utility in the world, but they exist anyway in order to justify the careers of the people performing them. But if they went away tomorrow, it would make no difference at all.
And that’s how you know a job is bullshit: If we suddenly eliminated teachers or garbage collectors or construction workers or law enforcement or whatever, it would really matter. We’d notice the absence. But if bullshit jobs go away, we’re no worse off.
You talk about these jobs as morally and spiritually corrosive. What does that mean?
We’re all taught that people want something for nothing, which makes it easy to shame poor people and denigrate the welfare system, because everyone is lazy at heart and just wants to mooch off other people.
But the truth is that a lot of people are being handed a lot of money to do nothing. This is true for most of these middle-management positions I’m talking about, and the people doing these jobs are completely unhappy because they know their work is bullshit.
I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.
What’s interesting to me is that this is precisely the outcome we shouldn’t expect in a capitalist system. A free market ought to eliminate inefficient, unnecessary jobs, and yet the reverse has happened. We’ve got all these jobs that really shouldn’t exist but somehow do, and maybe it’s as simple as people need something to do, so we keep inventing bullshit jobs to keep them busy. But I’ll ask you: What the hell happened?
That’s the really interesting thing. You expect this outcome with a Soviet-style system, where you have to have full employment so you make up jobs whether a need exists or not. But this shouldn’t happen in a free market system.
I think one of the reasons is there’s huge political pressure to create jobs coming from all directions. We accept the idea that rich people are job creators, and the more jobs we have, the better. It doesn’t matter if those jobs do something useful; we just assume that more jobs is better no matter what.
We’ve created a whole class of flunkies that essentially exist to improve the lives of actual rich people. Rich people throw money at people who are paid to sit around, add to their glory, and learn to see the world from the perspective of the executive class.
Many of the non-bullshit jobs, the jobs that are truly useful and necessary, have been lost to automation, and the truth is that they were far more difficult and tedious than the bullshit jobs of today. Is it necessarily a bad thing that they’ve been replaced?
Well, you could also just replace them with no jobs. Great economic thinkers like John Maynard Keynes were predicting that technology would advance such that we would achieve a 15-hour workweek by century’s end, but that didn’t happen. Instead, we just kept inventing bullshit jobs.
But what if we just accepted that technology can perform a lot of the essential tasks and just worked less? What if we just spent more time doing what we actually want rather than sitting in [an] office pretending to work for 40 hours a week?
This is the same critique Marx made in the 19th century. Marx said we have this perverse and unjust system, which is propped up by perverse and unjust values, but the system persists because the people suffering the most are mad at the wrong people, and if only we could get rid of all this and liberate people, they could spend their days fishing or creating art or whatever and we’d all be happier. But this is a theory, albeit a lovely one.
No question, and I don’t run away from the Marxist aspects of this. One of the themes of the book is that the system reproduces itself because it’s very much in the interests of the ruling class. I get called a conspiracy theorist for saying this, but I don’t see it that way. We should be conspiring to get rid of this.
I think this system creates absurd forms of resentment where people actually resent people who have real jobs. You see this in Europe with all the austerity programs after the financial crash. There is all this talk about tightening belts, except for the guys who caused the crash. They still get their bonuses, but the ambulance drivers and the nurses and the teachers have all got to sacrifice.
The logic is insane, and it always falls on the people who are most vulnerable, who do the hard and necessary jobs.
There’s a lot to pull on there, but I want to stay on the original point, which is this idea that people would be happier if we exploded all of these bullshit jobs overnight.
I’m an anthropologist, and I can tell you there are plenty of societies where people work three or four hours a day. Most peasant societies worked that. You’d work 12 hours a day during harvest time and in the off-season you’d work two or three hours. The average medieval serf worked way less than we do, and the same is true of tribal societies around the world.
We imagine that if we take people’s work away, they’ll just sit around, drink beer, watch TV, and be depressed all day. But we just don’t have any experience of having time, but societies that do come up with all sorts of things to do.
Right, but these other societies are defined by radically different cultures and values, so it’s not nearly as simple as that. But I’ll circle back to that in a second. It seems to me that you want a world in which employed rich people subsidize unemployed non-rich people — is that right?
I don’t suspect that’s the way it will work out. I want a world where basic needs are provided. I call for basic income, but it doesn’t have to be basic income. I simply want people to be free to decide for themselves how they want to contribute, and I obviously want fewer bullshit jobs.
But calling it a subsidy is not quite right because you can’t really measure what people are doing. That’s why I talk about caregiving labor. A lot of the value that’s produced in society, like half of the value that’s produced in society, is produced by people who aren’t actually getting paid for it. I’m thinking of people who take care of the home or do important volunteer work or sacrifice in other ways that aren’t rewarded in our current economic system.
People will still need to be paid for doing important engineering work or medical work or scientific work or other necessary jobs, but we have to adjust our values to recognize that there are plenty of ways to contribute to society, and a lot of it doesn’t fall under what we currently consider “work.”
Here’s why I struggle: We’ve got this complex economic system which requires an enormously complex bureaucracy to prop it up. Plus, we’ve created a culture that reinforces this in a thousand different ways, and cultures don’t change easily or quickly.
So we can’t move from the world we have to the world you want without a total paradigm shift, and I have no idea how to achieve that.
I’m a revolutionary. I think we need a paradigm shift, and I think a lot of people are slowly realizing this. They’re pissed off and frustrated with the status quo, but they don’t see a path to a different world or a different system.
So you’re a revolutionary? Does that mean you want to burn it all down and start from scratch?
You can never start from scratch, and most successful revolutionaries have deep traditions to draw on. But I do believe we have to start thinking imaginatively about systems that are fundamentally differently organized. Shifts do happen in history. We’ve been taught for the last 30 to 40 years that imagination has no place in politics or economics, but that, too, is bullshit.
Say someone reads this and thinks, “Yeah, you’re right, my job is bullshit.” What would you have them do? What would you have us do?
We need to change what we value. I thought Occupy Wall Street might have been the beginning of something like this. People were really waking up and realizing that they wanted to do something useful, wanted to help others. They were realizing that something is wrong, that if you go into a profession like education or social services, they treat you poorly and pay you little.
I think we need a rebellion of what I call the “caring class,” people who care about others and justice. We need to think about how to create a new social movement and change what we value in our work and lives.
People have a sense of what makes a job worthwhile; otherwise, they wouldn’t realize that what they’re doing now is bullshit. So we need to give this more articulation, and we need to unite with other people who want the same things. That’s a political project we can all get behind.