Teddy Roosevelt once said that “far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”. There is lots of advice about how to ‘work hard’ but what about that ‘work worth doing’ part? What if the real problem is that your entire job is meaningless make-work? David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, argues that this is a much more common problem than we might think. He has called this ‘The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ and his ideas are worth considering.
Graeber draws special attention to jobs in the service sector but argues that about half of the jobs in the modern economy are pointless. Count yourself in this half if your job is really about fixing problems that shouldn’t exist (what he calls ‘duct tapers’); keeping other people on task (‘task masters’); managing the performance of others (‘box tickers’); making other people feel more important (‘flunkies’); or promoting the interests of others (‘goons’). As he said, “it’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working”.
Graeber’s idea is important because he’s clear that he’s not talking about ‘shit jobs’ as we traditionally understand them, the kinds of jobs that come with poor pay, conditions, and low prestige. Instead, he’s talking about jobs that look perfectly respectable from the outside but are essentially hollow on the inside. He singles out corporate lawyers as a great example of what he’s talking about (but he’s also smart enough to see that, as a Professor of Anthropology, he shouldn’t be throwing stones at anyone). Graeber’s point is that it’s hard to find meaning in your work if you think your work is pointless.
To which the obvious solution seems to be to find work that has meaning and value. Except this is where ‘The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’ becomes really interesting. Alongside the creation of all those jobs that are pointless, the modern economy seems to be filling even the good jobs with more and more pointless tasks. Graeber calls this “the creeping bullshitization of real jobs”. It describes how compliance and administration crowd out the ability to do any actual work. One of the earliest examples he used was closest to his heart, that of universities. He notes how academics find themselves doing less and less studying, teaching, or research; and more and more time measuring, assessing, or quantifying the way they should be studying, teaching, or researching. He also talks about the bizarre phenomenon in universities of “forming more committees to discuss the problems of too many committees”. You can understand why when you read that the average US employee spends less than half of each day on their real job, with the majority of their time taken with witless emails or pointless meetings.
As a result, it should be no surprise that so many people are disengaged from their work. Gallup has an annual international survey that tracks just how disengaged most people are. The latest survey shows that while only a minority (16%) actively hate their job, the majority (51%) are just turning up for the pay cheque. Only a third of workers say they love their job and try to make the company better every day. But perhaps the best indicator of how disengaged people are from their work is the fact that heart attacks are more likely to occur on a Monday than any other day of the week [i].
[i] The Roosevelt quote comes from Teddy’s (1903) Address to the New York State Agricultural Association, Syracuse, New York, September 7th 1903. David Graeber originally outlined his idea about Bullshit Jobs in Strike! magazine (“On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant, August 2013). He expanded that idea in his (2018) book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Simon and Schuster, New York. And wrote about what it meant for academics in The Chronicle Of Higher Education (“Are you in a BS job? In Academe, you’re hardly alone”, May 2018). In 2018 Graeber’s argument attracted a great deal of interest, and in this blog I have also drawn on Normal Heller’s “The Bullshit-Job Boom” (The New Yorker, June 7th 2018) and Elaine Glaser’s “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber” (The Guardian, May 25th 2018). The data about how the average US employee spends more than half their day on administration is from Andre Spicer’s (2017) “From inboxing to thought showers: how business bullshit took over”, The Guardian 23 Nov 2017. The Gallup data are from Anna Robaton’s (2017) “Why so many Americans hate their jobs”, CBS News MoneyWatch March 31, 2017 (www.cbsnews.com/news/why-so-many-americans-hate-their-jobs/). The heart attack statistic is in Anahad O’Connor’s (2006) “The Claim: Heart Attacks are More Common on Mondays”, The New York Times March 14 2006.