Imagine having a job that pays you £12,000 to write a two-page report for a company meeting. Then imagine that nobody even discusses it. This is what anthropologist David Graeber would call a ‘bullshit job’. In this post I explore what these are, why they are on the rise and why we need to hold them up to scrutiny.
Bullshit and the Occupy Movement
Graeber’s book on the Occupy movement and related issues was released as The Democracy Project in 2013. One of the points he raises in this book is the increase in what he calls bullshit jobs. These are forms of employment that even those holding the jobs feel should not or do not need to exist. He sees such jobs as being:
concentrated in professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers.
As he explained also in an article in STRIKE! magazine:
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
He also says that:
Hell is a collection of individuals who are spending the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not particularly good at.
Graeber’s defines a BS job as:
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 this is not the case.
He divides bullshit jobs into five categories:
- flunkies (who make others feel important),
- goons (there to be aggressive on their employers’ behalf),
- duct-tapers (who sort out problems others have created),
- box-tickers (who allow a company to claim it’s doing something it isn’t), and
- taskmasters (who “supervise people who do not need supervision”).
His suggestion is that the larger corporations become, the more bureaucratic they are. Tasks that once were simple and easy to do, get bogged down by unnecessary approvals and forms. This problem is then magnified because as jobs get more specialized entire departments act as a discreet part of very complex machine. Each discrete department may not understand the purpose of all the things that they are asked to do. When you don’t know all the reasons for certain tasks it is difficult to work out if something is no longer necessary. Graeber attributes their existence within companies to managerial feudalism. This is the urge of people to hire underlings to make themselves feel important. At a societal level, he blames the Protestant work ethic, which has transformed capitalism’s need for labour into a religious duty.
He states that we must resist:
The pressure to value ourselves and others on the basis of how hard we work at something we’d rather not be doing…if you’re not destroying your mind and body via paid work you’re not living right.
While the book has its flaws, Graeber succeeds in articulating a truth that thousands of people know to be true. Our economies have become vast engines for producing pointless roles. This is despite that fact that in a competitive marketplace companies should try to drop non-value added positions. So, it’s a strange irony that, in an age that prizes capitalist efficiency, employers in both the public and private sector are behaving ever more like the bureaucracies of the old Soviet Union.
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