By David Graeber. Published by Simon & Schuster (May 2018), 368 pages, available online January 2018
Review By Stuart
Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, delighted me with its clear thought on an issue I hadn’t read about.
“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 this is not the case.”
Individual workers judge whether their own job is bullshit. A youGov poll found that in the United Kingdom 37 percent of those who had full-time jobs were quite sure that their job did not make any meaningful contribution to the world. A poll in Holland put this as high as 40 percent.
A bullshit job isn’t just a job that has some bullshit associated with it, though this is an important issue, with a survey showing the amount of time US office workers spend on their primary duties decreasing from 46 percent in 2015 to 39 percent in 2016. A bullshit job is one that is entirely or overwhelmingly bullshit.
A bullshit job is different from a shit job, one that pays and treats workers poorly. Lots of shit jobs are clearly of benefit to society. Graeber refers to “the inverse relationship between the social value of work and the amount of money one is likely to be paid for it”.
Some categories of bullshit jobs are: flunkies (who make other people look or feel important), goons (aggressive but not necessarily physically), duct tapers (who get around a problem that ought not to exist), box tickers (who allow an organization to claim to do something it isn’t in fact doing), and taskmasters (either unnecessary superiors, the opposite of flunkies; or those whose primary role is to manage bullshit tasks or jobs for others).
People with bullshit jobs are typically unhappy in them, often deeply. One of Graeber’s poetic headings is “on the misery of knowing that one is doing harm”.
The book speculates as to why bullshit jobs are proliferating. Many deal with handling information, a kind of job that is increasing. Another big question is why we as a society do not object to the growth of pointless employment.
Graeber goes back to the organization of labor in feudal society in Europe and “the theological roots of our attitudes toward labor”, then forward to “how, over the course of the twentieth century, work came to be increasingly valued primarily as a form of discipline and self-sacrifice”.
Finally, what can be done? The author doesn’t have the answer, but thinks a universal basic income might help, divorcing work from finding the money to stay alive. If necessary work were distributed equitably, 40 hours a week would be way more than enough; we could all work less and have more time for life.