On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

Image an economy in which you were paid to do the things you like to read about on this blog: gardening, beer brewing, jam making, beekeeping etc. Or how about a world in which teachers, nurses and caregivers made more money than tech CEOs? Sadly, we don’t live in that utopia. Instead we have an economy that often rewards people who either do nothing all day or whose work degrades our lives.

Anthropologist David Graeber takes up these questions in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. Judging from the many months I waited for the library’s copy of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber hit a nerve. In fact, the original essay version of this book, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant” went viral.

Graeber’s bullshit job research began with a casual question in Twitter asking if people felt their jobs were worthless or unnecessary. He got a torrent of responses. Typical is the experience of this receptionist for a Dutch publishing company:

The phone rang maybe once a day, so I was given a couple of other tasks:

  • Keep candy dish full of mints. (Mints were supplied by someone else at the company; I just had to take a handful out of a drawer next to the candy dish and put them in the candy dish.)
  • Once a week, I would go to a conference room and wind a grandfather clock. (I found this task stressful, actually, because they told me that if I forgot or waited too long, all of the weights would fall, and I would be left with the onerous task of grandfather clock repair.)
  • The task that took the most time was managing another receptionist’s Avon sales.

In the book Graeber develops a taxonomy of Bullshit jobs and estimates that at least 50% of jobs could vanish and no one would notice. And, no, we’re not just talking about government jobs. It turns out that capitalism produces prodigious amounts of useless jobs despite those who claim that the alleged efficiency of markets makes this impossible.

While many of the examples in the book, such as the Dutch receptionist, are amusing behind them lies a lot of human misery. It turns out that being paid well to look like you’re busy when you’re not can crush the human soul. Worse are jobs such as telemarketers who, in order to get by, have do something deceptive or destructive.

Sadly, in our economy, with a few exceptions, the more useful your job is the more likely you are to not be paid well. On Thursday, here in Los Angeles, public school teachers are set to go on strike for better wages and to prevent creeping privatization by charter school companies. It’s very expensive to live here and a teacher’s salary amounts to a lower middle class wage. You probably won’t starve but you’ll never be able to afford to buy a house. Instead our economy rewards finance sector employees who have no idea what they were hired for and who spend their work days pretending to do something while they are actually just looking at Facebook. Worse, Graeber shows how those in power foster resentment between those in bullshit jobs and useful workers such as teachers and utility workers.

Much of this inequity falls on women, who are more likely to occupy low paid but useful jobs taking care of other people. Lost in the tedious debate over the percentage of female Google engineers is why we pay hospice nurses less than the people who figure out how to serve ads for outdoor grills while we search for porn.

Graeber goes on to describe the history of our attitudes towards work from the medieval guild system to the bloated bureaucracies of the present. Along the way he delves into the theology of why we think terrible jobs are good for us. He concludes with an argument for universal basic income that had me (a skeptic of UBI) partly convinced.

If you’ve read this book or experienced a bullshit job leave a comment!

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22 Comments

  1. Sorry , but LA math proficiency for third grade is 22%. Inner City awful schools are at 30%. Great book “crazy Like a Fox” is a must read if you are ambivalent about children and their education, instead of teachers and their pension.

    Btw, love your blog. New beekeeper 🙂

  2. Retired teacher here. I always worked a second job. Otherwise, I would not have been able to survive during my 27 years as an educator. I also spend lots of my own money on supplies for the at-risk students I taught. The teaching profession is an honorable one. Sadly, education is not at the forefront of U.S. society. Society has other priorities (sports, celebrities, etc.).
    I will be rooting for the LA teachers.

    • Thank you for your years of service and generosity. I’m sure we all have teachers in our lives, like you, who made our lives better.

  3. Sooooo… I know teachers in Germany, Switzerland, Singapore, and Japan. They’re not just paid better than American teachers, but they have higher status in society. The status is a non monetary form of “pay” that attracts high quality people to the profession.

    Americans want their kids to go to a high performance school with great teachers, but bitch and moan about how they’re paid too much, have overly long vacations, and gold plated healthcare and extravagant pensions. Consequently the profession is being dismantled by popular demand and smart young people find other ways to earn a living.

    Privatizing public schools is similar to HMOs from the 1980s that were suppose to transform health insurance. How well did that work out?

    • We’re trapped in the dystopian world Mark Fisher describes in his book Capitalist Realism. Worth a read if you haven’t seen it.

  4. Retired RN here. Luckily I worked in Canada where the wages were excellent,this was 15 years ago and the hospitals are unionized. I know private nursing does not pay as well.
    I can’t imagine having to work at a non fulfilling job but I can see how it would be hard to give up if you were getting paid well.

    The teachers here make good money and are held in high esteem.

  5. Maybe a third of jobs are bullshit.
    It reminds me of Golgafrincham from the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.
    Golgafrincham was a planet, once home to the Great Circling Poets of Arium. The descendants of these poets made up tales of impending doom about the planet. The tales varied; some said it was going to crash into the sun, or the moon was going to crash into the planet. Others said the planet was to be invaded by twelve-foot piranha bees and still others said it was in danger of being eaten by an enormous mutant star-goat.

    These tales of impending doom allowed the Golgafrinchans to rid themselves of an entire useless third of their population. The story was that they would build three Ark ships. Into the A ship would go all the leaders, scientists and other high achievers. The C ship would contain all the people who made things and did things, and the B Ark would hold everyone else, such as hairdressers and telephone sanitisers. They sent the B ship off first, but of course, the other two-thirds of the population stayed on the planet and lived full, rich and happy lives until they were all wiped out by a virulent disease contracted from a dirty telephone.

    • Graeber actually references this story in the context of wondering why Adams picked on the hairdressers!

  6. I used to work for the metropolitan train system here in Melbourne Australia. The system had been privatised many years ago. My job was to put the fare money on the plastic swipe card that is used as a ticket. There were also machines located at the railway station that could do this same task. I was usually working from midday to 5pm – not a particularly busy time of day for commuters nor was the station a particularly busy station. I used to get paid around AU$60,000 a year for this. It was mind numbingly boring. I would do the volunteer administration cor my Permaculture group and my beekeeping group,my banking and spend most od my time on the internet watching Permaculture videos. So I can relate to bullshit jobs.
    Claire in Melbourne, Australia

    • Hey Claire, You might enjoy the book. One of the examples Graeber uses is transit workers who went on strike when they were replaced by ticket kiosks. It turns out that those transit workers also did things like offer directions and deal with emergencies, in short, “caring” type work that tends to be undervalued and overlooked. It turns out the kiosks couldn’t replace that human touch.

    • Yes- we had to provide basic information occasionally to the infrequent traveller or the very occasional tourist and on rare occasions dealt with a train related “emergency “. But my most frequent ‘job’ was calling for an ambulance almost daily for the same drug and alcohol affected people who hung around in the bus bays located alongside the station because the bus drivers refused to call for assistance.

      Claire in Melbourne.

    • I understand what you’re saying, but I find myself helping little old ladies and tourists buy their subway tickets regularly… I know most of them would much prefer a human being to a ticket machine, if there were one.
      Maybe other people didn’t feel your job was quite as useless as you did? Not that it’s their opinion that matters, of course.

  7. Maybe teachers are low paid because we employ a lot of them? I suspect if/when we move to a MOC model even for HS education, where only the best teachers’ lectures are utilized, it would show us how much truly great teachers deserve to be paid, and also how much of their salary is… babysitting.

    • Heh – just curious what the MOC model you are referring to is? The old Googler gives me a couple different answers. Thanks!

    • Dan, I meant massive online courses, where students can watch a video of a lecture, read FAQs, ask other questions, have discussions, etc. A bunch of colleges do this (Yale, MIT, etc).

  8. Also, I love bullshit jobs. It’s really remarkable that someone would complain about being paid to do pretty much nothing. I’d love to have a cushy office job with an hour or so of work to do, and the rest of the day free to read.

    • The quandry here is that many of these jobs want you to keep up appearances, so you don’t necessarily get to read. You have to ‘look busy’ and reading a book doesn’t really work for that.

      I see your point but at the same time, think about everything you could be doing for yourself.

    • Admittedly, I’ve only read Graber’s original article, not his book. There’s still something to be said for an easy job that leaves lots of mental energy to do what you want off the clock.

      If we’re talking about jobs that are bullshit, but also are mentally draining, then we’re probably on the same page. Then you should probably look for a different job.

  9. The problem with UBI is that it demands a whole lot of folks with bullshit jobs to pay more bullshit taxes. Or else, the nurse will now be taxed more and make less income. As a result, we’ll have a whole lot of folks doing no job at all (and without the self reliance skills that we all so desperately work to accumulate), which is arguably the most bullshit job of them all.

    We need a paradigm shift.

  10. In my youth (MANY years ago) I worked on the bottling line in a brewery. The very worst job was the person who sat where the bottles came out of the bottle washing machine and checked that each bottle was clean and had no cigarette ends, dead mice or other nasty things left in it.

    The bottles went by at a rate of about one bottle a second and passed in front of a bright light, so the bottle checker person could see clearly what, if anything, was in it. They then had to make an instant decision whether to press the foot pedal that caused an unacceptable bottle to be ejected from the bottling line.

    No one could do this job for more than about an hour without going blind, so it was rotated regularly among all the bottling line staff.

  11. I used to be an art teacher and left to stay at home with my children. I am very fortunate in that my husband’s job allowed me to do this. When my sons were older I took a part-time retail job which was essentially babysitting a small shop and occasionally helping customers. Most shifts I spent the last hour or so reading my book when I had no more cleaning or arranging of shelved items to “look busy.” I was given no other responsibilities even though I was overqualified for the job because the shop owner wasn’t really good at delegating other tasks. She wanted to be in complete control I guess. I finally left because reading is something I can do in my spare time at home…in much more comfortable surroundings. Volunteering my time at organizations that can truly appreciate my help is more rewarding now. I’m just worried about what the future holds for my sons as they go out into the world…

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