The Rise of Pointless Work and What We Can Do About It

By David Graeber

A YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50% of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job mad any sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37% were quite sure it did not. A poll by the firm Schouten & Nelissen carried out in Holland put the latter number as high as 40%.

A bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

In the spring of 2013, David was asked to write an essay for a new radical magazine named Strike! His essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” was “based on a hunch” with his question of whether those who he believed held unneeded jobs (HR consultants, PR researchers etc.) were aware of how the futility of their work?

What, I wondered, if these jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are aware of it?

Key Quotes from the essay:

  • “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 fifteen-hour work week. [But despite us being capable of it] And yet it didn’t happen…Jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed”. Yes, humans consume ore than before but very few of the jobs that we partake in today are linked to the production of sneakers, cars or iPhones
  • So if technology has allowed the same work to be done with fewer people, where are these would be unemployed working? “A recent report comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 gives us a clear picture. Over the course of the last century, the number of works employed in domestic servants, in industry, and in the farm sector has collapsed dramatically. At the same time, ‘professional, managerial, clerical, sales and service works’ tripped, growing ‘from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment’.
  • Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours, “we have seen the ballooning not even so such of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector…These are what I propose to call ‘Bullshit Jobs’”.
  • “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely not what is supposed to happen…While corporations ay engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariable fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things. Through some strange alchemy that no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves working forty or even fifty hour weeks on paper but effectively working fifteen hours just as Keynes predicted”
  • “The answer clearly isn’t economic: its moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger. And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them”

The 2016–2017 State of Enterprise Work Report surveyed American works and saw that the amount of time that workers say they devote to doing their actual jobs has declined from 46% in 2015 to 39% in 2016 due to a rise in emails, “wasteful” meeting and administrative tasks.

And so the point can be made that if 40% of jobs are completely pointless, and at least 50% of the work done in non-pointless office jobs is equally pointless, we can probably conclude that at least half of all work being done in our society could be eliminated without making any difference at all.

David argues that there are five kinds of bullshit jobs.

  1. flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants
  2. goons, who oppose other goons hired by other companies, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists
  3. duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive
  4. box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it isn’t, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers
  5. taskmasters, who manage — or create extra work for — those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals

David argues that the prestige of a manager is based on how many people work for them and therefore they have an incentive to keep growing their teams.

Under classic capitalist conditions [it] makes no sense to hire unnecessary workers. … But by a feudal logic, where economic and political considerations overlap, the same behaviour makes perfect sense” (p. 176). A large pool of underlings can be considered both a visible measure of a manager’s worth and leverage in office politics.

In 1901, the German psychologist Karl Groos discovered that infants expressed extraordinary joy when they first figure out that they can cause predictable effects in the world coining the phrase “the pleasure at being the cause”. Before Groos, most philosophers believed that man either seeks power out of an inherent will to dominate or that he did so to ensure his survival. Groos argued that this is why people find enjoyment in playing as we are able to exercise change in the world. David makes the point that preventing someone having an effect on the world via a bullshit job is a “direct attack on the very foundations on the sense that one even is a self. A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.”

David makes the point that the political system has an interest in preserving the millions of bullshit jobs in order to win the support of the electorate. Obama was asked why he was maintaining a private, for-profit health insurance system in America and answered

‘Everyone who supports single-payer health care says, “Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork.” That represents one million, two million, three million jobs filled by people who are working at Blue Cross, Blue Shield of Kaiser. What are we doing with them? Where are we employing them?’

David describes how the body of studies relating to 21st century work can be summarised as:

  • Most people’s sense of dignity and self-worth is caught up in working for a living.
  • Most people hate their jobs.

With these two points being labelled as the Paradox of Modern Work. As two leaders of the field wrote in 1987:

“In well over a hundred studies in the last twenty-five years, working have regularly depicted their jobs as physically exhausting, boring, psychologically diminishing or personally humiliating and unimportant. [But at the same time] they want to work because they are aware at some level that work plays a crucial and perhaps unparalleled psychological role in the formation of human character. Work is not just a course of livelihood, it is also one of the most significant contributing factors to an inner life”

The Protestant work ethic, the Calvinist work ethic,[1] or the Puritan work ethic is a work ethic concept in theology, sociology, economics and history which emphasises that hard work, discipline, and frugality[3] are a result of a person’s subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith, particularly Calvinism. — Wikipedia

David argues that this mindset in which work is done for the good of doing work has put a prison on western minds making it justifiable to work on pointless endeavours.