Current Affairs

Mort Todd

Bullshit Jobs

What qualifies and what to do about them…

“Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” is the latest fascinating and infuriating book from David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. If you’re not familiar with Graeber, he’s an anarchist who does anthropology, or an anthropologist who does anarchism (he strongly dislikes being called an “anarchist anthropologist,” along with another Nickname That Cannot Be Uttered). The dislike of this first moniker—we shall never utter the second—has always struck your authors as strange. The best way to describe Graeber’s anthropology is as anarchist anthropology. It’s different than other studies or ethnographies. His writing, to the extent that it has a uniform style, is made up of five thousand word anecdotes that somehow coalesce into an overarching theory. Much like anarchism, his anthropology is less grand theory and more “here are a bunch of cool things that seem to say something about the world.” There are flaws with this approach, of course, but it does make for an engaging and bottom-up type of writing.

Graeber’s own family and personal history is equally interesting. He comes from a long line of radicals—his grandfather was a late 19th century atheist and frontier musician, his father fought for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, and his mother was a garment worker-turned Broadway star whose story is very much worth reading. Graeber himself played a key role in the Occupy Wall Street movement, where he was credited with popularizing the phrase “we are the 99%.” Bullshit Jobs is not remotely his first book: some of his other notable works include: “The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy,” “Debt: The First 5,000 Years,” and “Direct Action: An Ethnography.”

“That’s all very well,” you may be thinking, “but isn’t this review about Bullshit Jobs, and didn’t it come out about a year ago, and isn’t that an unreasonably long time to wait to review it?” To this we will say two things, the first being that this is Current Affairs and we do not bow to the tyranny of clocks, and the second is that, if anything, Graeber’s book is even more relevant today than when it was first published, because the foul trends it examines have only grown stinkier since then.

The Five Types of Bullshit Jobs

The first chapters of the book finds Graeber in classic form, wielding anecdotes about German military contractors (apparently it takes three different subcontractors and around twenty man-hours of labor to move a computer from one office to another) and Spanish government workers (specifically, the hero Joaquín García, who skipped work for six years without anyone noticing) that are as hilarious as they are illustrative about the point Graeber is trying to make—bullshit jobs are plentiful, they are often created for the most asinine reasons, and doing them breaks our brains.

Bullshit jobs invoke an intense cognitive dissonance in large part because they shouldn’t be able to exist under capitalism (more on this later). For now, the important thing to remember is that bullshit jobs are, essentially, the “fat” that today’s sleek, ulta-efficient corporations are always seeking to trim—and yet it comprises an enormous, ever-burgeoning percentage of their workforce and budget. According to the theorists, this isn’t possible: companies with bloated advisory boards and expensively useless brand consultants should perish at the hands of their leaner rivals. But the thousands upon thousands of personal stories that Graeber’s book is based upon suggests otherwise. 

From these anecdotes, Graeber constructs a catalogue of the various forms and flavors of bullshit jobs. As he describes them: 

Flunky jobs are those that exist only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important….

Goons [are] people whose jobs have an aggressive element, but, crucially, who exist only because other people employ them….

Duct tapers are employees whose jobs only exist because of a glitch or fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist….

Box tickers [are] employees who exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing….

Taskmasters fall into two categories. Type 1 contains those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others…. [Type 2 contains those] whose primary role is to create bullshit tasks for other to do, to supervise bullshit, or even to create entirely new bullshit jobs.”

As Graeber explains the intricacies of each category of bullshit job, you may find yourself thinking, “Wow, there are a lot of jobs that sound like flunkies—bodyguards, personal shoppers, ‘special assistants to the chairman.’ And there’s a lot of jobs that sound like goons: P.R. gurus, SEO marketers, and—with apologies to most of the Current Affairs editorial board—lawyers. And the duct tapers: Couldn’t that describe pretty much everyone in I.T.? Box tickers sound like every H.R. manager, diversity consultant, and sustainability advisor you’ve ever met, and ‘taskmaster’ could be a synonym for ‘project manager’ and its related mutations. Oh god, are all jobs bullshit jobs?” 

Perhaps not exactly, but it’s understandable if you feel that way. Graeber cites a poll which showed that 37 percent of British workers think their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world, and to be honest, those numbers sound a little low. Back in 2017, a Gallup poll found that 85 percent of workers around the globe hate their jobs. At the time, the company’s chairman and CEO said, “If this trend isn’t reversed immediately, it means the end of civilization.”

There’s a darkly amusing report in the Harvard Business Review from 1979 called “Changing Employee Values: Deepening Discontent?” that warns, “Currently, there is a downward trend in employees’ ratings of the equity with which they are treated,” and “expectations of advancement are the lowest they have ever been,” both of which sound like they could’ve been taken verbatim from Graeber’s book. Things have been so bad for so long, and yet the most subversive thing most of us have done is watch The Office or enjoy the occasional Dilbert cartoon—say what you will about Scott Adams, but 15 percent of his comics are truly funny.

With apologies for referencing yet another classic critique of workplace ennui, it makes you wonder: How much more can we take before we all pull a Milton and burn down our respective buildings?

How Bullshit Jobs Rob Us Of Our Humanity 

The thing about Bullshit Jobs that’s really striking, however, is not the categorization of different jobs (which happens in the first chapters and is funny and engaging, if a bit incomplete) but the next part: Why are these jobs bad? Particularly, why are these jobs especially bad if you think that within a capitalist framework, the nature of all work is already corrosive? Why is there something extra-pernicious to the human soul about these bullshit jobs?

It’s because, as Graeber writes:

“Children come to understand that they exist, that they are discrete entities from the world around them, largely by coming to understand that ‘they’ are the thing which just caused something to happen—the proof of which is the fact that they can make it happen again. Crucially, too, this realization is, from the very beginning, marked with a species of delight that remains the fundamental background of all subsequent human experience.”

Graeber returns to this idea throughout Bullshit Jobs—the “pleasure at being the cause.” He says that when we’re deprived of this, such as when we’re trapped in a job that has no discernable impact on the world, we experience “a direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self,” which might be the most powerful explanation you’ll ever hear of what “soul-crushing work” really means.

“Young people in Europe and North America in particular,” Graeber continues, “but increasingly throughout the world, are being psychologically prepared for useless jobs, trained in how to pretend to work, and then by various means shepherded into jobs that almost nobody really believes serves any meaningful purpose.”

Everything Graeber says sounds like gospel right up until the last part—there’s an argument to be made that a significant part of the problem is that a baffling number of people do think bullshit jobs serve meaningful purposes. Employers are actually much better than Graeber gives them credit for at making you feel like your work is meaningful. And that’s without pundits on national broadcasting informing you of the dire state of the economy and the vital role of every man, woman, and child in ensuring that the wheels of civilization keep turning (and inveighing against the laziness of the unemployed, who are obviously neglecting their civic duty). Apparently, two out of five Americans believe the country is facing a critical shortage of STEM workers, even though current university students are twice as likely to study STEM as their parents were, and a study from the Economic Policy Institute found that A) the only reason more people aren’t working in STEM is because the pay is low and the jobs are bad, and B) in reality there’s still no shortage. Researchers from the University of Warwick and the University of Leicester found that a similar state of affairs exists in the U.K.

But what would a “critical shortage of STEM workers” (which seem to be comprised mostly of goons, duct tapers, and taskmasters) even mean? To borrow a concept from Graeber, it’s easy to imagine the crippling effects of a critical shortage of nurses or sanitation workers. On the other hand, why should anyone be concerned if blockchain startups struggle to find software engineers to design their shitty apps? How and why have we been propagandized to believe that coding is more inherently meaningful than cleaning?

This is one area we would’ve liked to see Graeber explore in more detail—how have large segments of the population come to treat STEM jobs with the reverence they receive today? It’s easy—and perhaps accurate—to pin the blame on slick P.R., the notoriously spineless tech media, and the obvious capitalist imperative to encourage too many workers into a particular profession in order to drive down wages, but on the other hand, this is the exact type of too-obvious answer that Graeber has a knack for refuting in interesting ways. 

What If We’re Not Actually Living Under Capitalism? 

Bullshit Jobs don’t really fall neatly into a capitalist framework as economists describe it. These are jobs which by their own definition are redundant, meaningless, and make-work. They are the type of jobs that “true capitalists” bemoan when they find them in government bureaucracies. Capitalism is supposed to be efficiency. It should mean that every extraneous job is eliminated and all jobs are there explicitly to serve one goal—profit. In that sense, bullshit jobs seem like an error in the program of capitalism. And, although anyone (including Graeber) might take issue with this definition of capitalism, the examples in the book point to something more than an anomaly. They point to a necessary piece of the current system. The proliferation of these jobs is so deep and so broad that it is actually very difficult to imagine current capitalism without them. They may in fact be necessary for capitalism to function. How do you have a theory that determines someone’s value based on their work while also having a system where actually not everyone has to work. Well, you make work. Just as FDR hired people to knock snow off trees during the Great Depression, so does every company hire an H.R. team and a receptionist (this is not to belittle these jobs, but Graeber does include an amusing anecdote about a publishing company that has a receptionist merely because that is “what companies are supposed to have”).

However, “if the existence of bullshit jobs seems to defy the logic of capitalism,” muses Graeber, “one possible reason for their proliferation might be that the existing system isn’t capitalism—or at least, isn’t any sort of capitalism that would be recognizable from the works of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or, for that matter, Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman.” 

According to Graeber, we live under a system best described as “managerial feudalism,” in which the economic and political spheres blur into one and “the whole point is to grab a pot of loot…. and then [redistribute] it” in order to attract a sizable retinue and subdue one’s opponents. When you consider the life cycle of a quintessential Silicon Valley unicorn—get an enormous amount of money from investors, convince a former senator or two to join as an advisor, use that borrowed credibility to launch a P.R. campaign in the media, get even more money in an IPO, buy or crush any opponents, send lobbyists to Washington, casually offer to self-regulate the industry, give massive gifts to cooperative politicians and punish troublesome ones, etc.—Graeber’s description seems apt. More than that, it makes sense on a visceral level, like, ah yes, that’s what I’ve been noticing in my daily life for years. 

But what if it also hands a tidy excuse to defenders of the current world order? Just as the left points at the Soviet Union’s role in atrocities like the Ukrainian Holodomor, or at Maoist China’s cruelty during the Great Leap Forward and says, “that’s not real socialism,” couldn’t someone from the Heritage Foundation or The Brookings Institution argue that the last forty years haven’t been “real capitalism,” and that what we really need is to cut more taxes or close more homeless shelters or spread the glorious gift of freedom to more Middle Eastern shepherds, one cruise missile at a time?

One could argue they already do this, to an extent, but it still seems like a large and spiky club to hand one’s enemy. The concept of managerial feudalism makes instant sense to anyone once you’ve explained it to them, but rather than proving the existence of a new political formation, this may just reveal an essential truth about capitalism: it’s never been that different from feudalism. It’s just a bit more meritocratic, justifies its power with mainstream economics rather than divine right, and wears a dreary business suit.

Importantly, however, this line of inquiry also begs the question of whether bullshit jobs could still exist under socialism. It’s not a forgone conclusion that they won’t. You’d have to build a particular type of socialism that cared for the human soul to actually believe that the type of job, not just the distribution of wealth, was an important issue.

Numbers: the Root of All Bullshit (Jobs)

“Much of the bullshitization of real jobs, I would say, and much of the reason for the expansion of the bullshit sector more generally, is a direct result of the desire to quantify the unquantifiable.”

So, if we agree that some jobs are “bullshit,” and some jobs are unfulfilling, and some jobs are both, how do we sort through which is which? How do we decide what kinds of work can be done away with entirely, and what kinds of work still need to be done, but hopefully in some different and less ghastly form? Graeber advocates literal cherry-picking: if some tedious tasks can be quantified and automated—he uses the example of sorting fruit—Graeber’s in favor of it. At the same time, he cautions against trying to automate or do away with tasks that people might actually enjoy, like choosing the best history course based on its reading list. (A very anarchist approach if you ask us… but what do we know.) As he explains, “it requires enormous human effort to render the material into units that a computer would even begin to know what to do with.”

On Escaping Our Present Predicament 

Graeber writes 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 especially good at. Thus, we are, by Graeber’s definition, currently in hell. He concludes the book by mentioning universal basic income and the reduction of working hours as some actions we could take to improve the situation, though he makes it clear he doesn’t think either would be a cure-all policy (indeed, like any self-respecting anarchist, he says he’s “suspicious of the very idea of policy”).

And yet… both of those things do sound like they’d be worth a try, don’t they? It’s a tremendously exciting idea to imagine a world in which you had plenty of free time and plenty of money in your pocket. Even if your main preoccupation is productivity, a society built on the automation of drudgery and the maximization of thinking-time seems more likely to yield brilliant inventions and major advances than the stressed-out, overworked, thoroughly miserable shitheap we’re stuck in today.

Graeber is fond of mentioning the remarkable era of British rock bands in the mid-20th century and pointing out, as he said in one interview, “all these bands were living on welfare!” A world of free time and free money is not unreasonable—it’s the world that gave us the Beatles, The Who, and the Rolling Stones, and that’s a world even a boomer could love.

How would we get there, though? The first part is easy: a lot of the “work” currently being done could be got rid of entirely. It’s not like the extra hours are doing us (or our companies’ bottom lines) any good—according to one survey of nearly 2,000 office workers, people in these types of jobs do about two-and-a-half hours of productive work in a given day. (While this wouldn’t change the need for some professions like teachers or firefighters to work longer days, there’s are possible solutions for this as well: compensate them better, improve their working conditions, and ensure that they have a substantive say in how their workplaces are run. Figuring out how to make essential but inherently difficult or complex jobs fair is always going to be an ongoing work in process.) As an ancillary benefit, working less would also be the single most useful thing we can do to counter the effects of climate change. A 2013 report from the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) suggested annual reductions of 0.5% in the world’s total number of work hours could avert up to half of preventable global warming (significant changes are already inevitable, but this could be the difference between them being a thorny problem or a disastrous one), and the researchers’ basic premise still hold true: “fewer work hours means less [sic] carbon emissions, which means less global warming.”

There’s no equally glib answer for where the money comes from, but that doesn’t mean there is no answer. One potential solution could be “social wealth funds” like the one proposed by Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Institute. Modeled on existing funds like those of Norway and Alaska (and the 80 others around the world), it could operate in tandem with newer, more radical ideas like modern monetary theory*, a complex yet intuitively reasonable idea that refutes the conservative notion that national budgets should be run like a family’s budget, since one can print its own currency and the other cannot. If this is the case, which it certainly appears to be, why shouldn’t that currency be printed to pay for baby formula instead of bank bailouts?

In a socialist world, policies like these would render the soil infertile for bullshit jobs: that is, a job that is neither useful nor enjoyable. The main reason people don’t quit jobs they hate is because they’d starve without them—if they weren’t in danger of starving, they wouldn’t need to take a bullshit job in the first place. A society with the dominant values of compassion and egalitarianism would also remove the incentives that drive people to build the petty professional fiefdoms so prevalent under the current system of capitalism-cum-managerial feudalism. 

Yet, like Graeber says in his conclusion, while it’s useful and important to suggest solutions, the first step (one that is not yet finished) is to convince the world there is a problem which is both possible and necessary to solve. Our answer to the question, “what is to be done?” about bullshit jobs can’t be handed down from an elite vanguard or a plucky team of wonks—it has to be built from the lived experiences of the people who work them.

*It would also ensure a socially-useful job for anyone who wanted one.
Illustration by Mort Todd

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