Three years ago I was working as a management consultant intern at a top firm. I wore fancy suits and flew around the country. I pretended to take notes during high-powered meetings and drained hours aligning the margins of graphics in PowerPoint slides that surely would never be seen by anyone. I was getting paid more money than I could ever spend, especially given the precious few hours I had outside of those wasted away in Excel. I was miserable.
In an era of stark inequality, I should have been satisfied with my place in society. Those of us with a bachelor’s degree generally earn more than twice those with only a high school diploma. Ivy League graduates earn double even that of the median college graduate. Beyond finances, shockingly, in the last 30 years, the death rates for college graduates decreased by 40 percent; they rose by 25 percent for those without a degree. Yet, despite my membership in this group of societal winners, I found myself trying to unravel the puzzle of why I just couldn’t be happy with my prestigious job.
Only after learning the definition of what the late anthropologist David Graeber called bullshit jobs did I realize that—despite the unparalleled clout I received from society as a consultant—I was, in fact, working a bullshit job. This simple detail would reveal not only why I was so miserably employed, but also an alarming truth about how we’ve arranged our society.
In his 2018 book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, Graeber defined a bullshit job as the following:
“[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.”
Graeber argued that, despite the hope that technology would one day free us from the burdens of work, we still work a lot, and much of the work done in our modern society is unnecessary and inane:
“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. 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.”
In other words—as in Adam Smith’s nightmare of inefficiency—entire professions and even sectors exist in our economy that, were they to be eliminated, would leave the world no worse off, and perhaps even better. This bullshit jobs category includes white-collar jobs like professional and managerial work, sectors that have tripled in size in the last century. This expanding balloon of bullshit comprises lobbyists, middle managers, corporate lawyers, and IT professionals. More broadly, at the center of this maelstrom of meaninglessness lies the FIRE sector: finance, insurance, and real estate. Graeber explained: “[the FIRE sector] creates money (by making loans) and then moves it around in often extremely complicated ways, extracting another small cut with every transaction.”
If at this point you’re nodding along with a sinking feeling of familiarity as you think of your own job and how much time you spend sending crypto memes to the squad group chat while on the clock, you’re not alone. According to Graeber, various polls across the globe had reported that as high as 40 to 50 percent of workers think their work is pointless or does not make a meaningful contribution to the world. Other researchers have since called into question the prevalence of Graeber’s phenomenon, citing survey data that reveals a lower preponderance of workers admitting they have useless jobs. At the same time, however, other surveys like those conducted by Gallup have measured exceedingly low levels of relevant workplace factors like “engagement.” Regardless, these critiques that debate the prevalence of bullshit jobs miss the crucial point, which is that these jobs exist at all. There shouldn’t be bullshit jobs, and the fact that there are says that our “perfect” market economy that justly doles out societal rewards is not as perfect as we would like to think.
It’s important to note that in Graeber’s formulation, domestic, industrial, agricultural, and most working-class jobs are not bullshit because they involve necessary work without which society would not function. This fact was made painfully apparent during the pandemic, as working-class people risked their lives to go to work because they were so essential (somehow we managed to scrape by without consultants flying cross country twice a week to provide their services). Here Graeber made the distinction between “bullshit” jobs and these other “shit” jobs:
“Bullshit jobs often pay quite well and tend to offer excellent working conditions. They’re just pointless. Shit jobs are usually not at all bullshit; they typically involve work that needs to be done and is clearly of benefit to society; it’s just that the workers who do them are paid and treated badly.”
Graeber made clear that while these “shit” jobs are by no means inherently degrading, our society often makes them so with low pay, poor working conditions, and general disrespect. Nevertheless, when these workers, like garbage collectors, go on strike, cities are brought to their knees (Instead, when bankers in Ireland, some decades ago, went on a strike for six months, most didn’t bat an eye).
There are legitimate and necessary debates to be had concerning these jobs—particularly issues spotlighted by the pandemic—like raising our embarrassingly low minimum wage and providing woefully overlooked benefits to essential workers. Today, we also hear even more revolutionary discourse with voices like the r/antiwork community examining the very nature of work and which screenshots of sassy quitting texts to bosses one can post to garner the sweetest Reddit karma.
Given the plight of those working in nonbullshit employment, it’s hard to not see any other job as comparatively fortunate. Indeed, the pandemic blessed many white collar workers with flexible schedules and work targets and the golden goose of work from home. While these work arrangements, along with comfortable in-office jobs, might sound like the perfect capitalist grift—what exactly is wrong with being handsomely paid to scroll Instagram at your work cubicle or play with your cat in between at-home meetings?—Graeber pointed out otherwise.
A core part of Graeber’s thesis was that despite their cushy nature, bullshit jobs are devastating in their own way. Graeber noted it would be hard to imagine something worse than a job that is both shit and bullshit. Recent internal reports from firms like Goldman Sachs detailing 100-hour work weeks, rampant workplace abuses, and crumbling mental health reveal that such tortures have indeed been imagined.
As anyone who has held a bullshit job can tell you, the work is overwhelmingly “soul-sucking.” As one worker with the classic indeterminate job title of “Digital Product Project Manager” confessed to Graeber, “What’s it like to have a job like this? Demoralizing. Depressing. I get most of the meaning in my life from my job, and now my job has no meaning or purpose.” To Graeber, this was a kind of “spiritual violence.”
Nonetheless, Graeber didn’t delve deeply into the backgrounds of these bullshit job holders. Here, I wish to pick up where Graeber left off and take a closer look at who exactly chooses bullshit jobs and why. I would argue that Graeber drastically overstates the ability of the “elite” to thrive in bullshit workplaces or even avoid them altogether. Woefully—and, perhaps, counterintuitively—graduating from an illustrious college does not make one immune to being miserable in a bullshit job.
In my short stint as a consultant, I was surrounded by other graduates of elite institutions. I had graduated from Harvard College in 2020, and a staggering 45 percent of my classmates had gone on to employment in finance or consulting. One study found that “a full 70 percent of Harvard’s senior class submits résumés to Wall Street and consulting firms.”
While Graeber speculated that members of this elite class are uniquely suited to play the game and create meaning when they find themselves in bullshit jobs, I was not unique in my work dissatisfaction. Only 39 percent of those with Ivy League degrees report being engaged at work, and when it comes to personal well-being, just 11 percent are “thriving,” numbers nearly identical to graduates of public or non-selective private universities. In finance and consulting specifically, a meager 6 percent of new employees see themselves in those fields long term. Ask any young professional in such a prestigious job what they think about it and witness their response invariably devolve into a convoluted plan of eventually leaving in pursuit of a higher calling (a friend of mine in finance once detailed to me the politics of clandestinely applying to other jobs while at your Wall Street cubicle).
It is hard to imagine high schoolers being excited to attend a distinguished college in order to then be recruited by JPMorgan to spend 100 hours a week performing contracted proactive asset management. (In case you’re an investment banker chomping at the bit to learn what “contracted proactive asset management” is, it’s a completely fake term I generated with the Financial Bullshit Generator.) In fact, when kids start at elite colleges, this isn’t how they see their lives turning out. At Stanford, only (a uniquely deranged) 6 percent of incoming freshmen intend to enter consulting or finance. In fact, in her first graduation speech as President of Harvard, Drew Faust warned graduating seniors of the allure of finance and consulting, instead imploring them to pursue what they love and “what you think will be most meaningful.” (Faust said, “if you don’t try to do what you love … if you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it.” It’s worth noting that in 2018, four days after ending her tenure as President of Harvard University, Faust joined the board of directors of Goldman Sachs. Guess she really must love whatever it is the board of directors of a large financial firm does. That, or the $575,000 per year that comes with the post.)
Why is it that, with all the privilege and opportunity necessary to transcend the bullshit, elites (and so many of them, at that) are forsaking Faust’s advice?
Though economic incentives are surely part of the story, it’s not just about following the money. Data on graduates of elite schools show they have immense privilege and a freedom from having to take financial considerations into account in choosing their work. At Ivy League colleges, there are more students in the top 1 percent of income than from all of the bottom half combined. This privilege is not restricted to the Ivy League, as more than 70 percent of students attending the hundred most competitive colleges in the U.S. come from the top quarter of incomes, whereas only 3 percent come from the bottom quartile.
Instead, bullshit jobs held by the upper crust are defined by their exclusivity and prestige. For example, with virtually no differentiation between actual services and employment experience (copying and pasting cover letters never required fewer changes), finance and consulting firms are able to attract graduates by their reputation (simply mention the “Big Three” and watch wannabe consultants start to salivate). Companies pride and advertise themselves on how few applicants they accept and, more importantly, how many they are able to reject. Such application processes are time-consuming, anxiety-inducing, and, above all else, demoralizing. Yet it is precisely because of the complex and degrading path to attain these jobs that they are endowed with prestige, the true drug elite students pursue. One’s career is thus transformed into another special hoop to jump through and brag about (during recruiting season on college campuses, it’s even seen as a badge of honor to leave class early or show up to a party late in business attire to signal that you have been jetting around for interviews). Where exactly you end up working doesn’t really matter, just as long as others can’t join you there.
Perhaps the best evidence of the power of prestige comes from the Teach for America (TFA) program, where new college graduates, typically without a formal background in education, are brought to the decidedly non-bullshit profession of public school teaching. Amy Binder explains:
“[The] basic intuition that there must be ways to arrange pathways to alternative careers that undergrads from elite schools might choose is a sound one. Proof of concept comes from Teach for America, the nonprofit founded by Wendy Kopp. As a Princeton undergraduate, Kopp had the profound insight that she could lure elite students into teaching in low-income schools by creating the same kind of high-stakes, tournament-like competition that Wall Street and consulting firms use.”
The genius of TFA comes from using artificial scarcity to create coveted positions. Even as teacher shortages are rampant across the country, TFA still manages to reject over 85 percent of applicants. An important lesson can be gleaned from TFA about how top-tier students react to prestige. The program was hyper-exclusive from the start, focusing on the Ivy League and mimicking the selectiveness of a Wall Street bank. In 2002, TFA accepted 11 times as many students who had applied from Yale as did from Fordham. Accordingly, the gentry of higher education fought their way to get a slice of the renown. Even as recently as 2010, a whopping 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors submitted applications to the program. That year, Teach for America was the largest employer of graduating students at Yale and Dartmouth.
Nevertheless, as the program grew in size and resources, it shifted its recruiting and branding strategy. Binder writes, “Having originally started with the Ivy League, the organization now recruits at hundreds of other selective but not-so-elite campuses.” TFA also explicitly began to recruit with the aim of increasing both racial and economic diversity in its corps members, something Bellwether Education reports was deemphasized in the past in order to “[allow] the perception of a largely white, elite institution to flourish.” However, the contemporary diversification effort has succeeded. Currently, half of TFA’s teachers are people of color, half come from a low-income background, and one-third are first-generation college graduates.
This expansion of diversity is unequivocally a positive development, and research (unsurprisingly) shows that teacher quality, standards, and classroom results have been maintained. Nonetheless, this progress still came at the cost of the program’s stature. In recent years, as applications across the board have dropped off, the steepest decline has been seen at the most selective colleges. In 2011, Harvard was the number one medium-sized college contributing to TFA with 66 students. In 2019, Harvard was just the seventh contributing school with a mere 17 students entering the program. Perhaps no better evidence of how TFA’s changed perception of exclusivity affected the pursuits of graduating liberal elites comes from Cornell’s newspaper, The Chronicle. Ten years ago, articles exalting the number of graduating Cornellians joining TFA or profiling students “making a difference” through the program were commonplace. In the last five years, however, only one piece spotlights the program. Its title? “Seven first-generation graduates join Teach For America.”
The case of Teach for America demonstrates a bitter truth about upper echelon job-seekers and the bullshit employment they so often pursue: as long as you make your positions in short supply, arduous to apply to, irrationally selective, and avoid perceptions of inclusivity and diversity, you can get spoiled Ivy Leaguers to do pretty much anything (just as long as they get a branded sticker for their Macbook to flex on those who didn’t make the cut). Revealingly, while TFA is obviously not the only way to become a teacher, only 10 percent of applicants say they would consider entering the field through another route.
TFA was unique in its explicit design of leveraging prestige to draw our “best and brightest” into a low-paying line of work that is critical to society. While there is a separate debate to be had regarding the efficacy and results of the program, it still provides a striking testament to the power of prestige (as a member of the TFA corps for one year, I can anecdotally testify to both the harm and good done by the organization in the low-income communities we served. Overwhelmingly, I witnessed passionate educators giving their all and making real change. Additionally, a variety of research and literature on the program confirms this experience).
If the allure of TFA as a prestigious postgraduate bragging right reveals something about the psychological motivations of elites when deciding their careers, we still need to ask how we ended up in a market economy where many of our other prestigious career paths lead to dead ends of bullshit.
Graeber posited that bullshit jobs play a societal role in keeping the masses too diverted to organize against the ruling classes. But something more sinister is at play with top-tier bullshit jobs. Sure, if not kept chained to their Wall Street desks for 90 hours a week, privileged Ivy League graduates might take to the streets and bring about the anarchist revolution (Graeber himself is not a bad example of what disruptive elites can get into if not properly bogged down. However, his disruption did get him fired from his Yale professorship). Yet, their upper echelon bullshit jobs play another role in propping up our capitalist society. These particular bullshit jobs help maintain the signifiers of status and class that preserve our illusion of societal meritocracy.
Fields like finance and consulting are useful microcosms of how our society has come to blindly accept credentialism and technocracy. Binder offers her insight once again:
“Other industries managed to find the talent they needed—to, say, devise new medicines or software or oil exploration techniques—from the broad array of American colleges and universities. While happy to hire Ivy Leaguers, they didn’t inordinately seek them out. Wall Street and the consulting firms, by contrast, developed business models that relied on the appearance of brainpower in order to win clients. This put a premium on recruiting from a handful of universities with the highest worldwide brand equity. Top students from Purdue or UCLA might be just as good, or even better, at putting together spreadsheets. But being able to boast that you have a team of kids from Harvard is important when you are trying to sell high-cost consulting and financial services of uncertain value.”
Just as manufactured prestige lures graduates of esteemed institutions toward these fields, the same narrative sells the bullshit services of these companies to their clients for hundreds of millions of dollars. The number of Ivy League suits you can have running around your office has become far more important than any real metric of efficacy. It’s for this reason that these companies are willing to devote so much time, effort, and resources into recruiting and wooing these potential employees exclusively from a handful of super-elite schools while ignoring the rest of the talent pool. (In one case, close to $1 million was budgeted per year for “social events” at just one elite school. That’s a lot of cocktail party hors d’oeuvres to put down between classes and frat parties.) Wining and dining 19-year-olds as you fly them around the country for interviews and office visits actually gives a solid return on investment when they join your ranks and grant you prominence. We have collectively become so obsessed with the purported excellence of eminent educational institutions that we are willing to accept and even idolize the existence of entire industries that provide little, or even negative, impact to the world.
In his recent book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, Michael J. Sandel sets out to prove the harm we cause by admiring credentials to the point of worship.1 He explains that only recently has higher education come to be viewed as a competitive and meritocratic process of selecting the most talented young Americans and training them to lead society. Just 50 years ago more than 80 percent of Americans didn’t attend four-year universities, and colleges like Stanford accepted close to one out of three applicants. Today, however, Stanford’s acceptance rate is under 4 percent. This hyper-exclusivity manufactures superiority with real-world consequences. Sandel writes:
“More than a matter of bragging rights, the kudos associated with attending a highly selective college carry over into employment opportunities after graduation. This is not mainly because employers believe students learn more at elite colleges than at less-selective places, but because employers have faith in the sorting function these colleges perform and value the meritocratic honor they bestow.”
The glaring problem with our love of educational meritocracy and the prestige and riches we confer to those at the top is, of course, the fact that our sorting system is not actually fair. In both higher education and the broader job market, we don’t actually select the “best and brightest,” but rather the “prosperous and privileged.”
For example, key variables in the college admissions process like SAT scores and access to extracurriculars are highly correlated with wealth. It’s no wonder that according to researcher Raj Chetty, students from the 1 percent have a 77 times greater chance of getting into the Ivy League than their counterparts from the bottom 20 percent (beyond income, schools like Harvard have an admissions rate for legacy applicants of 33 percent, compared to under 5 percent for the general populace). Furthermore, in research across 1,800 colleges and universities, Chetty finds economic mobility to be jarringly low, with less than 2 percent of students rising from the bottom quintile of income to the top.
Thus, higher education really isn’t the great equalizer and path out of poverty that we make it out to be. In Sandel’s own words, “American higher education is like an elevator in a building that most people enter on the top floor.”2 For this reason, influential companies are incorrect in their assumption that pulling exclusively from top-ranked universities will supply them with the cream of the crop. Instead, they just rake from a pool of privileged students.
For example, during my recruiting process for illustrious management consulting firms, the word “Harvard” was a proxy for showing I knew what I was doing, when, in fact, I truly did not. Yes, I copy and pasted cover letters and painstakingly chose a font for my résumé. I even performed in esoteric interviews where I correctly guesstimated the number of toilet paper rolls sold each year or how many park benches exist in the country (for this later “case interview,” I panicked and said “more than 100.” Needless to say, even my Harvard background did not help me land that job). But I was undeniably bringing little substance to the table. During my internship, realizing the bullshit I had found myself in, I filled my time sleeping through meetings, watching NPR Tiny Desk concerts on my computer, and stalking through our corporate building for free luncheons. Yet, bafflingly, I was still given a return offer with a starting salary of $85,000. I was rewarded for my credentials and for abiding by the rules of the prestigious bullshit job.
Here we uncover the true societal purpose of boutique bullshit jobs. When our higher education system spits out thousands of the (allegedly) finest, who, in fact, are neither the most gifted nor best trained, what do you do with them? Sending them to be exposed in the grind of the regular corporate workforce (think famously annoying Cornellian Andy Bernard from The Office), or, God forbid, to labor amongst the lower classes (remember, it’s only Matt Damon’s Harvard-sized brain that ends up rescuing his character from janitorial work in Good Will Hunting), is out of the question. Viewed from another direction, there are few naturally occurring jobs that can justify four years of a bullshit liberal arts education at the tune of $60,000 a year. Enter elite bullshit jobs. In these enclaves of enigmatic business practices, we walking products of false meritocracy can be compensated exorbitantly to plug away at pointless bullshit, maintaining the facade that we are indeed the crème de la crème.
These elite bullshit jobs are ultimately sending a dangerous message: they tell us that while there may be class hierarchies in society, those at the top deserve to be where they are. Perversely, the more outrageous the evidence we see of this inequality, the more it seems to affirm the staggering skill and talent of the elite. A teenager can lock down a lifetime of six- to eight-figure salaries based on two hour-long interviews? “Wow, I guess he really must be the best of the best.”
Perhaps the easiest way to see how ingrained this worldview has become is to look at instances that deviate from the mold of expected social status and occupation pairing. When I was employed as “just” a high school history teacher, I could see the circuits in peoples’ brains shorting when they found out where I went to college. In answering not-so-subtle questions like “what are you doing here?” or “what happened?” I could never leave them satisfied until I shared that I was part of Teach for America. Then, faith in the justness of society had been restored. Nevertheless, when I later worked as a part-time garbage man, I learned quickly to never mention my educational pedigree.
This near universal understanding and acceptance of how we allocate fortune based on supposed meritocracy is detrimental to society for many reasons. (Although note that even a meritocracy that had not failed would still be unfair. Sandel goes so far as to argue that even if we did live in a world where we could sort citizens perfectly based on their natural talent, this would not necessarily be any more just and would still be accompanied by significant harm.) As Ivy League graduates manipulate obscure financial instruments and jet around the world to attend corporate meetings, others can look on with awe; but they can only jealously curse their own shortcomings for why the roles aren’t reversed. We fail to question those who are successful and resist important debate when we embrace the notion that those on top have utterly earned their status. Sandel argues that, even amongst the elite:
“It is impossible to view success as anything other than the result of individual effort and achievement. This is the standpoint that generates the conviction among the winners that they have earned their success, that they have made it on their own. This belief can be criticized as a form of meritocratic hubris; it attributes more than it should to individual striving and forgets the advantages that convert effort into success.”
At the same time, our society incorrectly views the misfortune and livelihood of those at the bottom as products of their own doing, and therefore less worthy of reparation or respect:
“The meritocratic age has also inflicted a more insidious injury on working people: eroding the dignity of work. By valorizing the “brains” it takes to score well on college admission tests, the sorting machine disparages those without meritocratic credentials. It tells them that the work they do, less valued by the market than the work of well-paid professionals, is a lesser contribution to the common good, and so less worthy of social recognition and esteem. It legitimates the lavish rewards the market bestows on the winners and the meager pay it offers workers without a college degree.”
At the same time that we lionize the “winners” of the constructed educational game, we have internalized dangerous opinions on the necessity of formal higher education and those that don’t fit the mold. Alarmingly, the most common, extreme, and unapologetic biases those with college educations hold are against the less-educated, perhaps the only remaining group acceptable to mock (peruse some fun Buzzfeed listicles like “20 Extremely Dumb People Who Somehow Breathe The Exact Same Air You Do”).
So how do we get out of the dystopian prestige trap? Although Graeber made it clear that his book was simply about exposing the problem of bullshit jobs and not about making policy recommendations, he briefly discussed the implications of Universal Basic Income (UBI)—a program of regular, direct, and non-means-tested government payouts—on our work regime. Depending on how comprehensive the payouts would be, a UBI could instantaneously eliminate entire swaths of our current bloated, ineffective, and demeaning system of means-tested welfare benefits. Even government-hating conservatives could get behind this massive reduction of agencies and intervention.
More directly related to shit and bullshit jobs, the creation of a sufficient payment would liberate many Americans from degrading working conditions and meaningless work. In response to the objection that lazy recipients would sit around all day and do nothing, Graeber pointed out that even people who win the lottery or are inmates in prison still choose to work. But even still, we can answer the question of what people will do with their lives without the cruel spur of poverty with a simple, “who cares what they do?” Surely when given the freedom to self-determine, individuals will be happier than when imprisoned in workplace hells. As for the “essential” jobs, we would have to properly pay and appreciate the contributions of those that perform them, by no means a bad thing. Graeber writes:
“It’s extremely difficult to imagine someone living without financial constraints choosing to spend any significant amount of their time highlighting forms for a Medical Care Cost Management company. … [A]nd if Medical Care Cost Management companies continued to exist, they would have to figure out another way to highlight their forms. … No doubt a certain proportion of the population of a free society would spend their lives on projects most others would consider to be silly or pointless; but it’s hard to imagine how it would go much over 10 or 20 percent. But already right now, 37 to 40 percent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless. Roughly half the economy consists of, or exists in support of, bullshit. And it’s not even particularly interesting bullshit! If we let everyone decide for themselves how they were best fit to benefit humanity, with no restrictions at all, how could they possibly end up with a distribution of labor more inefficient than the one we already have?”
A UBI could also create a greater culture of equality through its universal nature. By giving the payment to all members of society, even those fortunate enough not to need it, society creates a human right to a basic minimum. All members of society would start on a level playing field (further needs like disability could be compensated for after the original inclusive payment). Perhaps this fundamental understanding of inherent worth could help combat the arrogant hierarchy of meritocracy.3
Regarding the feasibility of such a policy, multiple proposals exist to fund payments, from converting budgets of existing welfare programs to increased taxation for industries like finance or technology. Most relevantly, multiple countries established various forms of direct payments to citizens during the pandemic. Even Vice President Kamala Harris proposed $2,000 payments to be given during and after the pandemic, tweeting, “it’s that basic.”4
Furthermore, to solve our crisis of attitude toward higher education and credentialed prestige, Sandel offers a few proposals. In regards to the hyper-exclusivity of elite college admissions, after using a basic filter for those who meet minimum requirements and are able to succeed if accepted, we could make transparent the privilege and luck inherent to the process by openly randomizing the selection of students from this pool of applicants. This would recognize the difficulty of sorting for potential, treat merit as a threshold qualification instead of an ideal to be maximized, and humble those fortunate enough to be admitted without demeaning those that are not admitted.
Going even further, we could prioritize other forms of higher education besides private four-year universities. In recent years, Sandel reports that funding for public colleges has plummeted to a nadir where schools derive more funding from tuition than by actual governmental support. This has in many ways given rise to the unaffordable nature of college and the student debt crisis. We also grossly overlook technical and vocational training. Annually, $162 billion is spent to help Americans go to college, but only $1.1 billion is allocated for career and technical education. When compared to other advanced countries, the U.S. spends 0.1 percent of GDP on active labor market programs while others spend five to ten times that rate. Sandel summarizes:
“One way to begin [repairing the damage] is by dismantling the hierarchy of esteem that accords greater honor and prestige to students enrolled in name-brand colleges and universities than to those in community colleges or in technical and vocational training programs. Learning to become a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist should be respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League.”
Finally, a solution to our problem can come from an interior change in how we view our own employment, irrespective of society’s valuations.5 Like Graeber, I am not here to convince you that you have a Bullshit Job. I truly believe that only your own soul-searching and reflection of your work will provide you with an honest answer to that question. It’s your job. You know best what your profession entails and what you get out of it. But there indeed exist other ways of directing one’s professional life beyond the pursuit of prestige.
Sandel once again reminds us of the significance of work and the power of a properly constructed labor scheme:
“From the standpoint of the civic conception, the most important role we play in the economy is not as consumers but as producers. For it is as producers that we develop and exercise our abilities to provide goods and services that fulfill the needs of our fellow citizens and win social esteem.”
We must ask ourselves in what way we want to produce for our community. As an alternative to external regard, perhaps measured by how easily our grandmas can brag about us to their friends or how serviceable our job title is in our Tinder bio, we can make a turn toward an internal dignity of work, or how high we can hold our heads after a day’s work. Marrying legitimate passions with impactful professions is one way to accomplish this. Eager doctors, lawyers, researchers, academics, and teachers can all find personal pride in the consequence of their work, with or without the outside valuation accorded by top institutions or preeminent organizations.
Trade and craft vocations like those of electricians and plumbers offer us commendable frameworks for how this can and has been achieved for countless workers. Have you ever watched a plumber fix your toilet? The knowledge and skill required is undeniably impressive. The impact on our lives is even more incontrovertible. I’d like to see a consultant point to such direct results. (Once, a software engineer friend teased me for not knowing what a for-loop was. When, in return, I asked him whether he knew how to operate a trash compactor, he shut up quickly.) There is no reason why everyone can not similarly produce their own respect for meaningful work.
Even more radically, such internal dignity need not exempt the positions sorely overlooked by society, or even wait for the broader culture to come around. Just because our capitalist economy has improperly awarded workers in essential fields like farming, sanitation, and hospitality does not mean dignity can’t be found in their indispensable nature. At the very least, pursuing such careers should provide more righteousness than working a bullshit job of any degree, where you are quite literally contributing nothing to the common good.
In recent years, I have spent short stints employed in such positions. (I first conceived of this article while working on a farm scooping various types of shit.) While I in no way wish to romanticize or ignore the exhausting realities of this labor, I found certain value in these positions that was absent in any bullshit job I had previously held.6 As Martin Luther King, Jr., asserted:
“Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity, and it has worth. One day our society must come to see this. One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
Whether this dignity of labor is derived from external or internal sources, it is a prerequisite to our pursuit of the good life, both as individuals and as a people.
Our society places a tremendous value on our profession as part of our identity. When you meet someone at a party (remember those?), after their name, their job is the first thing you ask them (actually most common surnames are literally derived from jobs: Smith, Miller, etc.). “What do you do?” Such broad phrasing, yet we all know what it means.
If our jobs are so important, we ought to have work that is meaningful, both to ourselves and society, and that pays a dignified wage. Irrespective of socioeconomic, educational, or racial background, all individuals deserve to be respected producers for their communities. By changing how we think about our work, we could truly revolutionize our life experience.
Maybe in the not-too-distant future, our identities will no longer be based on the work we do for a wage. When people at parties ask “What do you do?” it won’t feel like a teeth-pulling performance of small talk. Maybe our answers will help us learn about one another in a more genuine way. We can connect with each other as people with passions, relationships, and dreams. At the very least, parties might just be a bit more bearable.
As a disclosure, I worked with Sandel as an undergraduate research assistant for this book. ↩
Of course, after your sorting by our educational systems, mobility and meritocracy does not become any more unbiased. If you are born into the lowest fifth of the income distribution, your chances of making it to the top are just 4 percent. As Sandel again soberly assesses, “very few Americans live out the ‘rags to riches’ story celebrated in the American dream.” ↩
As a brief anecdote about how the elite react to a baseline equality of condition, my friends and I threw a “Universal Booze Income” themed party at college. As people came to the event, they were all given a set amount of fake money to spend on drinks, song requests, and other party amenities. We had to shut down the party within an hour as our group of privileged undergraduates devolved into a drunken Stanford Prison Experiment. Party goers demanded more “money” for their already free beverages, multiple secondary markets emerged with attendees charging one another for coat check and premium dance floor privileges, and desperate guests even robbed one another. The lesson to be learned? Harvard kids do not know how to party. ↩
As comedian Aziz Ansari asked, where the hell did Kamala Harris go? We were so excited to have our first woman and non-white Vice President and then she completely disappeared. A quick news search of Harris revealed she will be doing fundraising for Democrats in Texas this fall ahead of midterms. Around the time this article was written, she officiated a wedding and provided us with gripping insight into her Wordle strategy. ↩
If you’re not enjoying my prescriptions, CNBC has interviewed a “millennial therapist” who helpfully counsels that if you hate your job you should just “lower your expectations, not your standards” and “stop saying ‘I hate my job.’” I can’t believe I didn’t think of that. ↩
To be clear, allowing oneself to focus on questions of internal dignity at the expense of real world financial realities comes from a place of extreme privilege, which I inhabit. At the same time, however, you, dear reader, might also be equally fortunate. ↩