Do you secretly feel that your job is pointless?
If your role suddenly disappeared from your company, do you think anyone would notice?
Are you envious of people with “real jobs?” You’re not alone. A third of Americans feel the same.
Anthropologist David Graeber says there are millions of us in “bullshit jobs.” A professor at the London School of Economics and a mover and shaker in Occupy Wall Street movement, Graeber has written about this in a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
“Huge swathes of people spend their days performing jobs they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it,” Graeber writes.
Why do bullshit jobs exist?
With the rise of technology, we’ve seen a drastic change in jobs. Machines have replaced many menial or physically-intensive jobs. One in 12 American workers work in manufacturing, compared to one in 3 in the 1950s. Meanwhile, only one in 50 of work in agriculture.
Capitalism is thought to deliver efficiency. However, instead of freeing ourselves from the exhaustive 40-hour workweek, we’ve invented a whole array of trivial jobs that are professionally unsatisfying and draining.
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 15-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 marshalled, 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,” writes Graeber.
What exactly are bullshit jobs?
Graeber’s definition of a bullshit job are jobs in which the person doing the job secretly believes that role shouldn’t exist. They believe they’re not doing anything meaningful or important at all. Of course, they can’t admit it, he says. They are afraid to say that to their boss for fear of losing their job, or anyone else for fear of being perceived as irrelevant.
Bullshit jobs and shit jobs are not the same thing
Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful, he says. In comparison, bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely unnecessary, and the people doing them know this.
Five categories of bullshit jobs:
People you don’t need unless if another organization has them. They are designed to make the company look good. Examples: Corporate lawyers, telemarketers, brand managers and PR.
People who are there to make someone else look good and feel important. Examples: assistants, receptionists, and doormen.
3. Box Tickers
Job titles that allow the organization to say they’re doing something when they’re actually not. They collect data, conduct surveys and produce serious-looking reports that have no impact on the company.
4. Duct Tapers
People you hire to fix the damage, but not to actually solve the problem. For example, airline staff whose duty is to pacify angry passengers when bags don’t arrive.
People in middle management who manage people that don’t need managing. Graeber sees this as recreating medieval feudalism, with software and middle management instead of dukes, archdukes, weapons, and castles. They also make up other bullshit jobs, he says.
While researching the book, Garber interviewed several people who felt they had a bullshit job. Here’s one:
I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.
What’s the solution?
Find your passion. Millennials and GenZers are more intentional about finding jobs they’re passionate about and ones they can align with the company’s mission.
Over the next two years, 44 percent of Millennials will leave their jobs because they’re already feeling unsatisfied and disengaged today, according to Deloitte. While the report did not mention they feel they’re in a bullshit job, but it did show an overall lack of loyalty to their jobs and companies.
Millennials in emerging markets are the least loyal to their current organizations
So what other solutions are there? We can’t all be doing meaningful work and be philanthropists, non-profit work, teachers, and doctors – so what can be done?
The solution Graeber proposes is a contentious one – Universal Basic Income (UBI). A set salary for all citizens, irrespective of your job title. This, he says, will free people from meaningless jobs and allow them to pursue lives of real purpose.
UBI has already been successfully tested in Finland and recently in the US in Chicago and Stockon, CA. Silicon Valley plutocrats such as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are all in favor. They see it as a solution to the growing problem of robot automation, which they themselves are helping to create. Many other CEO’s have spoken in favor of this concept.
“Doesn’t have to be much, but giving people even a very small safety net would unlock a huge amount of entrepreneurialism,” Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield wrote on Twitter.
More than ever, we need basic income to limit everyone’s downside, and better education to give everyone an upside, Co-founder of Coursera Andrew Ng wrote on Twitter.
Elon Musk on Universal Basic Income: ‘It’s going to be necessary’ pic.twitter.com/aR58ZGX0Ys
— Basic Income Quotes (@BaseIncomeQuote) August 21, 2018
We’re still a long way off from this becoming a reality, that is, if it even does make it past the gates. Bullshit jobs are here to stay. People in these jobs may feel frustrated and yearn for a way out, but they also vital stepping stones on a career path. CEOs and inventors are not made overnight. Michael Dell started out as a dishwasher, Warren Buffet was a paperboy and Netflix’s Reed Hastings was a door-to-door salesman.
For many, these jobs are a lifeline. An Executive Assistant position with benefits can help a single mom take of her two kids. A Telemarketing role can ensure a 67-year old man’s financial stability until he’s able to retire. Many will defend their jobs merit, and rightly so.
Watch an interview with author David Graeber below in which he elaborates on his theory:
~ Persist and Grow Forth ~
What did you think about bullshit jobs? Are they a real thing? Do you think it’s high time we banish the 40-hour work week and laser in on working productively for 4 hours?