The Bullshit Job phenomenon: is most work just pointless?

Are a third of employees being paid to do pointless work and fully aware of it? That was the shocking discovery that David Graeber turned into a best-selling book, the impact of which is even more relevant a decade later in the age of quiet-quitting.

Bullshit Jobs - How much work is just pointless?

In 2013, the late-great anthropologist, David Graeber, wrote an article for Strike Magazine – a not-profit publication focused on social justice – with the nifty title “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant”

It was based on an idea that Graeber had been kicking around for a while but felt mainstream publishers would judge too toxic: Many jobs are well-paid yet pointless, and the people doing them are fully aware of that reality.

What Graeber suggested was borderline seditious for capitalism; a significant portion of white-collar work is unnecessary, the equivalent of digging a hole and filling it in again. Surely, that kind of needless inefficiency would only be tolerated in the ‘make work’ reality of planned economies?

A Torrent of Personal Bullshit Job Testimonies

Much to his surprise, Graeber’s hunch seemed to be validated when his article went viral, and a torrent of personal bullshit job testimonies flooded in. 

Many highlighted employment which didn’t even maintain a facade of work, dispensing with the pointless hole-digging and bringing us tantalisingly close to the ultimate free lunch; the possibility that many people are literally getting paid to do nothing

But what is even more surprising is that once Graeber started to pull on this loose thread in the fabric of the 9-5 convention, he realised that far from being the lottery winners of working life, the vast majority of testimonies from bullshit jobs spoke of the soul-destroying trauma of pointless employment. What Graeber called ‘a scar across our collective soul’.

There was so much more to this story that Graeber created a website to collect anecdotes, which in 2018, became a bookBullshit Jobs: The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it, highly recommended for both its dark humour and philosophical insight on the meaning of work and failures of capitalism.

We’ve written elsewhere about the struggles of Victorian Londoners and the ways they scratched a living. How have we got from Sewer Hunters and Pure Finders, whose job was picking up dog shit with their bare hands, to paying people to sit and do nothing?

Bullshit Jobs - How much work is just pointless?

The Broken System

Graeber realised that though the stories of people getting paid to play Tetris on the toilet might inspire some mild tutting, something more sinister lay behind the proliferation of meaningless employment: a broken system.

His thesis suggested bullshit jobs are the unintended side effect of misaligned resources and a symptom of fundamental failure within capitalism.

Graeber’s initial article inspired a Yougove poll where 37% of people answered no to the question, “Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?” A similar study in Holland produced a slightly higher figure (40%).

Is it credible to think that one-third of all jobs are pointless from a first-person perspective? Plenty of jobs are unfulfilling or repetitive, but the scale of this under-belly of pure bullshit in the workplace is shocking.

Judy: My job took, I shit you not, one hour a day, an hour and a half max. The other seven or so hours were spent playing 2048 or watching Youtube. Phone never rang. Data were entered in five minutes or less. I got paid to be bored. My boss could have easily done my job yet again – lazy fucking turd.

Bullshit Jobs: The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it,

The Categories of Bullshit Jobs

As a social scientist, Graeber naturally looked for classification and structure within this new societal system, coining five categories of bullshit jobs from among his data set of anecdotes. 

If his data is truly representative, four out of every ten people reading this article should recognise their job in one of the following descriptions: 

  • Flunkies – People employed to make their boss look good or feel important
  • Goons – Jobs that simply respond to counterparts at their rivals; a form of bullshit job arms race
  • Duct-tapers – Roles that compensate for systemic failures & shouldn’t be needed if things were done properly
  • Box-tickers – The jobs that exist for the sake of pedantic and pointless rules
  • Taskmasters – A whole cadre of employees who exist to enforce the unnecessary box-ticking agenda

“Economies around the world have increasingly become vast engines for producing nonsense”

A Return to Feudalism

Graeber’s brilliant book goes beyond the entertaining anecdotes and humorous categorisations to explore the reasons why capitalism tolerates such a huge amount of worthless bullshit. Like discussions around hot topics such as rent-seeking or the Tragedy of the Commons, each of the political spectrum interprets the problem differently.

Those on the left might argue that bullshit jobs show capitalism is failing because they break the golden rule of effective capital allocation.

Capitalists argue that bullshit jobs exist because the market has too many regulations and constraints to enable it to function effectively. 

Graeber provides some telling statistics that suggest that neither argument holds much water:

  • The massive growth of the administrative layers in private US universities provides a clear example of the failure of capitalism to improve a not-for-profit sector
  • Conversely, the doubling of the managerial class within the UK civil service shows that the public sector equally generates pointless employment.

Though those examples are interesting, they cannot be considered conclusive proof that bullshit jobs are a problem agnostic of the economic system.  

For balance, a study by the universities Cambridge of Birmingham suggests that though Graeber’s Bullshit Job Theory highlighted an important discussion, it contained major flaws.

The counter-argument suggests the incidence of pointless work based on the 2005–2015 European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS) was hugely overstated.

Is capitalism an illusion?

Notwithstanding arguments over his data, Graeber used this logic to argue that bullshit jobs have emerged as a phenomenon because capitalism is an illusion.

‘Real work’ has been increasingly exported overseas, replaced by a neo-feudal managerial class that has little to do with Adam Smith’s invisible hand and instead functions to support an elaborate hierarchy of grace and favour, filled by the types of bullshit jobs Graeber identified.

The bullshit-isation of the workplace has been particularly noticeable in the service sector, FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate).

A growing managerial class siphons off the profits of production Cantillon style, part of which is redistributed to the bullshit jobbers to elevate the status of their overlords, bolstering their status, justifying their existence and buying enough favour to maintain the facade. 

This suggests that politics determines employment far more than economics, creating a bloated and inefficient self-serving circus of nonsense played out on LinkedIn.

Though the service sector, particularly the finance industry, bears the brunt of Graeber’s attack, he throws in a wonderful manufacturing anecdote from France, the Elephant Tea Factory. 

A profitable business that had grown successful through embedded knowledge was taken over by outsiders who asset-stripped the working intellectual capital and replaced it with layers of unnecessary managerial paper-pushers.

This logic can easily be seen across multiple sectors, both private and not-for-profit:

  • The NHS (in the UK) – crying out for frontline staff but bloated by administrative layers 
  • The entertainment industry – just look at the innumerable credits required to make a single movie 
  • Higher Education – where bureaucrats now outnumber educators. Harvey Silverglate, a vocal defender of US campus freedoms, is campaigning to remove 95% of Harvard’s administrators.
  • Scientific Research – where priorities are so back-to-front that research is dictated by what is topical rather than useful
  • The Charity Sector – where executives pay themselves six-figure salaries & build massive marketing machines that out-compete each other to guilt trip the general population into taking a bigger share of the burden of responsibility from the government

The Pain of Pointless Employment

Though, according to Graeber, for a small number of people, collecting a monthly wage for doing a job they knew was superfluous wasn’t a problem, the vast majority reported a significant negative impact on their mental health.

“Almost as soul-destroying as working for nothing is being forced to do nothing at all”

Adult humans require roughly 1,600 calories to subsist; any effort we employ over and above that magical threshold isn’t strictly necessary. This is what we call work, rewarded with money, a tool that stores our efforts so that we can exchange them for goods and services or store the value for the future.

Clearly, once we’re above the breadline, making money for the sake of money doesn’t bring happiness, yet it sustains a huge proportion of modern economies. 

The social commentator Adam Curtis, describes consumerism as our main job, with what we consider work of secondary importance.

As an example, here’s another brilliant vignette from Graeber’s book, courtesy of Eric, who recounts his ‘liquid bullshit’ job as an ‘Interface Administrator’ for a large design firm which might serve as a stark warning for anyone who dreams of being paid to do nothing.

Liquid Bullshit Employment

Eric was supposed to manage a tool for designers across a disparate organisation to upload files, but in his words, was ‘tasked with selling and managing a badly functioning, unwanted turd’.

His job was a sop for the inability of different offices to stop competing with each other and effectively communicate. Most were suspicious of the system, so no one used it or was willing to help improve it.

Faced with such a pointless job, Eric turned to acts of quiet rebellion, which today would have him trending on TikTok.

  • Arriving later & leaving early
  • Drinking every lunchtime or going on three-hour walks
  • Reading novels at his desk
  • Threatening to quit out of desperation and instead getting a raise
  • Organising fictitious meetings at regional offices, which were excuses to meet friends

“By the end, I was being paid a stupid sum for a job that, at most, involved me answering the phone twice a day.”

Eric, from Bullshit Jobs: The rise of pointless work and what we can do about it,

Far from making Eric happy or providing a sense of freedom, the utter pointlessness of his work pushed him toward a mental breakdown.

As ever, Black Mirror is ahead of the game in envisioning boredom as a means of punishment in the episode ‘White Christmas‘.

After a three-day drug-fuelled binge in Bristol where he was supposed to gauge user engagement of the tool no one actually used or wanted, Eric had a moment of clarity and decided to finally quit.

Now, you might be reading this and thinking that having a well-paid job that isn’t purposeful is a first-world problem, but if Eric’s situation is as common as Graber’s evidence suggests, then something far more insidious is going wrong with society.

Can AI & Web3 iron out the kinks in the labour market?

Technology and work have changed dramatically in the decade since David Graeber first suggested almost half of all work is totally meaningless, but can the problem of bullshit jobs be fixed?

Most economists agree that AI will replace a huge swathe of occupations, but how do you replace something that is already pointless? Could it be that the mundane but useful roles will be replaced by machines, leaving us with managerial nonsense?

Perhaps stripping away the core functions of large organisations will expose what’s left as Rube Goldberg Machines?

And if people, politics and vanity lie at the heart of the bullshit job phenomenon, can the decentralised dream of web3, where no one is in charge, offer a progressive solution to the feudalism of white-collar work? Perhaps. 

Though web3 sounds great on paper, the early results aren’t too encouraging; what’s materialised so far is just another paradigm of self-sustaining nonsense, fertile ground for another round of confessionals, maybe this time on Discord, complaining of how web3 is…well, just bullshit.

Misplaced value & what freedom from bullshit might mean

There isn’t some brilliant alchemy going on that enables 40% of people to get paid to do nothing. Bullshit jobs simply reflect the inefficiencies of human organisations at scale, which function as kleptocracies, not meritocracies, unable to put a meaningful value on labour.

We aren’t talking about the quiet rebellion of taking a dump on your employer’s time but a kind of bizarre employment Ponzi scheme. To make matters worse, those jobs patently beneficial to society are paid far less than those that seem to have no purpose.

The phenomenon of bullshit jobs, illustrating the inability of the labour market to properly value our time, creates an effective argument for Universal Basic Income. 

A flat rate award to support basic needs would cut through the smoke and mirrors of the labour market and put a value on the meaningful activities that paradoxically receive no current remuneration, such as housework, volunteering and family care.

A UBI experiment planned in the UK might give us more insight, following pilots elsewhere, including in Finland, while Worldcoin is a UBI startup that shares a CEO with ChatGPT and has the grand ambition of confirming the unique identity of everyone on earth (via iris scanning) in order to distribute a basic income via a cryptocurrency.

UBI might sound nuts, but can it really be as bad as the Sisyphus-type reality of bullshit employment?

Social media reflects a growing rejection of the societal norms established over the last fifty years. The increasing number of people opting out of formal employment and the quiet quitting trend could be symptoms of a wider disease that David Graeber identified in 2013.

He ended his book hoping that it might start readers “thinking and arguing about what a genuinely free society might look like”. Let’s hope that David Graeber’s aspiration doesn’t just turn out to be yet more bullshit.

No Free Lunch

There is no such thing as a free lunch, but if you’re hungry to find out why, we’re here to help.

You can learn the meaning and origin of the no free lunch concept, as well as the broader philosophy behind the idea that nothing can ever be regarded as free.

We look at our relationship with money and truth, examining all of the supposed shortcuts, life hacks and get-rich-quick schemes.