How many people spend their working lives doing something essentially meaningless? A recent poll in the United Kingdom found that 37 percent of full-time workers were quite sure that their job made no meaningful contribution to the world. The anthropologist David Graeber’s new book, Bullshit Jobs, presents a provocative theory of how and why pointless work has proliferated in the modern world, and what we might do to reverse this trend. Nick Romeo spoke with Graeber from London.
It seems like the category of bullshit jobs is both self-explanatory and internally homogeneous. But you actually distinguish five types of bullshit jobs in the book. Could you walk us through this taxonomy of nonsense?
The categories are a product of actual research. Doing a traditional ethnography of bullshit jobs would be quite difficult for obvious reasons, so I asked my 68,000 twitter followers: What was your most pointless job? Hundreds of accounts rolled in rather quickly, ranging from a few sentences to 13 pages. I would often follow up with correspondence as well to ask clarifying questions. Then I sorted this material by type.
The first are flunkies, whose positions exist just to make somebody else look good. An unnecessary receptionist is an example. I described one receptionist in the book who gets a single phone call per day. So why couldn’t the boss take that call? Because if you walk into an office and there’s not a receptionist, it doesn’t look like a real company. Since executive prestige increasingly is measured by the number of people working for executives, they often employ people who have nothing to do.
Goons are the second category. They’re people who work in an industry that is only necessary because there are other people like them. You don’t need a corporate lawyer unless somebody else has a corporate lawyer. Another example is telemarketers: you only need them if your competitors have them. A lot of PR, advertising, and lobbying involves goon-like behavior: There’s an element of aggression. A lot of people in this category wrote and said, you know, our jobs are ridiculous and contribute nothing to society. Most corporate lawyers seem to secretly feel this.
I got a long email from this guy who works in special-effects. He loved the work of making dinosaurs eat spaceships and entertaining people, but he said that 95 percent of his work is making celebrities look better than they actually do, enhancing their teeth and hair and skin and making them skinnier, to make you feel insecure about your body. Basically he felt it was goon-like behavior because his job was essentially to attack people psychically and make them feel bad about themselves.
Third you have the duck tapers. This term comes originally from the software industry, and it basically results from a flaw in the organization. Instead of just fixing something, they hire people to clean up the damage. It derives from the fact that increasingly managers feel that if there’s anything people would do for some reason other than the money, then we shouldn’t have to pay them. So can we get translation work done for free, can we get code written for free? But then you have the work of cleaning up all the little anomalies and bugs. My paradigm example of a duck taper was a poor guy at my university whose entire job seemed to be apologizing for why the carpenter could not come to fix the bookshelves in my office. Just fire the guy and hire another carpenter, for God’s sake.
Fourth is box-ticking, and it’s pretty much what you’d imagine. In academia we spend more and more of our time assessing and monitoring and describing and proposing than actually doing what we do. Box ticking is a ritual substitute for actual action.
Then finally we have taskmasters, who typically provide unnecessary supervision. A lot of people wrote to me and said some variation of, “I’m in middle management and my job is total bullshit.” They quickly realize that the people they are supposed to be supervising are already doing their jobs, so they have to then make up box-ticking rituals to justify their position, and of course these pointless tasks make people do their jobs even less.
One thing that I found incredibly interesting in the book was the reversal of common dogmas about market efficiency. Many people would assume that the solution to the problems you described is to unleash business school consultants to eliminate such redundancies and inefficiencies. But you argue on the contrary that these perverse positions are products of precisely these free-market fundamentalist dogmas.
It’s empirically true that bullshit jobs flourish in free markets. In an earlier book I proposed what I called The Iron Law of Liberalism, which states that any reform designed to reduce bureaucracy will in fact create more paperwork, regulations, and bureaucracy. One of the most significant statistics I ever saw was on the period between roughly 1991 and 2002 when the Russian economy was privatizing. The number of civil servants actually went up by 25 percent. So they ended up with more bureaucrats than they had under the Soviets.
Why do you think that happens?
When you try to marketize things, you have to quantify them, and some things don’t lend themselves to quantification. But you have to formalize everything because there’s a loss of social trust. I think it was Emile Durkheim, the French sociologist, who pointed out that in an old-fashioned society you had more social trust and social groups that would actually enforce rules and contracts. But in the market there’s no reason not to rip someone off, so you have to monitor and prove everything. So the number of lawyers and laws you have goes way up and you need more staff. Even at American universities, the administrative bloat happens more at the private ones than at public ones.
I was also struck by the inverse relationship you observe between the level of compensation and the social utility of jobs today. You give a really sad example of a preschool teacher who couldn’t make ends meet and then retrained as a healthcare administrator. She hated her new, more lucrative job, where she had to highlight forms all day. How and why did things get to the point where you can’t make a living doing something clearly beneficial?
There seems to be an idea that if you’re in a profession for anything other than the money, then it would be wrong to give you much money. Here in the UK, the Tories have been known to cheer when they block some bill preventing a raise to nurses or cops or train workers or emergency medical people. These people are obviously providing services to the public, but we have nurses going to food banks. At the same time the Tories have no interest in cutting banker bonuses. This is the reaction to the financial crisis: to punish the people doing useful work. What is the logic here? Well, obviously the altruistic people should bear the brunt of austerity because they're already willing to be altruistic. If you’re a teacher, you're already not in it for the money, so you should just bear even greater costs. People say, we don't want anyone who is just interested in the money teaching our kids. Therefore we don't have to pay them a decent salary. There is this resentment against people in jobs that contribute to society who also want middle-class lifestyles. There was a lot of resentment about autoworkers who would go on vacation to the Grand Canyon and also have healthcare and retirement packages. But, why not? The line seems to be, “Well, you get to make cars! That’s a useful thing. I’m just doing complete bullshit.”
This might be a good moment to clarify your distinction between bullshit and shit jobs.
People often think I'm talking about one when I'm talking about the other. Bullshit jobs are often extremely well paid and give you lots of social respect. But for many people, this is part of what makes them feel so secretly miserable. Everyone treats them as the success in the family and acts as if they’re doing something important, but only they know that they are doing absolutely nothing meaningful all day. Shit jobs the other way around. If you're a cleaner at a university, you're not treated with respect, but you do at least know that if you were not there, then the university would be in trouble. You're doing something that actually helps people. One of the few exceptions to this rule is doctors. And it’s true that doctors are helpful and they’re also paid pretty well. But I actually did a little research and discovered that something like 80 percent of the improvements in health over the last century were due to hygiene. Maybe 20 percent are due to what doctors actually do. So if that's the case, the cleaners are doing more than the doctors in terms of improving our health, but they're not paid nearly as much.
I was curious about your decision to trust people's subjective reports of their own satisfaction as an index of whether they are in a bullshit job. What would you make of a corporate lawyer who says, “Oh, I really love my job, it's so satisfying and meaningful.” Is this just a case of false consciousness? Or is there a possibility of satisfaction in a bullshit job?
Satisfaction and meaning are not the same. According to what I found, about 6 percent of people think their work is meaningless and are happy anyway. There are a lot of reasons this could be. Some people hate their families or like their colleagues. There's also the question of whether it is possible to be wrong. And of course it is. I'm just saying that insofar as it's possible to measure these things, this is the best measure. I'm not saying that anyone who says, “My job is useful or useless,” is necessarily right. There's no way to objectively measure this stuff, so the best thing to do is ask the people who are actually working there. Insofar as it goes wrong, it's going to underreport the number. You're more likely to think that your job is useful when it isn't than to think that your job is useless when it actually isn't.
One guy who worked in efficiency at a bank said that 80 percent of people at banks could be replaced by machines or eliminated, but he also said that only 20 percent of that 80 percent even realized the pointlessness of their positions.
It seems like maybe this is cause for hope. People are not so thoroughly deluded that they never realize the uselessness of their jobs.
I think one of the things the book shows is that people are actually smarter and better than we think they are. We're taught this very cynical logic by economics that everybody wants to just maximize their utility. Which is code word for being a selfish bastard: Getting the most reward for the least output of resources. As if we all just want to be handed something for nothing. But in fact what we see are these people who really are getting something for nothing, and yet they’re miserable. They'd much rather be doing something useful. That's interesting. It shows that people are actually more perceptive and more community-spirited than we’re taught to think they are.
So why do you think we are taught to see humans in such a cynical light?
It's the overriding philosophy of our society and a way of maintaining economic power by elites. We’re told that a society based on communal principles wouldn't work. We’re told that it's utopian, and that capitalism works because it recognizes the ugly reality about people. I think if we just said we’ll support everybody, now figure out the best way to contribute to society, then sure, some people would be slackers or come up with something really stupid or annoying to do with their time. But with 40 percent of people already thinking they're doing nonsense, at least this nonsense would be more fun for them. And all you need is one in a million to come up with a new scientific theory or genre of music. Have you noticed how there aren't any amazing new British bands in the last 20 years? In the ’60s there was all this amazing music here because all those bands were initially on unemployment. Nowadays whoever would've been the next John Lennon is stacking boxes or running around proving that they're looking for work. Bring public support back and kids will sit around making music again. Some will be really bad, but it doesn't matter.
This is why you end the book with an endorsement of universal basic income?
Exactly. If we just gave people the money to do what they like, even if a million came up with crazy scientific theories, all you need is one to invent the teleportation device and it makes up for that million. Same with music. Same with anything else.
You point out that the very notion of selling one's time in exchange for a salary is relatively new and in some ways very unnatural. Could you briefly outline the connection between task-oriented timekeeping and mechanical timekeeping, and how this relates to bullshit jobs?
Time used to be measured by work rather than work by time. Most words for periods of time were like “as long as it takes to boil an egg” or “as long as it takes to do this or that.” If time is measured by activity, you can't very well measure activity by time. It was mainly merchants in the Middle Ages who started putting up clock towers. This helped introduce mechanical time, and the Industrial Revolution accelerated the spread of clocks and pocket watches. Gradually this makes it possible to measure work against time. Time starts to become some objective thing that exists independently of what you're doing. This propels the idea that wasting time is a sin. Wage labor only comes about once you have this mechanical timekeeping technology. The idea of saying to someone, "You're on my time," is something that would've made no sense to most people who ever lived. They would be like, “What are you talking about?” In the ancient world you can buy the pot or even the potter, but buying the potter’s time would not have occurred to people. So the idea that it's immoral to be slacking on somebody else's time is a very new concept. The idea that you're robbing someone by doing nothing on their time would've just seemed weird.
So this is one impetus to invent these meaningless jobs. Like your anecdote about being told to scrub the baseboards as a teenager in an Italian restaurant, even though you had literally just cleaned them. The boss could not stand the idea that he was paying you and you were not doing something.
Right. This is why bullshit jobs are so painful. Having to look busy when there's really nothing to do is just painful. So having to pretend to work at a constant rate all the time is the norm unless you have a very nice boss. This motivates people to pretend to be busy, since otherwise you get punished if you work in punctuated bursts and then have nothing to do and want to relax.
What advice do you have for people who find themselves in bullshit jobs?
If you're able to use it as a platform for something else, more power to you. But it's hard. Very few people seem able to repurpose time that “belongs" to someone else. There's a guy in the book who does bullshit pharmaceutical marketing as a job but then does actual medical research for a lot of the week. If you can figure out a way to do something like that, great, but don't blame yourself if you can't. It's notoriously difficult. Other advice would be, don't resent people with real jobs. Don't try to punish them for it.
It was pretty startling to read your book right after Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now. He has all of these metrics indicating rising human flourishing and decreasing suffering.
Oh God. First of all, most of the statistics are cooked. All of that stuff about poverty reduction is very suspicious. It's not what you hear from people in the Third World. It turns out they just changed the definition of poverty. They literally just changed the numbers. So yeah, of course there are fewer poor people. I once read that 49 percent of all Americans will experience some major mental illness in their lives, mostly depression. I think any country that drives half the people crazy violates some basic principle of human nature. Depression involves a sense of meaninglessness and purposelessness. It's a lack of ability to get enthusiastic about anything. This sounds exactly like having a bullshit job. If bullshit is becoming increasingly pervasive even in real jobs, not to mention the huge numbers of bullshit jobs, might not that in itself help explain the phenomenon of mass depression?
Right. Cheap refrigerators and smartphones are not enough.
No. I remember a friend from Vietnam whose friends and family would visit the U.S. Their impression of America was always the same: Everybody has a lot of money, sure, but there's no social life. Whereas in Vietnam everyone had time to have these complex social relationships. They would spend two hours a day gossiping about their friends’ love affairs and complex problems in their family. Now we just substitute social media. We now have a whole culture built on activities we do while pretending to work.