Photo by Nick Hannes/Panos


Why do so many people think they are in a bullshit job?

Photo by Nick Hannes/Panos

by Shayla Love + BIO





Researchers continue to debate whether some jobs are inherently useless – but all agree it’s harmful to see your job this way

Mark described the majority of what he did for his job as ‘ticking boxes’. Working as a senior quality and performance officer in a local council in the UK involved ‘pretending things are great to senior managers, and generally “feeding the beast” with meaningless numbers that give the illusion of control,’ he told the late anthropologist David Graeber, as quoted in Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs (2018).

Another man, Hannibal, was even more trenchant. Employed by a digital consultancy for a pharmaceutical company’s marketing department, he called his work ‘pure, unadulterated bullshit’, which ‘serves no purpose’.

‘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,’ he said. ‘The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.’

Graeber first wrote about ‘bullshit jobs’ in a 2013 essay that became an immediate viral hit. More than a million people read it, and activists plastered quotes from it over advertisements on London’s tube trains. In his later book on ‘bullshit jobs theory’, Graeber expanded on his argument, defining a bullshit job as ‘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’ – a description Graeber claimed applied to more than half of all work.

While there’s no doubt that Graeber’s arguments resonated culturally, when academic researchers began to quantify the actual amount of bullshit jobs, their findings were largely at odds with Graeber’s claims. Empirical data suggested that, in fact, relatively few people appear to consider their jobs as useless – leading to pushback against the real-life applicability of Graeber’s concept.

‘Taskmasters’ or managers tell people to do useless things without doing much themselves

For instance, in 2015, a YouGov poll found that 37 per cent of British working adults believed their job was not making a meaningful contribution to the world. In 2018, a study that looked at 47 countries found that 8 per cent of workers perceived their job as socially useless, while 17 per cent were doubtful about the usefulness of their job. Then in 2021, a study based on high-quality survey data collected by an EU agency, found that only around 5 per cent of workers considered their jobs useless. The authors of that last paper proposed that it wasn’t that certain jobs were, by their nature useless, but that people in many kinds of job can feel alienated and suffer from poor working conditions and relationships.

This raft of findings led at least one commentator to propose that Graeber’s BS jobs theory was BS. But perhaps that was premature. Published in one of the British Sociological Association’s journals – Work, Employment and Society – in July, now another study has come along and it suggests that, although factors such as alienation are important, there really do seem to be certain occupations that people report being more useless than others and, what’s more, they align with the categories of bullshit jobs that Graeber proposed.

Simon Walo, a postdoctoral sociologist at the University of Zurich and author of this latest paper, read Bullshit Jobs while writing his master’s thesis. ‘At that time, I was thinking a lot about what to do with my life,’ he says. ‘I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I felt like it should be something meaningful.’ Walo says he was shocked to read that so many people felt they had a socially useless job.

Graeber proposed five different categories of jobs that are ‘bullshit’. There are ‘flunkies’, such as administrative assistants or elevator operators, who do work solely to make other people feel more important; ‘goons’, such as lobbyists or telemarketers, who deceive other people for their bosses; ‘duct tapers’, such as customer service staff, who provide shoddy temporary solutions to problems; ‘box tickers’, like Mark and Hannibal, who spend their days producing documents or surveys that are useless; and finally ‘taskmasters’ or managers who tell people to do useless things without doing much themselves.

Walo analysed data from the 2015 American Working Conditions Survey and he focused on three categories of Graeber’s that he said can be linked to specific occupations: the jobs of the flunkies, goons and taskmasters. The survey covered 21 occupations in total, four of which Graeber would have categorised as BS (admin support, sales, business and finance occupations, and managers), and asked people to indicate if they thought their job made a meaningful contribution to society or their community. Based on these ratings, Walo estimated that 19 per cent of people in the United States believe their jobs are ‘bullshit’ and, for the most part, working in one of Graeber’s BS occupations significantly increased the probability that a person perceived their job as socially useless, compared with being in another kind of job. The only occupation classified as BS by Graeber that didn’t show this effect was legal occupations.

These findings are slightly different from the 2018 and 2021 studies, and it may have to do with the way in which the question about job usefulness is asked, says Robert Dur, professor of economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam and co-author of the 2018 paper. In Walo’s paper, people were asked if their jobs are useful for their society and for their community, whereas the 2021 paper asked more generally about usefulness but didn’t specify useful to whom. In other words, Walo’s paper might have set a higher standard for usefulness.

Magdalena Soffia, a postdoctoral sociologist at the Institute for the Future of Work and co-author of the 2021 paper, says that, when they got their result of just 5 per cent of people seeing their jobs as useless, it indicated to her that there was something more going on than just a category of jobs being bullshit.

Even if the numbers aren’t as high as Graeber initially proposed, it still means millions consider their work to be useless

She thinks it’s not that some jobs are inherently bullshit, but that it’s about a more general quality of experience while at work. This includes whether you have access to ‘quality management’, autonomy, agency and control over your work process, and whether you have access to meaningful relationships with others. If these broader employment conditions are lacking, people are more likely to see their job as useless. ‘I tend to be more reluctant to embrace the conclusion that there are still occupations that are inherently bullshit,’ Soffia says.

Walo agrees that Graeber’s theory doesn’t explain everything about why people think their jobs are bullshit. People can think their jobs are bullshit both because they sometimes are, and because they are not happy with their working conditions, and sometimes these things overlap, he says. ‘I accept all the results that other studies got, I think they’re very valuable,’ Walo adds. ‘But what is changing now is that there’s multiple explanations for the same thing.’

Crucially, when Walo factored out the influence of broader employment factors, such as alienation, he found there are still some professions, in line with Graeber’s ideas, that people endorse as being more useless than others. Walo says this suggests it’s not always alienation or dissatisfaction alone that leads people to thinking their jobs are useless, but that sometimes there is something inherent to these jobs that makes people see them as ‘bullshit’. And even if the numbers aren’t as high as Graeber initially proposed, Walo says, it still means that millions consider the very nature of their work to be socially useless.

Graeber acknowledged that it was difficult for one person, or several, to determine universally what makes a job ‘useful’ or ‘necessary’. ‘There can be no objective measure of social value,’ he wrote.

What you can do is ask people what they think of their jobs. ‘We should not underestimate the importance of people’s subjective beliefs regarding how useful their job is,’ Dur says. A number of studies have found that subjective beliefs around how useful a job is influence people’s motivations to work, and also their satisfaction at work.

As researchers continue to refine the amount or nature of useless jobs, there’s one important fact that holds true: when people think their jobs are useless, it’s connected to a decrease in mental health. ‘That was a very strong association [in our study data],’ Soffia says. This would seem to jibe with Graeber’s argument that a bullshit job enacted ‘profound psychological violence’ on anyone in that job. ‘The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound,’ he wrote. ‘It is a scar across our collective soul.’

Keynes wrote that, after increasing technological efficiency, people would work less and less. This hasn’t come to pass

‘Given the importance for mental health and psychological wellbeing, we think we really need to find the explanation for this [the link between feeling one’s job is useless and poorer mental health],’ says Soffia.

She thinks the answer is more complex than getting rid of the job categories that are deemed useless, and that, instead, researchers should come up with ways to effectively measure the quality of people’s jobs, while employers should give people more of a say in designing their own working environment. With advances in artificial intelligence and the threat that AI will take over some jobs, this kind of autonomy and measurement will be more important than ever, she tells me.

‘There are many avenues to find meaning through work. The way I see it is that whether you’re making a contribution to society is just one way to measure the value of work.’

If jobs are experienced as socially useless for different reasons, that would imply there’s more than one way to improve the situation. For some people, it may be about addressing alienation or agency.

‘If one considers the possibility that some types of work are inherently useless to society, however, this has entirely different implications,’ Walo wrote in his paper. ‘To alleviate this problem, one would have to make adjustments in the economic system and restrict [employment] activities with little or no use to society.’

Graeber thought that bullshit jobs explained why John Maynard Keynes’s economic predictions had not come true. Keynes wrote that, after increasing technological efficiency, people would gradually work less and less until our biggest problem would be to fill up all the leisure time we had. This hasn’t come to pass, and so we will have to continue to grapple with the purpose of work instead. ‘That’s where the discussion stands at the moment,’ Soffia says. ‘It’s an ongoing challenge: to figure out how we can, as objectively as possible, measure whether a job is useful or not.’

The long-lasting appeal of bullshit job theory suggests that this is a crucial challenge for many, because of the greater questions of life’s meaning that arise from it. As Graeber put it: ‘How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist?’





10 October 2023