Until I read David Graeber’s essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, I thought all my previous jobs qualified for the title. Now I see many of them were just ‘shit jobs’ and meaningless jobs. And that, despite thinking I’d moved up in the world, my current role is much closer to bullshit than any of the rest.
This is exactly the realisation Graeber was trying to incite when he published the essay — now book — in 2013. He wanted to wake people up to what they were already secretly aware of: that John Maynard Keyne’s prediction of a life of abundance and 15-hour work weeks was further away than ever, and most of us spend our days in jobs we hate that are devoid of any real meaning, purpose, or consequence.
Graeber is quick to point out his ideas are not based on some new-age right to meaningful work. His approach is more that work and reality have become misaligned as society has lost grasp of its original purpose. Bullshit jobs are, primarily, a global economic problem. But as we are the numbers and bodies behind them, pushing the paper and answering the phones, it’s also a crisis of meaning and integrity on an individual and very personal level.
Are you one of the thousands if not millions working a bullshit job? If these following three points sound overly familiar, you probably are. And, although Graeber doesn’t offer anything in the way of solutions, you should probably do something about it.
In Henry Ford’s assembly line, every worker had their place and as little time and energy as possible, both human or mechanical, was wasted. This is “pure” capitalism: a system that operates on the dynamics of profit and loss and gains no advantage in taking on unnecessary staff or holding unproductive meetings.
Graeber argues that many industries today — advertising, accountancy, IT, consultancy, even the media and creative arts — don’t operate under pure capitalism. Rather, they resemble a sort of feudal economy, in which open-ended contracts are prized and maximising their length, cost, and duration — not impact and efficiency — are the primary drivers.
Does your job make the company you work for more efficient? Or are you, in Graeber’s words, a goon, duct taper, box ticker, or taskmaster — i.e. someone whose job it is to fix a problem that shouldn’t even exist? As we’ll see later, if your role doesn’t fit into a larger ecosystem and contribute to the better functioning of the whole, no matter how efficient you do it, it will likely lead to a deep sense of unfulfillment.
This inefficiency could be attributed to a deliberate effort by greedy corporate entities to suck up all the can time and resources they can, to sustain their own existence and growth. But whereas this may be true in some cases, Graeber believes the inefficient model of capitalism is, in fact, a result of an unintentional failure to evolve and take action to keep up with the times.
These are the companies that live in the past and haven’t updated their technology and management structure for decades, whether because they’re too big or too stubborn. By challenging how they do things, whole departments could instantly cease to exist and company-wide systems could become defunct — something mid and high-level managers who run the show would never allow.
Are many of the policies, systems, and ideas where you work outdated? Do they exist only to keep themselves and the roles that support them in existence? Change can be incredibly disruptive and difficult, but facing up to reality and embracing it is the best thing you can do for anyone interested in long-term survival and prosperity — whether it means bye bye job or hello promotion.
Your job can be incredibly efficient, have a big impact on a company’s wider operation, and be rooted in the latest technology, but if it has no tangible impact on the world around you, it can be meaningless.
According to Graeber, we need to be able to influence the world in what we do, and when that ability is taken away from us is, that’s when we get things like depression, aggression, and listlessness. In his words, in effect, “a human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist”.
But it isn’t about packing in cleaning toilets and going to work for ChildAid. In fact, cleaning toilets on the London Underground may have a much more significant impact on the world than working in an international organisation that’s tied up in bureaucracy and red tape. The key is that the role isn’t wrapped in a falseness and pretence that maintains a charade of make-believe work and separates it from real-world impact.
Does your job look busy-busy and like it’s moving the needle on the surface, but has no impact on the real world? Whether working for an NGO in Sudan or filling in spreadsheets in a cubicle, is it someone else, or you, that is the main benefactor of what you do? If your role suddenly ceased to exist, would the world even notice, and would it even become a better place?