Last year, we shared a long form article from David Graeber titled, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”.
Having recently found myself advising young graduates about their career options, this idea kept coming back to me, and I wondered what it would mean for these bright, enthusiastic young people looking to shape themselves around a career or passion.
As such, it seemed like a good time to revisit Graeber’s work, and to think a bit more deeply about what it means for those of us who hire, create jobs, or manage employees.
In particular, I found myself reminiscing about my very first job, and the residual impact that experience has had on my perspective on work, career, and passion.
The basic premise of Graeber’s argument, and much of his work, is that neoliberal economics – and capitalism, specifically – fail spectacularly to improve the quality of human life. It’s a bold claim, but it’s one backed up by scientific and anthropological evidence.
For instance, hunter-gatherers had and have far more leisure time than most other socioeconomic arrangements. In fact, humans sacrificed both free time and health to become agriculturalists, which in turn led to the development of class hierarchy, class conflict, and a variety of other social ills.
We might be tempted to think that these patterns only hold true for early agriculturalists – surely scientific advancements have more or less erased the challenges and magnified the benefits.
Maynard Keynes, after all, suggested in the 1930s that by the end of the century inhabitants of rich, developed countries would be working 15 hour weeks thanks to technological advancements. And yet, the average American works 47 hours per week, and the number of workers in the UK logging more than 48 hours per week is steadily increasing.
Why are we fatter and sicker than ever before? Even if we weren’t obsessed with buying, eating, and watching television, many of us would still be spending 45 hours per week doing work that we fundamentally believe to be unnecessary – and this is what Graeber calls the ‘phenomenon of bullshit jobs’.
In fact, a full 35% of Britons believe their jobs to be wholly unnecessary; only 50% believe their job is in some way meaningful.
As Graeber puts it, “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks 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.”
Rather than releasing those workers back into the world to explore creative or other productive outlets, capitalism encourages them to not only stay in these jobs, but to increase the amount of time spent doing them.
And this is the fundamental paradox of bullshit jobs, because it is precisely the opposite of what capitalism is supposed to do. What we are left with, then, is the reality that many of the problems wrought by our move away from hunting and gathering were never really about economics in the first place – it was always about social and political phenomena, and this makes the moral responsibility for them a bit more problematic.
Economics, we can claim (speciously), largely drive themselves. But we are morally implicated in, if not partially responsible for, social and political systems.
To put it more clearly, if your employees’ basic financial needs were guaranteed to be met indefinitely – how many would turn up for work the next day? How many more creative risks would they take, and what would the rewards be?
A bullshit job is inherently at-risk, precisely because it is fundamentally unnecessary. As a result, employees who do bullshit jobs (and who know that’s what they are doing) try to keep the job they have, not to do the job they want.
More importantly, they spend their time and energy creating processes and complex systems that make them necessary by virtue of the information they hold and the access they limit.
These are the people who torment others over the submission of forms, who hold payments ransom until copies have been made in triplicate and signed in unicorn blood.
These are not people who are incentivized to make their, or your, job easier or more efficient – and they exist because we put them into roles that make them miserable.
This should concern you, if you are an employer, because it means that a full third of your employees don’t really see the point of pitching up in the morning, and only a select few feel safe enough to take the kinds of creative risks that lead to major breakthroughs.
Businesses ultimately suffer in a world full of bullshit jobs and frightened workers, no matter how many white boards, bean bag chairs, or ‘play’ spaces they put in their offices.
Melyn McKay is a socio-cultural anthropologist and a partner with Monticello LLP.