Saturday, October 6, 2018

Finding the Meaning in Bullshit Jobs

I’ve been reading Bullshit Jobs by LSE anthropologist David Graeber (Simon & Schuster, 2018). Graeber defines 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” (pp. 9-10), and identifies five major types: 
  • Flunky jobs make someone else look or feel important without any other real purpose,
  • Goon jobs are those with an aggressive element that exist only because someone else has also created them and has an advantage if they are unmatched,  
  • Duct-taping jobs fix problems that shouldn’t exist,
  • Box-ticking jobs make an organization look like it’s doing something when it’s not,
  • Taskmaster jobs manage others who don’t need managing.
The common theme here is that these are all pointless jobs. They are not bad in the conventional sense of having lousy pay and working conditions—indeed, Graeber notes that many bullshit jobs are corporate and government jobs with good pay and safe working conditions—but they don’t have any real value. Citing the fact that 37% of survey respondents said that their job does not make a meaningful contribution to the world, Graeber then claims that “if 37 percent of jobs are bullshit, and 37 percent of the remaining 63 percent are in support of bullshit, then slightly over 50 percent of all labor falls into the bullshit sector in the broadest sense of the term” (p. 62). 

Suppose that this is true, and, as Graeber argues, it’s largely a post-war phenomenon. Then this means that in that time period, “upward of 50 percent to 60 percent of the population has, in fact, been thrown out of work” when we equate work to doing something meaningful (p. 265). That’s a provocative way to think about what might be happening in the world of work. Moreover, Graeber also points out that “if you combine this with the bullshitization of useful occupations (at least 50 percent in office work; presumably less in other sorts), and the various professions that basically exist only because everyone is working too hard (dog washers, all-night pizza deliverymen, to name a few), we could probably get the real workweek down to fifteen hours—or even twelve—without anyone noticing much” (pp. 62-3).

Admittedly, I’m not convinced that the true magnitudes are as large as claimed. In Bullshit Jobs, the supporting anecdotes perhaps represent the worst cases and I'd be surprised if we couldn't find dsyfunctional examples in all occupations. But it's entire occupations that are then characterized as being bullshit, as in this description of goon jobs: “If no one had an army, armies would not be needed. But the same can be said of most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, and corporate lawyers” (p. 36). By the end, pretty much all administrative and finance-related jobs have been labeled as useless, including human resources. So I think we need to be concerned with fallacies of composition. But even if the actual number of bullshit jobs is (a lot?) less than claimed, the implications in the previous paragraph are still important to confront, albeit perhaps better phrased as questions (e.g., how many people have essentially been put out of (meaningful) work?).

On a personal level, having a bullshit job is a problem because work should be providing meaning and rewards beyond a paycheck (as I’ve written about in The Thought of Work and elsewhere). In this way, the micro-level problems with bullshit jobs are contained within Karl Marx’s articulation of the problems of worker alienation under capitalism. But I’m not seeing how this aspect of Bullshit Jobs improves upon the concept of alienation. In fact, it seems that workers in bullshit jobs are all alienated, but the concept of alienation importantly also draws attention to the ways in which non-bullshit jobs can also be alienating.

Graeber goes onto argue that bullshit jobs create a moral envy in which workers with bullshit jobs feel resentment toward those with meaningful jobs, even though in Graeber’s eyes these meaningful jobs often have worse pay and working conditions. In fact, envy and resentment among managers, who are all seen as occupying bullshit jobs, towards those below them who are doing real work “is a key part of the justification of underpaying such workers” (p. 248). Frankly, I’m skeptical of this. Indeed, I would argue the opposite—blue collar and service workers are paid less because of prejudice and bias (not envy) that subconsciously allow managers to overstate their own importance while devaluing the contributions of manual and service work. Graeber also gives a lot of power to the finance industry and government officials in intentionally creating processes that lead to bullshit jobs in order to line their own pockets or prevent others from being able to navigate social safety nets. The former seems compelling but I’m not sure how much of the big picture it can explain, while the latter might be the unfortunate result of other priorities that are seen as legitimate by policy-makers (e.g., fraud).

But in some respects, these might just be second-order squabbles. For what Graeber really seems concerned about are the polarization in society (which is connected to work in one way or another) and freeing up work so that individuals can choose their own meaningful paths (including the freedom to find fulfillment without working at all). These are critically important issues that deserve all the attention they can get, and Graeber's ideas on the primary concerns are worth serious reflection. So in the end, if the provocatively overstated style of Bullshit Jobs causes more to confront these deeper issues, then I can overlook—OK, you know I have to say it—the bullshit.

Update (January 14, 2019): Just published research finds that the fraction of workers who report that their jobs are socially useless is a lot lower than what's claimed by Graeber, but it's still non-negligible.  

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