Bullshit Jobs

Another post about another fascinating Hidden Brain podcast episode on the topic of “bullshit jobs.” These jobs are defined as jobs which are self-identified as lacking purpose or contributing little to no productivity or meaningful utility to the company. This social phenomenon has been studied extensively by David Graeber, professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and author of the 2018 book Bullshit Jobs. The book was spawned in 2013 from an article the author had written for Strike! magazine. The piece had such a massive reaction that in 2015, YouGov, a data analytics firm surveyed approximately 900 UK citizens (supposedly a nationally representative sample) and found that approximately 37% of workers perceived themselves to have a mostly ‘meaningless’ i.e., bullshit job. Apparently, this research has been replicated internationally and they find base rates between 37-40% of workers self-reporting that they are currently working a bullshit (or bullshit-heavy) job. Shankar Vedantam, podcast host, opined that this is a massive number of fellow coworkers, colleagues, and commuters. Thankfully, I do not identify having a so-called ‘bullshit job’ (BSJ), although to be fair there are definitely elements of what I call ‘bullshit creep’ which permeate aspects of my work. I will return to this later.

Some interesting facts about these “bullshit jobs” (BSJ):

  • These jobs are not necessarily menial or boring. In fact, relatively few workers in the service, retail or labor sectors reported having a BSJ. Front-line healthcare workers (e.g., nurses) probably do not identify having a BSJ. As I mentioned earlier however, there is something of a “bullshit creep” that starts to permeate even into these jobs…
  • Graeber asserts that most BSJ are office jobs and, surprisingly, a substantial portion are fairly well-paid and high-status. Many examples are found in middle management (e.g., Vedantam’s prototypical example being Michael Scott from The Office), clerical/administrative, public relations, human resources, corporate legal etc.
  • These jobs seem to be increasing rather than decreasing in numbers.
  • Despite many of these jobs being fairly well-paid, high-status and having good benefits, most people who report working these self-identified BSJ also claim to feel miserable. There are several drivers of this misery, which I will detail below.

What is the experience of having a BSJ? Common themes that emerged from Graeber’s work:

  • Disappointment – feeling self-disappointment that one is not adding value to the world and is instead spending most of the day engaging in frivolous, self-gratifying activities (e.g., playing solitaire or generating cat memes)
  • Amotivation – when the job is completely extrinsically motivated, boredom and lack of basic drive ensue
  • Guilt – feeling unproductive, lazy, deceptive and even larcenous (i.e., getting paid without an equitable exchange of one’s labor)
  • Fear – fear of being found out and therefore having to invent elaborate rituals to appear as if one is constantly productive
  • Confusion – people with BSJ are often confused about how much people actually do know about how little they do and how much they should be ‘playing the game’
  • Disenfranchisement – related to confusion; there is no script or training manual for surviving a BSJ. We don’t even have a common language to talk about it (although Graeber’s work represents a start) and there is tremendous social and cultural stigma to admitting having a BSJ (or BSJ-heavy work)—even to family members let alone coworkers, friends and therapists
  • Learned helplessnessnot being able to have a meaningful impact on the world through work (such a large cultural determinant of one’s identity) contributes to a loss of self-efficacy, helplessness, passivity and depressive sequelae

What types of BSJ exist? From the Graeber’s own anthropological research, self-identified BSJ include:

  • Duct Taper – a term coined from the software industry connoting jobs that were created not to solve a problem but to defer the secondary problems associated with that problem existing in the first place. Graeber offers the example of an admin job created to process delays in service, instead of actually hiring more service workers.
  • Task Masters – a) jobs which involve the supervision of highly skilled staff that do not actually need supervision. E.g., middle management-type jobs. b) jobs which survive and maintain a facade of legitimacy by creating BS work (i.e., bullshit creep) for subordinates. E.g., A senior administrator delegating service workers to complete a time-allocation study in addition to their regular duties
  • Dummy – this type of BSJ exists as its own position “on paper” but was actually created to fill in the work that was necessitated by someone else not doing their job, i.e., an inefficient redundancy. Graeber’s example would be a senior accountant who gets drunk but cannot get fired due to internal politics so a junior is hired to essentially do the job that the senior was not completing
  • Goons – A type of BSJ that is necessitated by the threat posed by competitors who also employ goons. Organized racketeering is a good example: think of a gang that offers protection to local businesses in exchange for a percentage of their profits—such activities are only necessary because of gang violence (either from their own or a rival gang). Other types of goon jobs may include telemarketers or corporate lawyers (i.e., once one party gets corporate lawyers, all parties must get corporate lawyers—to deal with the other guys’ corporate lawyers)
  • Footmen/Flunky – Job that exists to confer additional status onto the employer. E.g., Being the 7th bodyguard for a celebrity, roadie who gets the coffee, 3rd receptionist to a newly hired dean or receptionist for a 1-person corporation

How did things get to be this way? Hypothetical and philosophical speculations from Graeber’s work…

  • Due to social and technological inventions (e.g., invention of standardized time), time becomes quantifiable and fungible (i.e., exchangeable for goods, services or token value)
  • Time then becomes equated with value and wealth is accrued by exchange for one’s time
  • The cultural and spiritual ethic that therefore ensued disseminates the idea that work is a marker not only of wealth but responsibility to one’s social group/family, personal maturity, spiritual morality
  • Jobs without much utility or labor somehow have to be stretched into BSJ to fit into cultural prescriptions for how time is to be spent in exchange for capital
  • BSJ tend to justify other BSJ; they have their own micro-economies

Further questions

  • Where is the “bullshit creep” in our work? What—if anything—are solutions?
  • Although office-workers are probably under-represented in occupational injury demographics (I haven’t found a good study to cite); we can assume that lack of motivation, learned helplessness, and job insecurity constitute chronic psychosocial stressors that might complicate the assessment and rehabilitation of these workers who may be dealing with physical or psychosocial injuries.
  • We probably don’t have a good way to recognize, communicate and support people who have BSJ. Lot’s of social and cultural stigma that has not been addressed
  • We might suffer from our own forms of BSJ or (likely) work with others who do; how to be supportive/understanding? How to address massive inefficiencies happening in and around our workplace?
  • In the age of COVID-19, many of us are working from home. How does this impact the way we manage our time? How do BSJ adjust in this economy? Will our moral attachments to work—as it is now currently valued in terms of time-labor exchange—survive or will we be forced to adapt our worldviews (workviews) towards a virally-resilient economy?

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