Fear of losing one’s job to a robot may seem like a uniquely modern anxiety, but doomsayers have been warning of mass “technological unemployment” for centuries. The nineteenth-century “Luddites” went so far as to sabotage newfangled industrial equipment to ensure that the British textile industry would not meet such a fate. Yet predictions like these have thus far been proved wrong every time. Even if technological progress has sometimes caused painful disruption, new forms of socially valuable work have always emerged to replace the old ones.
Or have they? According to David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics who helped coin the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99 percent,” innovation and automation have in effect already led to mass unemployment. Given the current state of our technology, all the truly vital work of keeping society running could probably be performed by just a small fraction of the population.
The reason we haven’t experienced this as a collective catastrophe, Graeber argues, is that we have “stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.” His use of the phrase “dummy jobs” here represents a momentary lapse into colloquialism; the more scientific term that he employs throughout his new book is the one that also serves as its title: Bullshit Jobs.
“[A] bullshit job,” according to Graeber’s working definition, “is 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.” Crucially, this does not cover situations in which the person doing the job believes it serves a purpose, but others do not. Graeber adds this restriction in order to avoid a lengthy philosophical inquiry into what exactly counts as “pointless,” though it comes at the cost of having to treat one person’s belief about her work’s social value as dispositive—even when many others may strongly disagree, as for instance in the case of fossil-fuel executives.
Such jobs abound in areas like “corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations.” In contrast to “shit jobs”—his terms, not mine—which often involve performing necessary tasks like waiting tables or cleaning bedpans but which are badly remunerated and done under poor working conditions, “bullshit jobs” actually tend to pay well and offer significant social cachet despite their inanity.
Graeber’s meticulous and darkly entertaining book-length exploration of this quixotic topic grew out of a 2013 essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” which generated so much buzz that the polling firm YouGov conducted a survey of Britons to find out how common this phenomenon really was. Thirty-seven percent of respondents said they did not believe their job made any “meaningful contribution to the world.” This inspired Graeber to put out a call for people working such jobs to send him their personal testimonies, some of which he shares in the book to illustrate his larger points and to provide examples of what he believes are the major varieties of BS employment.
“Jack,” hired by a stockbroker to call clients and pitch them on stocks just so they would believe the broker was too busy to make the calls himself, is what Graeber dubs a “flunky”: someone who is kept around merely “to make someone else look or feel important.” “Box-tickers,” on the other hand, “exist only or primarily to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.” These include “Betsy,” who had to fill out forms for the residents of a nursing home listing their preferences for leisure activities even though no one ever actually read them.