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.
What is puzzling to Graeber about the ubiquity of these useless jobs is that “under our current economic system, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen.” Paying employees to twiddle their thumbs is generally thought of as a pathology endemic to centrally planned economies like that of the former Soviet Union (hence the old Russian joke: “we pretend to work, they pretend to pay us”)—or at worst, one safely quarantined to public-sector bureaucracies. Some of his examples do come from the world of government employment, like his tale of a Spanish water-board engineer who failed to show up to work for six years and whose prolonged absence was detected only when he was about to receive an award for longevity of service.
In a competitive market environment, however, standard economic theory would insist that companies who keep thumb-twiddlers on the payroll should end up being brought under the thumb of the invisible hand, forced to choose between trimming the fat and going out of business. If it looks like this is not happening, then it must be either because: (a) government is interfering with the operation of the free market, perhaps by imposing burdensome regulations that require firms to hire armies of box-tickers to work in Compliance; or (b) jobs that appear to be useless are in fact useful to someone, in some mysterious way that is not apparent to those performing them.
Graeber rejects these explanations as unfalsifiable libertarian ideology, though he acknowledges that compliance with regulation is likely responsible for at least some BS jobs. His own diagnosis is complicated. But one of the main culprits he points to is the growth of what some have called the “FIRE” sector (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) and the attendant rise of what he christens “managerial feudalism.” As FIRE has come to account for a larger share of GDP in developed countries, the activity of the average corporation has become less and less about “making, building, fixing, or maintaining things, and more and more about political processes of appropriating, distributing, and allocating money and resources.” Medieval feudalism involved kings and princes doling out the loot they had stolen in war or extracted from peasant labor to hierarchies of dukes and earls. Under its contemporary “managerial” equivalent, those at the top of the corporate totem pole reward their underlings with sinecures that offer generous compensation and honorifics like “Executive Creative Vice President.”
Of course, this sort of sectoral shift in the composition of the economy does not by itself explain why market forces would fail to rein in the creation of unnecessary jobs; competition should prevent the emergence of bloat in any industry. What Graeber’s argument about managerial feudalism seems to assume but never makes explicit is that the financialization of the economy has coincided with a period of rising corporate concentration, an assumption that is backed up by recent economic research. As markets have become less competitive, firms have put more energy into appropriating the value created by others—“extracting rents” as economists would say—and less energy into actually creating value. This still leaves the question of why corporate shareholders would not demand that the rents go to them instead of to feudal underlords. Perhaps shareholders have a different perspective from most of us on what constitutes fat in need of trimming. To those of a particular class, hiring flunkies might not be seen as optional.
Graeber also blames contemporary cultural attitudes toward work for the rise of BS jobs. In contrast to the ancients, who were more likely to think of toil as a distraction from the intellectual or political life, much of Western society now sees even pointless drudgery as something that “builds character.” (He cites Pope John Paul II’s 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens in the course of tracing the “theological roots” of these modern notions—although that encyclical actually offers a corrective to the attitudes Graeber decries, declaring at one point that “work is ‘for man’ and not man ‘for work.’”)
A consequence of this mindset is that elected officials end up at least rhetorically dedicated to pursuing “job creation” at the expense of other important objectives. As a senator, Barack Obama publicly opposed single-payer healthcare on the grounds that the efficiencies it would bring about would leave thousands of paper-pushers at private insurance companies unemployed. And while no mainstream U.S. politician is willing to propose that people be paid to care for their own children or elderly relatives, many happily endorse tax credits to offset the cost of having strangers care for them instead.
Graeber confesses that he is reluctant to offer policy remedies for “bullshitization,” primarily because, as a self-described anarchist, he is “suspicious of the very idea of policy” and would “prefer not to have policy elites around at all.” He does entertain one possible solution, but only because he sees it as something that is already being advocated by organic social movements—namely, a Universal Basic Income (UBI), or unconditional stipend that would be paid to all citizens regardless of whether or not they work or collect income from other sources.
He dismisses the idea of mandating a shorter work week, writing that such a step “would be unlikely to cause the unnecessary jobs and industries to be spontaneously abandoned.” This remark is surprising in light of the fact that his 2013 essay opens with a reference to John Maynard Keynes’s famous prediction that most workers in developed countries would be working a fifteen-hour week by the early twenty-first century. The clear implication was that this could easily have been achieved already, had we opted to discard the forty-hour norm and share the fruits of technological progress in the form of greater increases in leisure time. Graeber also discounts the viability of a guaranteed jobs program, since he believes that the bureaucracy this would require “would inevitably itself turn into a vast generator of bullshit,” even though the lasting achievements of the New Deal–era Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps suggest themselves as counterexamples.
It is true that a UBI would give people the freedom to walk away from jobs that they feel serve no purpose without the fear of losing their entire livelihood. Yet it is hard to see how UBI could disrupt the underlying dynamics driving managerial feudalism. If corporate concentration is indeed a part of the story, then more aggressive antitrust enforcement could also be an important tool in the anti–BS job toolkit. It is even one that Graeber should be able to get behind, given the burgeoning grassroots movement of “neo-Brandeisians,” who see a more vigorous application of antitrust law as a way to promote shared prosperity without centralizing power in a government bureaucracy.
On some level, though, BS jobs do not even seem like a problem in need of a solution. Being paid well for essentially doing nothing probably sounds to many of us like a dream come true. In fact, Graeber’s ethnography suggests that it is usually more of a nightmare. Many of his pseudonymous interlocutors report suffering serious mental-health crises as a result of the extreme boredom and alienation they experience at work (or experienced until they quit in despair). The cause of this misery, he suggests, is the frustration of an instinctive human desire to make change in the world. To force someone into a job that they know is harming others will obviously be experienced as violence by most ethically sane people, but to require them to undertake an activity that they know makes no difference to anyone is “a direct attack on the very foundations of the sense that one even is a self.”
It is for this reason that Graeber thinks one of the standard arguments against UBI fails. “Most people,” he claims, “would prefer not to spend their days sitting around watching TV” and would ultimately gravitate toward doing “something that they feel is useful or beneficial to others.” And if some “really are inclined to be total parasites,” they won’t be much of a burden anyway since “the total amount of work required to maintain people in comfort and security is not that formidable.” It will presumably become even less formidable as technology continues to advance, even if automation does not quite eliminate the need for all human labor anytime soon.
This should be seen as a good thing. Somehow, we have ended up with a system in which it has instead become a source of angst. The exact answers may remain to be worked out, but David Graeber has, in a quirky yet intellectually and morally serious way, finally asked out loud the question that millions of people have apparently already been asking themselves in their heads: Why, despite all of the advances in productivity that we keep hearing about, are so many of us still working such long hours at jobs that seem like they could disappear without anyone even noticing? It’s all a load of—well, you know what.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
Simon & Schuster, $27, 368 pp.