Is the Idea of “Bullshit Jobs” Bullshit?

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Are our jobs really becoming increasingly meaningless and irrelevant? If so, why is it happening?

David Graber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, put into words what many a worker has felt at some gut level: that the work we do has vanishingly little meaning or value. Working stiffs intuit that if they suddenly decided not to come in to work tomorrow, the world would be no worse for their absence. Graber goes farther, advancing the theory that such valueless, meaningless, or to put it more crudely, “bullshit” jobs are on the rise. He goes one step farther to suggest that this proliferation of such jobs is designed to keep a Capitalist power elite on top and prevent the working stiff from realizing the productivity gains of the last few decades.

With automation rising, it’s not hard to believe that an ever-increasing population is chasing a shrinking pool of productive jobs. And if that’s the case, then it’s not hard to imagine that stressed workers may take shelter in a job that pays only in cash, even if the job produces no actual benefit to anyone else.

Economics correspondent Ryan Avent, writing for The Economist, takes Graber to task. Avert reminds us that we live in a much larger world and we work in bigger, more complicated organizations. Complexity drives us to specialize in tasks that may not seem important or relevant by themselves, but are necessary, if overlooked cogs in a gigantic machine. Avert also points out that while the manufacturing jobs of old produced products that you could see and feel, it was still repetitive, mindless labor in which few could take any pleasure.

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As robots and offshore workers took over the production lines, factory workers or their children transitioned into information workers who produced intangible goods on their screens. While the work was still repetitive, at least it could be done in a desk chair sitting inside a climate controlled office building. In Avent’s view, the new glut of information work isn’t necessarily more “bullshit” than industrial-era jobs; it’s simply harder to quantify.

How can we reconcile these two opposing views? While cubicle dwellers can draw on their sense of futility to resonate with Graber’s diagnosis, Avent has the force of economics behind him. If “bullshit” jobs exist, an efficient market should ruthlessly punish firms that failed to find and eliminate wasted labor.

Psychologically, there’s good reason for a job to appear “bullshit” even when it is not. Imposter syndrome is the feeling that we’re not really capable of the work we’re assigned and surely someone will notice and we’ll be canned. But if, despite our felt incompetence, we manage to keep our jobs, perhaps that’s because the job isn’t really genuine either. Perhaps we’re sham workers working sham jobs and that’s how the house of cards manages to stay standing.

Imposter syndrome can have many causes, but the most common may be the way we acquire skills. As people move from novices to masters, not only does their performance improve, but the way the work feels changes. Effective performance is based largely on internally automating subtasks in our own heads to the point where they leave conscious awareness and become rote. Over time, doing these “simple” tasks feels like “nothing,” or something “anybody could do.” To break the illusion, all one must do is explain the work to a novice and watch them give it a try. But lacking an apprentice, the master often fails to take stock of his true abilities and worth.

Sometimes we may suspect that our jobs are “bullshit,” but other times we can demonstrate this fact as surely as a mathematical proof. I once read an account of three clerks working in various War Department offices during the second world war. (The source of this tale eludes me, I’m sorry to say.) Each of these workers was swamped with paperwork every day and each of them believed that their efforts were essential to the war effort. However, as luck would have it, all three of them were out sick at the same time. Not only did the Allies’ progress not stop, but on returning to work, they each found their inboxes no fuller than when they had left. Only later did they learn that they had unknowingly been circulating the same information between their desks. Work from desk A generated work for desk B, and then on to desk C, which returns the work to desk A, where perhaps it had been transformed so completely that the original clerk was unable to recognize the cycle. Their net output was exactly nil, but none of them individually could discover this until all three were halted at the same time and the cycle collapsed. Even as early as the 1940s, it was possible for complexity to disguise pointless make-work as vital activity.

Jobs that were once genuine can become “bullshit” due to automation. From Reddit.com comes the tale of an information worker paid directly in proportion to the number of tasks he completed. He realized that he could write a computer program to do the work he was performing manually, but much, much faster. Producing far more results with fewer errors, he began collecting almost all of the money allocated to the bonus pool. Not wanting to upset the gravy train he had created for himself, he continued to collect the bounty and told no-one that he had his feet up on his desk while his home-brewed software did nearly all of the work.

Rather than be found out, he eventually admitted to his higher-ups what he had done. Was he praised for his innovation and efficiency? Promoted? Given a bonus? Far from it. He was fired on the spot. Only after the firing did management take an interest in the software he had written. Seeing that his code was his only bargaining chip, he declined to release the password that would reveal the code to his superiors.

This story has a happy ending, however. Upper management realized what was going on and brought him back. Together they were able to negotiate a deal where the employee was brought back with pay equivalent to what he had been earning with his program. He was promoted to a division that used this technique across the workgroup. Some of the worst-performing employees were let go, but others were transferred into different departments. Perhaps this is the best compromise we can make between efficiency and finding room for displaced workers.

“Bullshit” jobs can abide for a third reason: in large organizations, managers are compensated in proportion to the number of people under them. And while every accountant lives for the chance to cut headcount in the name of efficiency, what work is essential is hard to quantify and best known by the people actually doing the work. And these people are materially rewarded if they can make it look like they have a lot to do.

In my experience, it’s easy to recognize a workgroup of this type. They are typified by a never-ending parade of meetings on the topic of what work should be done and how. Endless cycles of review and revision of the plan generate reams of documentation that lends credence to the idea that some very smart people are working terribly hard on a fantastically complicated task. The work itself moves ahead at a snail’s pace. Deadlines are proposed, but always slip and new convolutions appear that call for even more research, review and planning. Complexity can hide redundancy, just as it did for the War Department clerks, but complexity can also be used as a smokescreen to hide “bullshit” jobs.

Both Avert and Graber have valid points. Avert is correct that we live in a complex world and much essential work can feel pointless even when it is not. But Graber is right that automation is squeezing out human labor and at times human beings prefer having a “bullshit” job to unemployment and may obfuscate work in order to protect their place in the economy. Few of us can afford to ignore changes that threaten to turn yesterday’s essential position into tomorrow’s “bullshit” job.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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