Bullshit Jobs: A Review

Is your job just another elaborate scheme to keep you under control?

Paul Joshi
7 min readJun 25, 2021

Wow! Nail on the head! I am a corporate lawyer (tax litigator, to be specific). I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all of the time. I don’t like it when people have the nerve to say “Why do it, then?” because it is so clearly not that simple. It so happens to be the only way right now for me to contribute to the 1 percent in such a significant way so as to reward me with a house in Sydney to raise my future kids . . . Thanks to technology, we are probably as productive in two days as we previously were in five. But thanks to greed and some busy-bee syndrome of productivity, we are still asked to slave away for the profit of others ahead of our own nonremunerated ambitions. Whether you believe in intelligent design or evolution, humans were not made to work — so to me, this is all just greed propped up by inflated prices of necessities.

Photo by Magnet.me on Unsplash

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, an English economist, one of the most influential of the 20th century, predicted that technological achievement would reduce our work week to 15 hours. However, it is evident that this is not the case. Rather technology is used, if at all, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Large numbers of people, especially in Europe and North America, spend their entire working lives doing jobs which they secretly believe do not contribute anything to humanity, and if they were to disappear, none would even be inconvenienced. David Graeber, in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, labels such unnecessary, yet prevalent jobs as bullshit jobs.

The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

In 2013, Graeber had published an article in STRIKE! magazine about this phenomenon, and in the netizen way of things, it went viral. The Strike! website crashed under the influx of enthusiasts and Graeber mentions that within weeks, the essay was translated into at least a dozen languages and distributed globally. Clearly he had struck a chord in public opinion. And just as any movement-like phenomenon, a follow up book was released. He notes that many economists defend Keynes’ position by pointing to the rise of the tertiary or “service” industry. But this would mean that we have switched from being factory workers to being chefs and hairdressers. As Graeber shows, this is hardly the case: the number of people in such jobs has remained fairly constant. What has grown, rather, is a plethora of bureaucratic, managerial and administrative nonsense.

As an example, for the last few decades in the academic world, teachers have been doing what they have always done, giving lectures and assignments. The only recent difference may be in the use of PowerPoint presentations and other trivial upgrades. However, universities have seen an increase in the number of administrative staff, and faculty have been forced to spend ever increasing amounts of time on bureaucratic nonsense. Oxford University has a team of P.R. specialists whose job seems to be to convince the public that Oxford is a top-notch University. There seems to exist a similar situation everywhere: an increasingly arcane hierarchy of administrators, leading to phenomenal amounts of paperwork, under the banners of “onboarding”, “quality control” and so on. This kind of ritualistic box-ticking is just one among the many kinds of bullshit jobs Graeber mentions. In fact, he classifies bullshit jobs into the broad categories of flunkies — underlings who exist just to make superiors feel important, goons — jobs derived from competition, such as marketing agents or corporate lawyers, duct tapers — who fix problems that shouldn’t exist if not for the laziness or such of their bosses, box-tickers — using paperwork or serious looking reports, to suggest that things are happening when they aren’t, and taskmasters — who manage people who don’t need to be managed and generate further bullshit jobs.

Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

YouGov, a data-analytics firm, in 2015, surveyed people in Britain about whether they thought their jobs made a meaningful contribution to the world. 37% said no, and 13% were unsure, which is a strikingly high proportion. In another survey conducted in the Netherlands, forty per cent of respondents believed their jobs had no reason to exist.

It just seemed to make sense that, just as Wall Street profits were derived less and less from firms involved in commerce or manufacturing, and more and more from debt, speculation, and the creation of complex financial instruments, so did an ever-increasing proportion of workers come to make their living from manipulating similar abstractions.

Being an anthropologist, Graeber looks into this startling phenomena through a cultural and political lens, and not just through a purely economic perspective. He does not simply propose the phenomena, rather Bullshit Jobs is packed with numerous testimonies Graeber received after launching his initial article giving the book some empirical ground. These range from people at work in the FIRE sectors to the occupiers of the new “information work”, who all testify to the increasing meaninglessness of the contemporary workplace. Instead of classifying jobs as bullshit or not, he writes about real people who are themselves convinced their jobs are meaningless, who know that if their jobs were to disappear tomorrow it would make no difference to the world: in fact, for some at least, it might make the world a better place.

He suggests that people are not inherently lazy: we work not just to pay the bills but because we want to contribute something meaningful to society. The psychological effect of spending our days on tasks we secretly believe don’t need to be performed is profoundly damaging, “a scar across our collective soul”

One of Graeber’s most interesting points is that the phenomenon of pointless jobs may be a revelation that we are living with a flawed concept of human nature. One would think that being paid to do little or nothing would be the height of happiness, but in reality, people, even in high-paying yet useless jobs report profound feelings of unease, stress and depression.

Another point that Graeber examines is the relative compensation of people with useful and useless jobs. Generally, jobs with undeniable social value, like nurses and teachers are paid less, while jobs that have questionable or even negative social values such as “creative vice presidents” and corporate lobbyists are highly compensated. This is evidently due to a socially accepted flaw in our thinking. Graeber explains this tendency by a culture of work that useful employment is supposed to be its own reward, while useless employment requires incentives, but again a more economic explanation may be useful.

The moral of the story (Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1852) is that when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

On how the phenomenon of bullshit jobs can be prevented, Graeber hesitates to suggest a policy solution as he fears that, “it has been my experience that if an author is critical of existing social arrangements, reviewers will often respond by effectively asking “so what are you proposing to do about it, then?”, search the text until they find something that looks like a policy suggestion, and then act as if that is what the book is basically about(italics mine)”. Yet he suggests Universal Basic Income as a possible solution, i.e.; providing every person with a regular sum of money, unconditionally, sufficient to cover the necessities of life. UBI is now a consistently recurring theme in economics but the debate is still on. But whatever the means, it is high time to change our attitude towards work. We spend enormous amounts of time doing things we do not want to do, and, what is worse, things which often do not need to be done. What fuels this is a kind of masochistic work ethic, defining our worth by our ability to do things that we do not want to do. This ethic has so pervaded our culture that we take it for granted that everything from identity to self-respect depend on our jobs.

Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber, is an enlightening, amusing, and clever, yet serious look into the modern workplace using an amalgamation of historical, political, economic, religious, and empirical data to validate his arguments. Framed mostly for the urban and educated middle classes, in this world of ever increasing corporate lawyers and tax litigators, Bullshit Jobs is a must read!



Paul Joshi

Web developer, learning enthusiast and digital artist.