On Pointless Jobs

In August, 2013, the American anthropologist David Graeber wrote a tentative essay about the pointlessness of most modern jobs. The essay, that went viral, was later expanded into a book published in 2018, ‘Bullshit Jobs – A Theory’. The book used poll data from UK, where 37% of the people polled identified their jobs as ‘bullshit jobs’. The following is an excerpt from the preface to the book:

“I would like this book to be an arrow aimed at the heart of our civili­zation. There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves. We have become a civilization based on work-not even “productive work” but work as an end and meaning in itself. We have come to believe that men and women who do not work harder than they wish at jobs they do not particularly enjoy are bad people unworthy of love, care, or assis­tance from their communities. It is as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement. The main political reaction to our awareness that half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or even counterproductive activities—usually under the orders of a person we dislike—is to rankle with resentment over the fact there might be others out there who are not in the same trap. As a result, hatred, resentment, and suspicion have become the glue that holds society together. This is a disastrous state of affairs. I wish it to end. If this book can in any way contribute to that end, it will have been worth writing.”

In his book, David Graeber divided bullshit jobs into five major types. The following is the Wikipedia excerpt about the types:

“The productivity benefits of automation have not led to a 15-hour workweek, as predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, but instead to “bullshit jobs”: “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.” While these jobs can offer good compensation and ample free time, the pointlessness of the work grates at their humanity and creates a “profound psychological violence”.

More than half of societal work is pointless, both large parts of some jobs and five types of entirely pointless jobs:

  1. Flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, store greeters;
  2. Goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, or to prevent other goons from doing so, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists;
  3. Duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive;
  4. Box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers;
  5. Taskmasters, who create extra work for those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals.”

I have seen some videos of David Graeber talking about the book and have just begun reading it. It looks very interesting.

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