Having been assembled from rancid cast-offs by Frankenstein’s work experience kid I’ve spent a fair amount of time unable to work, choosing instead to focus on loafing. When I was finally able to enter polite society I wanted to do something useful. It was unfathomable to me that I’d have waited a decade on the sidelines only to end up flogging dog monocles to rich arseholes, making money for Big Monocle and contributing nothing to the world around me. What I’m saying is, Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber appeals to me on a midichlorian level.
Graeber has a theory that hundreds of millions of people are stuck in pointless, dead-end, bullshit jobs; jobs that exist only because we created them, jobs that add nothing, do nothing, give nothing of value to the world – not even superficial fun. This isn’t the Daily Mail demanding we replace TikTok with national service, it’s not an old man yelling at a cloud. It’s about the pointless grind of late-stage capitalism and the harm done to human beings caught up in it. It’s about the world we’ve made and the one we could make in its place.
Bullshit jobs are the jobs so pointless, so worthless, so devoid of meaning or merit that even the poor suckers doing them know it – and have to keep doing them anyway. We’re talking jobs that could disappear completely without anyone noticing, except that the world might be a little better, a little less petty. I’m trying not to be specific because half my friends work in marketing but when the pandemic hit we decided pretty quickly who the essential workers were, and there was no one clapping for political lobbyists, corporate lawyers or cold-calling sales chuds.
Even the most purposeful, most useful, most socially valuable jobs have seen bullshit creeping into them, with pointless meetings that could have been emails and pointless emails that could have been nothing at all. This is a problem on a massive scale. Graeber brings together a few studies to conclude about 40 percent of all jobs are pointless, and about 50 percent of work done in non-pointless jobs is equally pointless. We are wasting our time on earth.
In the pampered, privileged parts of the world, automation and labour-saving technologies could have reduced our working weeks and, for some, ended work completely. That’s long been a cause of panic, from the Luddites who knackered new machinery to people fretting about self-service checkouts. But in a saner world the end of work would be a goal rather than a fear. With the working week shortened and the essentials still covered, people could be free to enjoy the rest of what life has for them. We could make stuff and do stuff and see things and hang out and fuck.
Instead we’ve found ourselves in a cult of employment. It’s where we see people’s value. It’s how we define ourselves. As Graeber points out, when people ask ‘What do you do?’ they’re asking what we do for work, as if that’s the whole of us. And people who don’t work are judged harshly. They’re layabouts, scroungers and skivers if poor, and wasteful, privileged and out of touch if rich. Thanks to this lingering puritanism, instead of letting technological advances cut us some slack we’ve invented bullshit jobs to occupy the space they created.
Graeber highlights the often devastating effects of our pointless drudgery. The strain of pointless tasks, repetitive activities, abuses of power and arbitrary deadlines for useless work can unravel the mind. He points to psychological research that shows even babies feel joy when they discover they can make an impact on the world around them. There is a basic human need for impact and purpose, and an adverse effect when they’re denied us. It’s what psychologist Karl Groos called ‘the pleasure at being the cause’ verses what psychiatrist Francis Broucek called ‘the trauma of failed influence.’ Stuck in jobs that have no effect or impact, no possibility for pleasure at being the cause, feeling only the trauma of failed influence, people will break. They will be broken.
This is a book that understands the scale of the pickle we’re in, sees the cause, points to its effect, imagines better alternatives. It is essential reading for people who want lives of meaning and purpose and impact and fun.
Go buy it. Not from Amazon.