Together we create the world we inhabit.
— David Graeber (2018, p. 238)
The Covid-19 pandemic and economic lockdowns have made us realise that there is such a thing as an ‘essential job’. In 2020, the people holding an ‘essential job’ were those who could not work from home: doctors and nurses on the frontline, as well as bus drivers, cleaners, and supermarket cashiers. Some businesses, such as hairdressers, had a disputed status under this new system of job classification, hovering across the borderline between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ according to the popular view. Not deemed sufficiently vital to receive government permission to remain in operation during the first lockdowns, their services were nonetheless sorely missed by many during that time. And yet other professions have, by contrast, come to be recognised as clearly ‘non-essential’. The pandemic has changed previously held perceptions of work and the workforce, and its legacy will continue to challenge our understanding of socioeconomic systems going forward.
One important fact revealed during the pandemic is that many essential jobs are among those paid the least. In other words, modern society remunerates and rewards the highest stipends to people whose jobs are not considered essential. David Graeber in Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018) identifies this phenomenon as one of the biggest problems of our current political and economic system. He claims we should value care labour more than we do and spend less time doing meaningless, albeit higher-paid, tasks.
The definition of ‘care labour’ is fluid. In disambiguating this form of work from the less meaningful activities he examines in his book, Graeber notes the standpoint of feminist scholars that ‘virtually, any form of labor can be described as ‘caring’ in the sense that it results in activities that help meet the needs of others’ (Folbre, 1995, p. 74). A large problem in our society, however, is that the caring aspect of what in the Covid-19 pandemic became ‘essential jobs’ – professions rooted in care, empathy and human relations – goes largely unacknowledged and unrewarded, just as ‘women’s unpaid caring labor is made to disappear from our accounts of ‘the economy’’ (p. 236).
The major takeaway here for Graeber is that were we to recognise the value of care work and stop supporting jobs with no function beyond perpetuating the societal system of power relations within which we’re embedded, in the long term we could institute a twenty-hour workweek (p. 26).
My concerns are slightly narrower. The main idea I came away with in my reading of Bullshit Jobs is that exploring how the present pandemic has altered our views of what work entails could clear the way for us to reconsider our personal work priorities and our relationships with our colleagues. Doing so has the potential to ultimately give our jobs meaning.
Defining 'bullshit jobs'
Graeber applies the label ‘bullshit job’ to any ‘form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence’, despite the fact that ‘as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case’ (p. 10). Examples of people mired in bullshit jobs include bureaucrats who can skip work without anybody noticing (p. 3); experts who write reports knowing nobody will read them (p. 50); and receptionists posted at the entryways to elegant buildings whose only responsibility is to open the doors, a task that could easily be mechanised, though it would reduce the building’s prestige (p. 52). Such occupations are financially rewarded; but society would not suffer, or perhaps even notice, if those jobs ceased to exist.
Bullshit jobs, according to Graeber, come under five main categories, and these categories correlate with types of workers he terms Flunkies, Goons, Duct Tapers, Box Tickers, and Taskmasters (p. 28):
Jobs held by Flunkies are characterised by busywork of the sort that ‘exist[s] only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important’ (p. 28). The receptionist role mentioned above is an example of this type of occupation.
Next there are the Goons. A manipulative, aggressive element is intrinsic to their work. For instance, the PR staff of a makeup firm advertise products by enhancing the appearance of celebrities and actors in commercials to change viewers’ perceptions of how men’s or women’s bodies ought to look. Call centre receptionists and telemarketers, who push people to buy or sign up for services they don’t need, also fall under the Goon category (p. 39). These jobs are ‘bullshit’ because instead of responding to a pre-existing need, the workers that execute them have to create a demand for their products. If those products didn’t exist, there would be no need for them.
Duct Tapers fix the problems that other employees make. Usually, the employees who caused those problems cannot be fired, and so Duct Tapers are hired to compensate for their incompetence. Duct Tapers are also responsible for fixing faults within the operational framework of the organisation. An example of a task performed by Duct Tapers is scanning documents that require digitalisation, where an organisation has lacked the capacity or the intuition to do so when those documents were first created.
Box Tickers exist so that an organisation is ‘able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing’ (p. 45). A box-ticking job includes writing a report for a company to demonstrate awareness of the environmental impacts of its work, even though the report’s recommendations may never be implemented in real life.
Finally, positions filled by Taskmasters come in two distinct shapes. Some Taskmaster jobs consist of doling out assignments to subordinates, while the subordinates are perfectly capable of identifying and performing their duties unsupervised by them. Other Taskmaster-type jobs involve the wholesale invention of ‘bullshit’ for other people to do (p. 53). This can occur when a managerial position is created, together with several assistant roles, which exist solely for the purpose of inflating the manager’s status and prestige. The assistants in fact do very little in practice, but rather perform the role of the Flunkies. The role of the Taskmaster is to ensure that the Flunkies have something to do with their time under supervision.
The subjectivity of 'bullshit jobs'
There is a high degree of subjectivity within Graeber’s definition of a bullshit job. For a job to merit this label, the workers performing the job must themselves believe that their work has no use whatsoever. To fully appreciate the nuanced ramifications of Graeber’s stance, it is necessary to consider two distinct angles of his argument. First, the individual subjective element, condensed into the question: ‘What do people think/feel about their jobs?’ Then, the structural component of his analysis, which inquires: ‘What kind of society leads to the establishment of meaningless professional positions?’
Writing about the subjective nature of bullshit jobs is not an easy task, and it required Graeber to put together data on people's feelings towards their work. To get a quantitative measurement of the dimensions of the problem, Graeber relied on a survey carried out by the UK-based polling agency YouGov. YouGov conducted this preliminary study after Graeber put forward his initial arguments in a 2013 essay in STRIKE! Magazine. The survey used language taken directly from the article, asking, for example, ‘Does your job make a contribution to the world?’ (p. xxi). 37% of the respondents considered the purpose of their job to be meaningless, while another 15% said they weren't sure. Other questions returned with similarly mixed results.
In addition to the statistical data obtained via the survey, Graeber relied on data gathered in two other ways. First, his 2013 essay triggered several online discussions on the topic of bullshit jobs. Participants of these discussions applied Graeber’s argument to their personal work situations, and 124 of these exchanges were later incorporated into Graeber’s analysis in the book. Second, in 2016, Graeber used his Twitter profile to solicit autobiographical accounts of other users’ experiences of pointless employment. He assembled more than 250 testimonies, and asked follow-up questions about the emotional consequences of having a ‘bullshit’ form of employment. While most testimonies were sourced from English-speaking countries, a bias Graeber acknowledges to be an issue, messages also came from workers in Continental Europe, Mexico, Brazil, Egypt, India, South Africa, and Japan.
Graeber’s research was not immune to methodological critique (e.g. Soffia et al., 2021). Writers in The Economist (2021) went so far as to say that ‘the bullshit-jobs thesis [is], well, bullshit’. Nonetheless, my view is that much of the book’s value rests on its radical ideas, a consideration apart from rigorous statistical demonstration of the universal validity of Graeber’s arguments. Pedantic scrutiny of the data sources and methods used in his study detach us from an important reflection on what is truly meaningful in work.
Instead, critical attention should be placed on the book’s contribution to our understanding of capitalism and patriarchy, and the power these phenomena have over people’s professional lives. Feminist scholars have also highlighted this power dynamic in the context of Covid-19, in which the care economy suffered from a lack of financial resources, and incidents of domestic violence sharply increased owing to the patriarchal organisation of households (Prügl, 2020). In my opinion, Bullshit Jobs resonates with this kind of work. Graeber helps to explain why it is misplaced to see labour just in terms of production of goods, and why it is important that people care about the purpose of what they do and about the interactions they have with others while doing it.
Despite the questionable aspects of its scientific methodology, Bullshit Jobs’ focus on the subjective brings Graeber to the interesting conclusion that, contrary to conventional wisdom that might imagine it to be pleasant to spend hours doing nothing, people with bullshit jobs usually feel miserable. In some cases, Graeber even theorises workers in these positions feel resentment and a ‘moral envy’ (p. 249) towards those with jobs that have a tangible purpose.
For example, Graeber notes that teachers often figure prominently in lists of professionals envied by workers whose jobs are deemed meaningless by contrast. ‘No one ever called someone up twenty years later to thank them for being such an aspiring insurance claims adjuster.’ (p. 250). This explains why teachers don’t have, on a general basis, very high salaries and other forms of employment benefits. Teachers are in the category of ‘people who have ostentatiously put themselves forwards as self-sacrificing and public-spirited’ (p. 251), and they might even enjoy their job. The latter is an attitude entirely contrary to the philosophy that associates work with self-sacrifice, which also maintains as a corollary that noble or enjoyable work should not be economically compensated.
Consequently, a prevailing view in an economic system where many are unhappy with their bullshit jobs is that a ‘noble’ category of professionals like teachers cannot demand comfortable levels of pay and financial benefits while also feeling that they are positively contributing to the society. The same goes for social workers and people employed in the third sector. Graeber provocatively claims that thanks to the moral envy suffered by those with (more remunerative) bullshit jobs, improved job conditions for socially valuable workers could lead to people in such occupations being considered ‘hypocritical’ (p. 251).
I find intriguing Graeber’s account of the existence and the impact of moral envy. It’s admittedly a difficult concept to quantify or even to identify in real-life situations, as it might exist in people that are not rationally conscious of it. However, his discussion of the topic is valuable, in that it poignantly shows that our economic system is modelled in a way which justifies maintaining an inverse relationship between the social value of work and the amount of money one is likely to be paid for it.
Structural foundations of 'bullshit jobs'
It is puzzling why a financial system is paying low salaries for some essential jobs, but high stipends for meaningless positions. In theory, society’s attempts to maximise economic efficiency should erase this sort of underpayment; but Graeber says this situation is neither surprising nor new. He recalls the socialist regimes of the 20th century which created many ‘bogus jobs’ (p. 146) and that, in this same period, Western democracies were overstaffing the public sector. For the US, this involved establishing ‘self-conscious make-work programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA)’ in the year of the Great Depression (p. 147). The neoliberalism of the 90s should have put an end to this administrative trend; however, the decade continued with jobs declining in the industrial and the agricultural sectors while increasing in the ‘service economy’ (p. 148). By definition, the so-called FIRE industry (i.e. finance, insurance, and real estate) is included in the service economy, employing professionals such as administrators, consultants, and clerical and accounting staff – the area where, according to Graeber, bullshit jobs mushroom (p. 150).
Graeber argues that this economic structure corresponds to what he terms ‘Managerial Feudalism’: a redistributive system whereby those in power establish laws to regulate the share they receive from other sectors of the economy. Their loot, which is paid by the powerless, is used to support the Flunkies, the Goons, and all other types of denizen in the feudal structure that don’t contribute to the development of society, but merely live off the rent they’re allocated automatically by the system. Graeber’s model sheds light on the entanglement of economics and politics and explains phenomena such as the advent of ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, whose lobbyists, in Graeber’s words, ‘typically write the very laws by which governments supposedly regulate them’ and whose financial profits ‘are gathered largely through direct Jura-political means’ (p. 177).
The systemic flaws prompt closer scrutiny of what is considered valuable in our society, and who exactly ‘produces’ it. More specifically, the theory at the heart of Bullshit Jobs points to the difference between value and values.
Value, in economic terms, is what can be quantified and monetised, whereas values are not quantifiable objects; they fall within a category of virtues that are not economically remunerated. People are paid when they ‘sell their time’ (p. 84), which time becomes a value counted by the number of hours bought by the employer. According to Graeber, this understanding of value is based on a wrong definition of labour, one which sees economics as the realm of production. A focus on production ignores the importance – and, by extension, the potential value – of care work, paid or unpaid.
Certain kinds of care work have remained invisible historically. Even as the first theories of labour as production were being developed, neighbourhoods designed for the industrial working-class employed in the ‘production work’ were in fact housing ‘far more maids, bootblacks, dustmen, cooks, nurses, cabbies, schoolteachers, prostitutes, caretakers, and costermongers than employees in coal mines, textile mills or iron foundries’ (p. 235), even if they were not accounted for in the conceptualisation of those theories. The oversight explains why society only pays well what is numerically countable and tangibly produced, but neglects unquantifiable values such as the empathy of care work (p. 235). This notwithstanding the fact that the jobs on which society depends are not necessarily the valuable jobs based on these standards – a truth which the COVID-19 era has reaffirmed.
Care at work – the way forward?
Graeber demonstrates that the proliferation of bullshit jobs is a problem everybody should acknowledge. Through provocative language, he invites readers to engage with ideas about working which may not have occurred to them before. However, Bullshit Jobs does not offer much by way of policy recommendations. Universal Income is presented as an option leading people out of bullshit jobs, but it is not explored in depth. Nor does the book mention how other intellectuals are also hard at work finding solutions to this problem in policy change: Philippe van Parijs (2003) among them, as well as economists who are building on the legacy of Henry George. One economist, Nicolaus Tideman, suggests taxation on land as a potential source for paying a universal income (1977). Graeber, on the other hand, proclaims to be an anarchist who prefers to give people the means to find answers for themselves, over imposing new rules and structures they should follow. He shies away from making clear-cut suggestions; but the lack thereof in Bullshit Jobs should not discourage anyone from reading his book.
Some reassurance and encouragement can be gained from reading about people who seem to deal with their bullshit jobs rather happily. A heartening testimony from the tax official in France, who enjoyed getting along with her colleagues and ‘cheer[ing] up the troops’ (p. 104), shows that, for some people, it’s the working relationships with their colleagues which make all the difference, regardless of what’s listed in a formal job description. In other words, a bullshit job can become labour of care, in part, where the workers do care for each other. Observations drawn from the 2020 lockdowns support this reading of Bullshit Jobs: working from home during the pandemic led to many employees missing the personal interactions they had with their coworkers back in the office (Deloitte, 2021).
Questions of policy aside, reading Graeber’s book could help to expand our understanding of the professional space as a place to care about others around us. Taking this approach could add unquantifiable value to our otherwise excruciatingly over-quantified eight-hour workday.
 Augusta is a PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. She completed an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies at St Anne’s in 2016.
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