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David Graeber’s new book argues that many of us are toiling in dummy jobs with no ostensible purpose. Any poll will show you he has a point. But his thesis is built on scant evidence and dubious claims of a ruling class conspiring to keep us busy. Bullshit jobs exist not due to orchestrated oppression but because of something altogether simpler: bad managers.

On the pleasure at being the cause

Telemarketers. Academic administrators. Advertising account executives. Private equity CEOs. What do these have in common? According to David Graeber, they all bear the hallmarks of a ‘bullshit job’ – one so utterly meaningless that even the people who hold it aren’t convinced of its merit.

Graeber’s new book, Bullshit Jobs: A theory, begins with a typology of dummy roles. We hear of Flunkies, who exist to give others an air of importance (think of receptionists employed as ‘Badges of Seriousness’), and Box Tickers, who allow organisations to say they’re doing something important (like those tasked with preparing internal reports which are never read).

A series of absurd anecdotes hammer home the point. Care home worker Betsy is tasked with interviewing residents to find out their recreational preferences, all the while knowing her forms will be mindlessly logged and soon forgotten. Concierge officer Bill spends half his time pressing a button to let in residents of an apartment block. So pointless was one tax auditor’s role that his colleagues took 48 hours to recognise he had died at his desk.  

But who is to say what constitutes a bullshit job? Graeber’s answer is that it can only be the workers themselves. While there are plenty of jobs that are manifestly pointless or corrosive to society – many in the tobacco and gambling industries, for example – Graeber is concerned with individual perspectives because he wants to highlight the damage caused by a personal sense of futility.  

Indeed, Graeber is at his best not when he reels off ludicrous stories, which anyone could do given half a day scouring the forums of Reddit, but rather when he delves into the torment of meaningless work. He cites the research of German psychologist Karl Groos, who claimed that people have “pleasure at being the cause” and choose to exercise powers simply for the sake of exercising them.

To be denied these pleasures by being placed in a make-believe job amounts to what Graeber calls “spiritual damage”. Most people desperately want to put their body and minds to good use, rather than lie idle. This explains why working-class lottery winners rarely quit their jobs once they become millionaires, and why inmates jostle to work in the prison gym or laundry, even if the work goes unpaid.

A faulty bullshit-o-meter?

But Graeber’s arguments can also be tenuous. His reliance on one YouGov survey to explain the extent of bullshit jobs is questionable. That survey – which he didn’t commission – found 37 percent of UK workers believe their job does not make a ‘meaningful contribution to the world’. Yet an RSA/Populus survey undertaken last year found that just 14 percent disagree their job ‘makes a positive contribution to society’.

Nor does Graber do enough to tease out the distinction between jobs that are bullshit and those which are simply misunderstood. He too easily dismisses the argument that our economy has become more complex, thereby creating more specialised roles where the impact of one’s work is difficult to discern. Around 40 percent of the UK workforce is employed in large businesses with more than 250 employees, where it is all but impossible not to feel like a small cog in a big wheel – even if your work is valuable.

Graeber also forgets that human quirks are one reason why particular jobs exist. The army is cast off as a pointless workforce – one that prevails only because other nations have armies. But on that basis one could equally argue the only reason we have fashion designers is because people innately care about expressing themselves. Or that we only have undertakers because of the human quirk of wanting ceremonial burials. All true, but it hardly makes these jobs pointless.

Calvinists and conspiracies

To be sure, Graeber is onto something. Whether it’s 37 percent of the workforce or 14 percent, or some figure in between, bullshit jobs – or more likely bullshit tasks – are too commonplace. While chairing the recent RSA Events lecture with Graeber, I asked the audience whether they had ever worked in a bullshit job. Out of some 180 people, more than two thirds raised their hands.

My concern with Graeber’s thesis is less his articulation of the problem and more his speculation about its origins. He cites two reasons for the rise of make-work: a toxic and deeply ingrained culture that believes any work is good work; and a ruling elite who are determined to keep people’s thumbs twiddling whatever the cost.

The first of these is difficult to object. Graeber shows how the Calvinistic and Puritan mantra of work as ‘both punishment and redemption’ lives on to this day. As a result, society puts up with working in bullshit jobs, as though it were morally superior to play and relaxation. Look no further than modern workfare programmes, which force people into work of any kind, so long as they are occupied.

Yet Graeber’s second reasoning is less convincing. “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working”, he says. Social engineering is not crazy talk but a genuine political tactic to pacify the mob. Policymakers who call for full employment know in their heart of hearts that it means sustaining useless jobs.

This is all hard to believe. Graeber offers no evidence for his conspiratorial assertions other than an interview involving the then US President Barack Obama. When asked about his reservations about moving to a single-payer (ie socialised) healthcare system, he replied that he would be concerned about job losses incurred from efficiency savings. Graeber mistakenly interprets this as a ‘smoking gun’, rather than the legitimate concerns of an empathetic leader.

Blame Brent, not Bilderberg

While Graeber aches over conspiracies, he barely acknowledges that many jobs might lack purpose simply because of terrible management practices. This includes managers who are well meaning but have failed to spot inefficiencies in their organisations, as well as ego-driven managers who revel in vanity projects, which in turn throw up inane tasks for their underlings.

Lacklustre managers might lie behind many of the stories in Graeber’s book. Perhaps Betsy’s care work forms are never read because of inconsiderate managers who consider social activities a burden. Bill may spend most of his time opening doors because his managers haven’t bothered to find a way of automating them. Patrick, who worked in a student union shop, may spend hours on end pointlessly rearranging things on shelves because his management have no clue how to organise shifts and arrange teams.

The UK seems to be particularly afflicted by mediocre bosses. The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane says that “a lack of management quality is a plausible explanation for the UK’s long tail of [unproductive] companies”. While Germany has a “fat middle” of thousands of small but highly performing firms, the UK has a few superstar companies and a swath of zombie firms run by bosses with limited experience and training.

This is not just bad for the country’s economic performance, it is bad for workers and their everyday experience of the workplace. One study suggests that a boss’s competence is the single biggest predictor of a worker’s job satisfaction. What’s more, using longitudinal data, the researchers show that even if a worker stays in the same job and workplace, a rise in the competence of a supervisor is associated with an improvement in that worker’s wellbeing.

Viewed in this light, bullshit jobs are not wholly inevitable. It would take a herculean effort to turn the David Brents of Wernham Hogg into the Charlie Mayfields of John Lewis. But at least it is a mission we can turn our hands to. To believe that dummy jobs are concocted by a ruling elite is for the birds.

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