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Is your job bullshit? And if so, is there life beyond it?

The current trend for fashionable post- and anti-work thinking has been given a boost by David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, recently featured in an RSA event and accompanying video. Graeber’s critique of the modern world of work has been understandably popular and gained widespread media coverage. Stemming from a provocative piece in Strike magazine five years ago, the concept has spawned not just the book, but spin-off articles about the ‘bullshitization of academic life’, alongside similar efforts from others.

The bullshit job thesis (BJT) rests on two main claims. First that workers actually do hate their jobs or at least find no meaning or pleasure in them. The only reason we do such jobs are coercive effects of necessity and the work ethic. Secondly, as many as half of all jobs are ‘pointless’, have no social value and could be abolished without personal, professional or societal cost. The only reason they exist is for show, indicating that the boss has status or that time is being filled. The two claims are joined together by the view that, these ‘forms of employment are seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them’.

You’d have to be excessively hard hearted not to get some gratification from the BJT. Nobody likes managerialist jargon and telemarketers – as one of us should know, having worked the phones for four years in a past life. Plus, it’s not difficult to find humorous examples of people doing wasteful or daft tasks at work. But the two central claims of the BJT are an evidence-free zone. This is not the image promoted by Graeber and his fellow travellers. Much rests on an endlessly re-cycled 2015 YouGov poll, also reported by universal basic income enthusiast and author of Utopia for Realists Rutger Bregman, which showed that 37% of British workers think that their job doesn’t need to exist.  The thing is, they didn’t say that at all. 37% said that their job didn’t ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Well, that’s hardly surprising as that loaded question sets a very high bar. What is more surprising is that 50% said their jobs did make a meaningful contribution! The same poll found 63% found their job very or fairly ‘personally fulfilling’, while 33% did not. This non-bullshit outcome is entirely consistent with other evidence of high levels of work attachment. For example, the widely used longitudinal sampling of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey shows that, job satisfaction increased between 2004-2011 and that 72% were satisfied or very satisfied with ‘the work itself’, while 74% had a ‘sense of achievement’.

That is not to say that British or any other employees are a bunch of uncritical happy clappers. As one of us noted elsewhere, ‘survey and qualitative research indicates a complex mixture of positive attachments to work and work identity, but also increasing concerns about issues such as insecurity, recognition, underemployment, work pressures and unfair rewards’. In other words, workers are quite capable of disliking aspects of their jobs and the way they are treated, but there is not a shred of evidence that most find no positive meanings in their work. These can vary hugely from intrinsic task satisfaction, enjoyment from interactions with co-workers and customers, pay and security, to having a job that they don’t have to think about when they leave the premises! Any positivity tends to be ascribed by Graeber and similar critics to a misguided adherence to an externally-imposed work ethic or ‘ideology of work’. There is a strong whiff of ascribed false consciousness to these formulations.

This brings us to the pointlessness claim. Again, we get the confident assertions about ‘research’ and ‘evidence’. This turns out to be ‘testimonies’ commissioned or sent by sympathisers in the wake of the original Strike article. They are often insightful and amusing about the idiocies of their own work. Again, this is not surprising. They are people who find their jobs pointless and struggle to find ways filling their time with anything meaningful or indeed anything at all. Roland Paulsen calls this empty labour; Graeber prefers ‘make’-work’. But the testimonies of a self-selected group of people already predisposed to agree with the author’s argument – from frustrated anarcho-syndicalists to student union jobs – is a poor basis for any plausible, general claims.  This problem is compounded by Graeber’s insistence that there can be no objective measure of social value, yet he treats the self-understanding of those who opt into the classification of having a bullshit job as a surrogate form of objectivity. He seems unaware of the extensive literature on job quality, within which there is a significant degree of consensus on objective and subjective measures of what makes for a ‘good job’.

If pointlessness is shaky on the subjective side, what else has Graeber got in his locker? In our view, not much. The figure of 50% pointless jobs is plucked seemingly from the air. It’s all very well to have a go at private equity CEOs, bailiffs, consultants and foreign currency speculators, but there just aren’t enough of these people to get anywhere near 50%. Actually, pointlessness itself is a concept with no explanatory power. It’s the equivalent of describing criminal or anti-social behaviours as ‘mindless’. It tells us nothing and denies purpose and agency. Most of us are very critical of the ‘point’ of some of the things we do at work – the form filling, the meetings, responding to emails copied to all and sundry – but that does not make the job pointless. Graeber largely fails to distinguish between bullshit in the job and the job as such. A superficially radical critique of the latter stands in for a more specific and arguably more radical critique of the former. Take the example used by Graeber of the frustrations felt by nurses and teachers due to bureaucratic hoop jumping. The ‘point’ of such measures is obvious to those subject to them. They are the outcome of political and managerial choices to meet the requirements of policies such as internal market competition, centralised targets, corporate or state regulation, performance metrics and so on. In no way are they integral to the job – a political ramification the anarchist Graeber somehow seems to miss.

Now it is entirely possible that Graeber categorises teaching and nurses as ‘real jobs’ that somehow escape the pointlessness label. At one stage he comes up with the claim that there is something called a ‘real service sector’ that is supposedly flat at 20% of total employment. No source is given. It’s clear that he either doesn’t know or doesn’t understand occupational trends in societies such as the UK and US. He wants to make an argument that job growth is driven by (pointless) administrative roles., but it’s not true. The share of administrative and secretarial jobs in the UK has been static or falling in the last decade. In the US Bureau of Labour Statistics projected job growth figures 2016-2026, ‘office and administrative support’ is the third lowest of the 22 categories.

Setting aside the statistics, talk of real jobs, service or otherwise, is a is a slippery slope towards unhelpful divisions between productive and unproductive, with overtones of parasitical jobs that don’t ‘serve the public’. Such distinctions ignore the inter-connections between types and levels of jobs. The ‘non-bullshit’ job may be that way precisely because it is supported by the ‘bullshit’ ones – such as those Graeber labels ‘duct tapers’ and ‘box tickers’ - from which it is conceptually distinguished. This is where the BJT really feels the lack of a wider analysis of how the distribution of different bullshit and non-bullshit tasks between different groups of workers is influenced by market, corporate or state imperatives. Without any wider political economic transformation, were the unproductive ‘bullshit’ jobs to be eliminated, the ‘bullshit’ tasks of which they consist would soon land on the desks and in the inboxes of those with presently ‘non-bullshit’ jobs. At the moment, the latter are kept apparently bullshit-free by the delegation of these tasks to a vast supporting cast of administrators and other functionaries. But should what Graeber labels ‘bullshit jobs’ be abolished, those currently in possession of ‘non-bullshit’ jobs - say, university professors- would quickly find themselves on the receiving end of a new division of labour comprising precisely the same ratio of productive and apparently unproductive tasks – the only difference being that those who formerly performed them would be unemployed.

The trouble is, if you label large numbers of jobs pointless without a wider analysis of what it is that makes them problematic, it is inevitable that explanation will be defective and so it proves. One of Graeber’s central concepts for doing so is ‘managerial feudalism’. Bullshit jobs are the outcome of the powerful in the private and public sectors surrounding themselves with an entourage of ‘flunkies’ who do little or nothing but provide aesthetic or aural validation. Though used as a general argument, it is in practice a partial one. Even if true, it couldn’t explain whole ‘bad’ or ‘goon’ occupations such as management consultants of corporate lawyers. Through the examples used, it refers to administrative and managerial staff. Whilst the numbers in these categories have risen as a proportion of the occupational structure and in particular sectors such as health and universities, very little evidence is put forward for the proposition that this is a result of an expansion of ‘unnecessary’ hierarchical service roles.

The managerial feudalism argument is ahistorical and largely disconnected from any economical rationality. With respect to the former, a perspective based on ‘bosses need flunkies’ fails to explain how managerial hierarchies emerge in certain institutional and market settings. Being an academic, gives Graeber an opportunity rail at length against administrative hierarchies in the university sector. In this he finds common purpose with other academics who rail, sometimes on the basis of fiscal rectitude, against the ‘bloated bureaucracy’ that, for better or for worse, keeps the whole sector afloat. Graeber is right to note that that administrative roles have grown in proportion to academic ones over the medium term. He concedes that a lot of support staff actually do what it says on the tin and support academics, but then proceeds to ignore it in invoking his standard managerial feudalism-and-flunkies line.

There has been a proliferation of second layer leadership roles in universities as they have centralised authority and moved away from more collegial, horizontal governance. Some of these may resemble the testimonials Graeber collects. Moreover, in a wider frame, there may well be corporate bloat at senior executive level. But that is not the main story in the private or public sectors. In academia, most of the administrative expansion in what is known as professional services has come about due to changes in and a rapid expansion of what universities do in response to regulatory or market environments. A pertinent example is the support services that have mushroomed in response to successive research assessments. Academics can question some of their monitoring and metrics or indeed the rationale and outcome of the whole state-sponsored exercise. But again, the point is clear and the origins only too contemporary, rather than some kind of feudal relic.  

The dubious economics surfaces when examining the application of Graeber’s analysis to the private sector. He seems astonished by the idea that managers could be overseeing other managers, but this is a long-term trend in business organisation. The idea that the business models of large firms in global value chains could tolerate large numbers of pointless administrative or managerial positions – whether ‘flunkies’ or ‘taskmasters’ – is absurd.  Competition is marked by intense pressures to control and squeeze labour costs. Whilst some of these pressures fall on routine workers, read sources such as the Financial Times and you see regular reports of big companies slashing middle management and back office jobs, delayering and ‘flattening the management structure’. If such jobs were simply time filling flunkies, they would disappear without trace, but as a recent FT article notes, the burden of work will fall on colleagues.

There is a wider point here about lack of knowledge or understanding of labour market and process trends. The whole thrust of 50% pointless jobs and the impression given of widespread ‘make-work’ jobs is also at odds with extensive evidence of rising work intensity in many sectors and punitive target-led regimes in other.  Caught between the twin claims of workers hating their jobs or those jobs being empty and pointless, Graeber allows no effective space for a radical critique of those aspects of job trends that workers actually do dislike, and disengage from.

Agency is, again, a problem for Graeber. ‘It’s as if someone out there were making up pointless jobs for the value of keeping us working’, he writes. But such statements lend themselves to vague and conspiratorial thinking. On occasions, this ‘someone’ becomes something, notably ‘the ruling class’ or ‘powerful people’, who have apparently ‘worked out that a productive population with time on their hands is a mortal danger’. As for labour agency, given their disinterested lethargy or submission to the work ethic, Graeber does not think that labour can mount a challenge to bullshit jobs or bullshit in jobs. For example, referring to academics, he says that they are ‘utterly incapable of any meaningful rebellion’. With no chance of change from above or below, how is the crisis of bullshit jobs going to be resolved? The answer appears to be, through the state. Graeber argues that given that work is horrible and pointless, workers can be set free and their creativity liberated through the provision of a universal basic income. Setting aside any arguments about the merits or otherwise of this proposal, given the existing acquiescence to the ideology of work it is not entirely clear who is going to compel the state to grant such a contentious demand. Struggle exits stage left. It is certainly a strange place for a self-proclaimed anarchist to end up.

In sum, the BJT has the appearance of radical critique, but behind the combative language and occasional managerialist target successfully skewered, lies a series of claims that are empirically unsustainable, conceptually flawed and politically a dead end. Writing off very large numbers of our fellow workers as flunkies, duct tapers and box tickers is not a plausible route to challenging the choices being made in the name of neoliberalism or new managerialism. Underneath those choices are also the exploitation and control dynamics of the commodification of labour in a capitalist economy. In other words, while work is certainly open to question, it should not be at the expense of questioning the circumstances that give rise to bullshit in jobs in the first place. Graeber’s missive does not meet that challenge.

Paul Thompson is Professor of Employment Studies, University of Stirling and Convenor of the International Labour Process Conference

Frederick Harry Pitts is Lecturer in Management at the University of Bristol and Lead of the Faculty Research Group for Perspectives on Work.

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