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What are meaningless jobs? Why are they a little-known consequence of toxic American work culture and values?

In his book Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber explores the phenomenon of meaningless jobs in industrialized Western societies. He claims that American work culture and values have allowed meaningless jobs to thrive, resulting in damaging psychological effects on workers and society at large.

Read on to learn more about American work culture, values, and meaningless jobs, according to Graeber.

American Work Culture & Meaningless Jobs

Have you ever held a job that you felt was pointless? You’re not alone. In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber argues that industrialized nations have seen an uptick in jobs that serve no purpose in society, leading to miserable workers and unproductive outcomes. American work culture and values have, in part, created a foundation for meaningless jobs to flourish. According to Graeber, societies put up with meaningless jobs because they view work as an inherent good and expect it to be unenjoyable. In this article, we’ll explain how these kinds of toxic cultural values create and sustain meaningless jobs and the resulting harmful effects.

Cultural Value #1: Work Is Viewed as an Inherent Good

Graeber argues that American work culture values work as an inherent good. People are expected to work for the sake of working. Work is understood as transformative—it “builds character.” Work is also a means of acquiring dignity and earning your quality of life, which implies that people who don’t work don’t deserve dignity or quality of life.

Under this view, it makes perfect sense to create jobs purely for the sake of creating jobs. To deprive someone of work is to deprive them of the means of transforming their character, obtaining dignity, and earning their quality of life. Therefore, jobs are considered an inherent good, whether or not they actually achieve anything useful.

It’s not surprising, Graeber argues, that a society that holds these values would support the creation and preservation of meaningless jobs, as the purpose achieved by the job becomes secondary to the cultural purpose of work itself

(Shortform note: Some scholars argue that this view of work as an inherent good mostly descends from Protestantism. In Protestantism and the Capitalist Work Ethic, the sociologist Max Weber argues that these ideas specifically have their roots in the theology of John Calvin. This theology suggests a cold, distant, disapproving God. Additionally, most people are damned, and only a small chosen few called “the elect” will enter heaven. This resulted in Protestants striving to prove their membership in the elect by devoting themselves to industrious work in a display of ascetic spiritual seriousness—making work an inherent spiritual good.)

Cultural Value #2: Work Is Supposed to Be Unpleasant  

Furthermore, Graeber argues that meaningless jobs proliferate because American work culture traditionally values work as something that’s supposed to be unpleasant, if not downright miserable.

In Western cultures, work is the opposite of play and leisure. Anything that you do for its own sake—recreation, hobbies, spending quality time with others—definitionally cannot be considered work. Work, rather, is something you would never want to do, only something you have to do. 

According to Graeber, work is also the means by which workers obtain dignity and their quality of life. This presents a paradox: Workers are supposed to want to work because it provides them with dignity and quality of life, and they are supposed to hate working. Graeber argues that, in this culture and value system, workers in America earn the right to dignity and quality of life because they are miserable

This contributes to the tolerance of meaningless jobs in two distinct ways. First, if someone is at work but has nothing to do, then they aren’t supposed to spend the extra time doing something enjoyable like personal hobbies. They are supposed to pretend to be busy or make up pointless tasks to fill the time. Second, as we will discuss, meaningless jobs often leave their workers feeling miserable. However, no one will view this as a problem if they expect work to be miserable. 

(Shortform note: To understand the view that work is the opposite of enjoyment, we can again turn to Weber’s analysis of Calvinism in Protestantism and the Capitalist Work Ethic. Recall that Calvinism compelled Protestants to prove their membership in a spiritual elect by demonstrating their industriousness and spiritual seriousness. This need to display seriousness also led Protestants to shun leisure activities considered frivolous, including drinking, feasting, and idle talk. Any “instinctive” pleasure was considered suspect. This created a dichotomy with serious, ascetic industriousness on one side and frivolous self-indulgence on the other. Therefore, if you enjoy something, it can’t be work.)

Why Is This a Problem?

Now that we’ve discussed American work culture and values and how this relates to meaningless jobs, we can turn to the effects. Graeber doesn’t just argue that these meaningless jobs are inefficient, but that they are actually harmful to society.

Graeber’s research found that those who work meaningless jobs often feel miserable. You might assume that people would be happy getting paid to do nothing, but that’s actually not the case. Instead, Graeber maintains, deep down, most people genuinely want to contribute to society and feel frustrated and depressed when they can’t. Here, we’ll discuss a couple of the psychological problems Graeber claims workers experience when employed in meaningless jobs.

Psychological Problem #1: Ambiguity

Graeber contends that workers feel miserable in meaningless jobs because there’s a sense of confusion and ambiguity about how they’re supposed to behave. According to American work culture and values, our social scripts—learned sets of expectations for how to behave in a given situation—tell us that we are supposed to work hard at our jobs and that our jobs are supposed to add value to the world. 

What do you do when you realize your job is pointless? Do you tell your supervisor? Do you make up tasks? Do you pretend to be busy? Because meaningless jobs aren’t “supposed” to exist, there is no social script for how to behave in a pointless job. In the American work culture and value system, this leaves workers feeling scriptless, or confused and unsure of how to act.

(Shortform note: The concept of “scriptlessness” comes from the field of relationship psychology. Psychologists compared stories of heartbroken suitors who had been rejected to stories told by those who had done the opposite: rejected an unwanted suitor. They found that the rejected were able to console themselves with narratives of heartbreak from popular culture such as songs, movies, and novels. However, rejectors found themselves cast in an “unscripted role.” There aren’t as many stories from the opposite perspective, and those in this position were left unclear on how to feel. This points us toward a possible solution: If more people came out and told stories about working in meaningless jobs, then others caught in the same situation could have more scripts to rely on.)

Psychological Problem #2: Indignity

Lastly, Graeber argues that working a meaningless job often makes workers miserable because they may feel degraded and insulted by their employers. If there is genuinely nothing useful for them to do with their time, and their employer keeps giving them meaningless tasks just to keep them busy, employees may experience this as a form of bullying or coercion. They may feel this way because it calls attention to power inequities in the workplace in a demeaning way, reminding workers that their time is not their own. 

For example, let’s say you wait tables at a restaurant, and there aren’t any customers, so your supervisor makes you wipe down tables that have already been wiped down. You’re putting forth effort to achieve nothing simply because your employer feels they own your time and want to make sure you aren’t using it for yourself.

(Shortform note: Management experts explain that managers often assign “busywork” when they feel they feel they can’t trust their employees. This distrust leads the managers to feel that they need to assert control of their workers’ time to maintain control of the office. This affirms why workers may experience “busywork” as an indignity. They are being made to put forth effort just so their bosses can feel in control.)

One Big Problem With American Work Culture & Values

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of David Graeber's "Bullshit Jobs" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Bullshit Jobs summary:

  • Why many jobs in contemporary industrial societies provide no value to society
  • How to tell if a job is pointless and the types and characteristics of pointless jobs
  • How universal basic income would eliminate the need for pointless jobs

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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