Looking for an overview of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs book? How does he explain pointless jobs and their effects?
In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber describes the types and characteristics of pointless jobs and why they’ve become so widespread. He further explores the psychological impact of working a pointless job and suggests a possible solution to eliminate the need for meaningless work.
Read on for an overview of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs book.
Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
Have you ever held a job that you felt was genuinely pointless? You’re not alone. In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber argues that many jobs in contemporary industrial societies are, in fact, pointless. This flies in the face of our conventional economic thinking, in which jobs exist largely to fulfill a pre-existing need that adds value to society. In this book, he explains what pointless jobs are, why they’re proliferating, and why they make workers so unhappy.
David Graeber was an anthropology professor, activist, and self-identified anarchist. He began this book with an op-ed in Strike! magazine. When hundreds of people reached out to him to talk about their own experiences in pointless jobs, Graeber realized his op-ed had struck a nerve. He put out calls on social media for people to discuss their pointless jobs with him and developed a rich collection of interviews, upon which he based this book.
What Is a Pointless Job?
Broadly speaking, a pointless job is one that serves no purpose for society. Either no tasks are assigned to the worker, the tasks assigned are not useful, or—in some cases—the tasks assigned are actually detrimental to society. But how do you know a pointless job when you see one, and who determines which jobs are pointless? In this section, we’ll cover how Graeber defines pointless jobs, then we’ll explore the characteristics of pointless jobs as well as the four types of pointless jobs.
How to Identify a Pointless Job
In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber argues that you can identify a job as pointless if the worker believes it is so. While critics might counter that this definition is too subjective, Graeber reasons that the person who spends most of their waking hours performing a task is the one who is best positioned to judge its uselessness.
He argues that workers have direct personal knowledge of what they do all day. They’ll see the impact their work performance has on the product or service their organization provides. If they suddenly start slacking off or working harder than before and find nothing changes, they’re right to conclude that their work has no point.
(Shortform note: Because Graeber’s criterion for identifying a pointless job is subjective, it’s important to note that workers may consider their jobs pointless for a wide range of reasons. For example, many workers see their jobs not only as a way of contributing to society, but also as a source of identity and meaning. Thus, someone may believe their work is pointless because it fails to provide this sense of identity and meaning, even though it may actually contribute value to society.)
Types of Pointless Jobs
In his research, Graeber found that pointless jobs broadly fit into four categories.
1. Jobs that create an impression. Many jobs exist just to keep up appearances. For example, an executive might hire an assistant just to make it look like they are busier and more important than they actually are. Or a company may commission a report so that they can publicly say they’re “doing something” about a source of public controversy, even though the results of the report will likely be ignored.
2. Jobs that are actually harmful. These jobs have an impact, but one the worker feels harms society more than it helps. For example, a copywriter who writes fake customer reviews to inflate a company’s online rating may be helping their employer, but only at the expense of customers looking for useful, honest product reviews.
3. Jobs that provide unnecessary solutions. Some organizations might employ someone to solve a chronic problem that could easily be solved by other means. For example, hiring a data entry clerk to move data from one spreadsheet to another, when they could easily automate the process with software.
4. Jobs that create pointless supervision. Many people in pointless jobs are hired to supervise other workers who don’t need supervision. The organization feels a need to create an extra layer of management, even though these workers are perfectly capable of getting all their tasks done without someone watching.
Why Are There So Many Pointless Jobs in Industrialized Countries?
Now that we understand what pointless jobs are, we’ll explore a couple of David Graeber’s explanations in Bullshit Jobs as to why there are so many pointless jobs in industrialized nations.
Automation Has Reduced the Need for Work
Graeber argues that automation in industrialized societies has reduced the need for labor, so there simply isn’t as much useful work to be done by humans. He contends that technological advances in manufacturing and software now allow industrial nations to fulfill their material needs without their entire workforce contributing a full workweek. However, instead of reducing workers’ hours or allowing part of the population to subsist without working, industrial economies have simply created unnecessary jobs to keep the entire workforce employed—even though many of these jobs actually contribute very little value to society.
Keeping People Occupied
Furthermore, Graeber argues that politicians have a vested interest in keeping people occupied to stave off revolutions and maintain their power. Mass unemployment has historically produced major upheavals, including revolutions. Not only does unemployment deprive people of an income and make them desperate, but it also gives them time to organize themselves and devote their energy to political causes. Politicians can therefore maintain stability in society, and their own power, by simply giving everyone something to do—even if the tasks themselves serve no purpose.
(Shortform note: Graeber argues that politicians keep people occupied to stave off revolutions and maintain their power. However, historians differ on the causes of political revolutions. Some argue that they occur when a government fails to respond effectively to a crisis, so the public takes matters into its own hands. Others have maintained revolutions are caused by conflict between elites: While the masses may participate in revolutions, they rarely organize them. Other historians have maintained that revolutions occur when a society has made steady progress and advancement in quality of life, only to experience a sudden reversal. Then the public overthrows the social order to keep from losing what they’ve gained.)
Why Are Pointless Jobs a Problem?
Now that we’ve discussed the causes of pointless jobs, we can turn to their effects. In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber doesn’t just argue that these pointless jobs are inefficient, but that they are actually harmful to society. He highlights two major problems: They make workers chronically miserable, and they create deep social divisions.
Lack of Agency
Graeber argues that pointless jobs make workers miserable because when nothing you do seems to matter, it can make it feel like you don’t matter either. When people have a sense of agency—the ability to make things happen through their actions—this affirms their sense of value and existence. After all, would you rather see yourself as someone who is capable of directing their own life and impacting the world around them, or someone who just helplessly reacts to scenarios outside your control? When people feel like nothing they do makes a difference, this creates a sense of erasure, a feeling that they don’t really matter.
(Shortform note: Psychologists define agency as a person’s perception of control over their actions and their consequences. Agency plays an important role in regulating behavior. Gamblers frequently experience a distorted perception of agency when they believe they can influence random outcomes such as dice rolls. Schizophrenics can experience the opposite distortion—a perception that something other than themselves is in control of their actions. Psychologists find that humans need to believe that they can exercise some control over the outcomes of their actions in order to feel motivated. After all, if nothing you do has consequences, positive or negative, why do anything at all?)
Pointless Jobs Create Social Problems
In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber argues that in addition to making people unhappy, pointless jobs also create deep social divisions by fostering resentment between classes of workers. Recall that, according to Graeber, purposeful jobs tend to offer lower pay compared with pointless jobs. This situation creates two specific cross currents of resentment.
The workers making very little but doing something useful are angry and resentful toward those who get paid more to do less. However, also recall that pointless jobs make workers miserable. This creates a second form of class resentment, in which those with purposeless work envy and resent those with purposeful work, despite the former group being paid more. These cross-currents of resentment lead to mutual hostility and antagonism.
Graeber argues this explains a lot of the virulent partisanship currently afflicting Western industrial nations. Throughout the USA and Europe, the bases of political parties are realigning by their level of education, in which college-educated “white-collar” workers tend to be aligned against non-college-educated “blue-collar” workers. Furthermore, these political divisions are becoming more virulent and entrenched. Graeber maintains that the proliferation of pointless jobs plays an important role in creating and perpetuating hostility between classes of workers.
What Should We Do About Pointless Jobs?
Now that we have defined pointless jobs, identified their causes, and explored their consequences, we can turn our attention to how we can solve this problem. In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber stresses that his goal in the book is to identify a problem rather than offer a solution. However, he still highlights one policy that he believes may offer a chance at solving the problem: universal basic income.
What Is Universal Basic Income and How Would It Change Pointless Jobs?
Graeber explains that universal basic income would provide every member of society with an equal flat wage, paid by the government and funded through taxation. This is meant to provide a supplemental income that could be combined with other conventional forms of income. However, it is intended to be enough to support someone who is unemployed, giving them the chance to opt out of undesirable employment. Graeber argues this policy would address the problem of pointless jobs in three distinct ways: Workers could decline pointless jobs, care work would receive funding, and politicians would have no need to support work for work’s sake.
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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