Feeling Unhappy at Work? 4 Signs You Have a “Bullshit” Job

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bullshit Jobs" by David Graeber. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Are you feeling unhappy at work? What are the warning signs of a toxic job? What’s a “bullshit” job?

In Bullshit Jobs, author David Graeber found that many jobs in contemporary societies are, in fact, pointless. He claims that pointless jobs proliferate because Western cultures traditionally understand work as something that’s supposed to be unpleasant, if not downright miserable.

If you’re feeling unhappy at work, read on to learn the four warning signs of working a bullshit job, according to Graeber.

Why Are Pointless Jobs a Problem?

According to David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, pointless jobs aren’t simply inefficient, they are actually harmful to society. Graeber highlights the major problem: They make workers chronically miserable. If you’re feeling unhappy at work, it’s worth exploring the possibility that your job may be what Graeber describes as a “bullshit” or pointless job. In this article, we’ll first explain how Graeber defines pointless jobs, then we’ll explore Graeber’s warning signs that you’re working one by describing the four destructive consequences of pointless jobs.

What Is a Pointless Job?

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. 

Pointless Jobs Make You Feel Unhappy

Graeber’s research found that those who work pointless jobs often feel unhappy at work. 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. In this section, we’ll cover the four psychological reasons pointless jobs make you feel unhappy at work: lack of agency, dishonesty, ambiguity, and indignity.

Pointless Jobs and Rational Choice Theory

The assumption that people would be happy getting paid to do nothing is based on a set of influential economic ideas called “rational choice theory.” This theory maintains that people would naturally seek to get the greatest reward for themselves in exchange for the lowest cost to themselves. This theory gained traction because it made it easier to create mathematical models of markets and economies—if you can accurately predict how most people in a given situation would behave, then you scale that up to model an entire society. 

The problem with this is that people are complex, and therefore prone to making “irrational” decisions that throw off the accuracy of these models. Workers have a variety of motivations, goals, and needs that don’t equate perfectly with monetary terms—for example, a desire to feel that you’re making a valuable contribution or helping others. All of these motives would undermine a model that presumes people are simply looking to gain personal wealth in every situation. 

#1: Lack of Agency    

Graeber argues that pointless jobs make you feel unhappy at work 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?)

#2: Dishonesty

Graeber argues that pointless jobs also make workers feel unhappy at work because they often feel like they’re living a lie. Recall that in most pointless jobs, workers are expected to keep up the pretense that they are busily doing something important. This dishonesty causes three distinct problems:

1. Workers will feel a sense of anxiety at being found out. If you believe that everyone expects you to be working, when actually you’re scrolling through social media all day because there’s nothing for you to do, this can create a fear of getting fired, or being seen as less valuable by others.

(Shortform note: Health researchers have also found that chronic dishonesty can have consequences on your physical as well as mental health. Lying and the anxiety of being caught increases your levels of stress. Chronic stress has been linked to cardiovascular problems, increased risk of obesity and addiction, and even increased risk of cancer. Therefore, staying in a situation where you have to keep a lie may be taking years off of your life.)

2. Workers will feel alienated from their coworkers because they feel that they can’t truly be honest around them. If they have to keep up a lie all the time, then they can’t really let their guard down and talk authentically about their work with others. This makes their position much lonelier.

(Shortform note: Management experts agree that a sense of belonging and authenticity is important to an employee’s overall well-being. Research has shown that being your authentic self helps build larger personal networks, which leads to higher job performance, a greater sense of personal fulfillment, and even a longer life. However, they also caution that you don’t need to sacrifice personal boundaries or create a deep connection with all of your coworkers to enjoy these benefits.)

3. Being dishonest forces workers to act against their own values. Most people believe honesty to be a virtue. But to maintain the false pretense that a pointless job is purposeful, the worker must act against their own sense of virtue. This can undermine a worker’s sense of integrity, and with it, a key part of their self-esteem.

(Shortform note: When workers are asked to behave against their own personal ethics, this can result in what psychologists call “moral injury.” This was originally theorized to describe psychological effects on soldiers carrying out orders they considered unethical in war. However, employment experts caution this can take place in the workplace as well. Moral injury can lead to depression, grief, suicide, and a loss of trust in oneself or others.)

#3: Ambiguity

Graeber contends that workers also feel unhappy at work in pointless jobs because there’s a sense of confusion and ambiguity about how they’re supposed to behave. 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 pointless jobs aren’t “supposed” to exist, there is no social script for how to behave in a pointless job. 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 pointless jobs, then others caught in the same situation could have more scripts to rely on.)

#4: Indignity

Lastly, Graeber argues that working a pointless job often makes workers feel unhappy at work 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.)

Exercise: Reflect on Your Work

This exercise will give you a chance to explore Graeber’s arguments about pointless jobs and reflect on your own experiences feeling unhappy at work.

  • Graeber argues that when workers consider their jobs pointless, they’re usually right. Have you ever had to do anything at work that you considered pointless? If so, describe the task and explain why you thought it served no purpose.
  • Graeber explains that when workers consider their jobs pointless, they are referencing a personal standard of the value of work and finding that their current position falls short. What’s your own personal standard of value regarding work? Explain in your own words what it means to have a purposeful job.
Feeling Unhappy at Work? 4 Signs You Have a “Bullshit” Job

———End of Preview———

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.