Pointless Jobs: How to Identify Meaningless Work

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.

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What is a pointless job? How can you identify one? What are the common characteristics and categories?

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.

Keep reading to learn how to identify pointless jobs, according to Graeber.

What Is a Pointless Job?

Broadly speaking, a pointless job is one that serves no purpose for society, according to author David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs. 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 article, we’ll cover how Graeber defines meaningless work, then we’ll explore the characteristics of pointless jobs as well as the four categories of pointless jobs.

How to Identify a Pointless Job

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.)

Are There Pointless Professions?

While Graeber maintains that the worker’s subjective assessment of their own job is the most important criterion for determining its pointlessness, this only tells us whether their own job is meaningless. But this raises the question, are there entire professions of pointless work? Graeber recommends you ask yourself, “How would society change if this class of workers simply disappeared overnight?”

For example, if truck drivers disappeared overnight, stores would quickly run out of stock. Therefore, driving a truck is a purposeful job. On the other hand, Graeber argues, if America’s corporate lobbyists disappeared overnight, the government would continue to function normally. Therefore, he would argue, this profession is pointless.

(Shortform note: Critics of Graeber’s work assert that his view of which professions are meaningless may be colored by his own vantage point as a leftist academic. They argue that he considers corporate lobbying and finance professions useless because he opposes their work on political grounds. These critics assert that people tend to become prejudiced in favor of their own industries and point out that some would consider Graeber’s field of anthropology to be a “pointless” profession.)

What Are the Characteristics?

Based on his research, Graeber outlines three general characteristics of pointless jobs.

1. The worker feels a need to keep up the pretense that they are doing something. Whether to keep up appearances, adhere to social norms, or keep from getting fired, the worker feels pressured to pretend that their job is purposeful when deep down they feel that it’s not.

(Shortform note: The sociologist Erving Goffman argues that we should understand social interactions as performance, similar to theater. In each situation, people are aware of having a distinct “role” to perform for others. Workers without anything to do will therefore keep up the appearance of “working” because they understand this as their role in the “play.” This sheds light on why it can feel stressful to do nothing at work. Goffman would argue that the employee isn’t really doing nothing, but is putting considerable energy and care into maintaining their performance.)

2. Pointless jobs are often executive jobs. Graeber argues that you most frequently encounter pointless jobs in managerial or administrative positions where workers have vaguely defined responsibilities and roles. They may have impressive titles, but no clear or obvious way to add value in their position.

(Shortform note: Many of Graeber’s characteristics can be explained by “Parkinson’s Law.” The historian and civil servant C. Northcote Parkinson argues that bureaucratic organizations create extra jobs because work will expand to fill allotted time. Parkinson writes that managerial or administrative positions are particularly susceptible to needless expansion. He points out that in administrative or bureaucratic roles, anyone who feels overworked will request more subordinates to lighten their workload rather than resigning or sharing responsibilities with a coworker. Their subordinates may then feel overworked and request additional subordinates indefinitely, allowing for continuous sprawl.)

3. Pointless jobs often pay better than purposeful jobs. Graeber argues that workers with purposeful jobs like garbage collectors, teachers, or agricultural workers are often given much lower wages than the workers in pointless managerial jobs. This goes against the prevailing assumption that those with higher pay are making more valuable contributions.

(Shortform note: Critics of Graeber argue that professions such as nursing, garbage collection, and food service pay less simply because of labor markets, and their wage bears no relation to their usefulness or uselessness. When the skills required to perform a certain task are widespread throughout the labor force, workers will have to compete with each other for jobs more than companies will have to compete with each other for employees. The competition between employees allows employers to offer lower wages. As evidence of their position, these critics point to the high pay of jobs that are useful but require specialized skills, like surgeons.)

What Are the Categories?

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 Do Managers Allow Pointless Jobs?

Critics of Graeber’s thesis argue that corporate managers are under enormous pressure from investors to deliver high returns on their investment. They contend that managers therefore have strong incentives to eliminate pointless work, and find it unlikely that they’re subsidizing jobs simply for their own sake. Therefore, it’s worth exploring how these jobs might be able to exist in spite of pressure to create return on investment.

The first two categories (impression maintenance and social harm) are jobs where the worker may consider their work pointless, but the manager and shareholders might disagree. While some workers would be disappointed to feel their position exists mainly for show, business experts argue that a company’s reputation is one of its most valuable assets. Therefore, keeping up a favorable impression may be a priority to managers and investors even if employees find it dispiriting. Secondly, even those employees who believe their work is harmful to society (as in the fake reviews example) would still be helping the company gain a return on their investment (at others’ expense), and would still be useful in the eyes of the manager.

The second two categories (providing unnecessary solutions and pointless supervision) are jobs that managers would have a strong incentive to eliminate for the sake of efficiency. However, doing so requires knowledge of which positions could be eliminated, and in large organizations, higher management often lacks the information necessary to identify inefficiencies. In Only the Paranoid Survive, Andrew Grove argues that upper-level managers are often “the last guys to know” about a problem in their organization because they rely on second and third-hand information reported by middle managers.
Pointless Jobs: How to Identify Meaningless Work

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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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