Thoughts on "Bullshit jobs" by David Graeben

4 minute read Published: 2022-12-14

"Bullshit jobs" is a book from David Graeben: I'll drop here some quick notes about it before I forget them for good. I won't introduce the author because I want this article out quickly; if you're interested please do your own research.

First of all, I echo the words of a friend of mine: the author writes in a pleasant way. Easy to follow, just like listening to a friend.

The succinct version of the author thesis is that there is a number of jobs that (quote) "even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist. That if the job, or even the whole industry, were to vanish, either it would make no difference to anyone, or the world might even be a slightly better place.".

Bullshit jobs tend to gravitate in "clerical, administrative, managerial, and supervisory roles. A lot of workers in middle management, PR, human resources, a lot of brand managers, creative vice presidents, financial consultants, compliance workers, feel their jobs are pointless, but also a lot of people in fields like corporate law or telemarketing." (source)

I like the analysis of what in his opinion a "bullshit job" is but I disagree with some of his definitions and thoughts about the origins. I think he sometimes ventures out of of his field of expertise (anthropologist), sometimes his explanations feel a bit stretched.

Without venturing here into definitions (in Marxist terms) of what "value" and "work" are - the author defines as "bullshit" a job adding no actual value to the society, a job that is "engineered" by a capitalistic system to keep people busy instead of doing nothing and feel useless. A bit like in a socialist/communist subsidized economy but not so open about that, about the social stigma of being unemployed and needing everyone to do something and be productive. I'm fine with this theory he layouts, sounds reasonable.

Then he compares these bullshit jobs to a modern version of a feudal economic system with people sucking resources for the sole gain (and complacency) of today's "noblemens" (i.e. CEOs and managing directors of any sort). I can relate to that - I've met a number of people doing absolutely nothing useful but with a nice job description.

Now, some of these jobs have in my opinion a reason to exist because endemic to the capitalistic economic system we live in (whether we like it or not). For example, some people do not strictly produce anything but they're useful to "lube gears" or facilitate connections. Let's say that these jobs are 30% useful and 70% bullshit: that 30% is important nonetheless and 100 people doing 30% something useful cannot be compressed into 33 people doing 100% useful stuff, this is not how it works, in my opinion.

The cover of the book reads "bullshit jobs and what to do about them" but in the end the author does not have any proposal, he mentions the concept of UBI (Universal Basic Income) as a possible escape hatch. UBI is an interesting idea I'd like to better understand but this book is not the right tool for that.

The main points of the book, though, are completely valid. If we reverse the value quantification we assign to work ("work" being what we humans concretely do to keep us busy), the obvious question is why many important jobs[1] in terms of effective value they bring to society, like nurses, teachers, street cleaners, are paid less and why other less vital jobs (banks, lawyers, etc.) are paid a lot.

That's another perversion of a capitalistic system where value is assigned arbitrarily from top to bottom and not vice versa, based on some questionable metrics such as scarcity: we have less lawyers than teachers. Becoming a lawyer takes more time and economical effort so it is a "natural law" that a lawyer is to be paid more.

I'm sure about the results if we surveyed working mothers whether they would like more kindergardens or more lawyers in their district. So, yeah, I also believe we have a problem.

In closing: I suggest reading the book but it's not really mandatory to have the bullet-point list of the important concepts. The book is admittedly just a long version of the original essay (available online) so at times feels a watered down version of it.


I must add: for a functional Western society