A chat with David Graeber, author of the new book about bullshit jobs, 'Bullshit Jobs: A Theory'.
You've turned up to work half an hour late and nobody's noticed. You make yourself a coffee, sit down, check the time, and somehow, inexplicably, it's 1PM. By 5PM you've done essentially nothing all day but sit in meetings where you said absolutely nothing. For the thousandth day in a row, that evening, pulling your joggers on before settling into an inoffensive TV show about mediocre home cooks, you start to wonder if your job is in fact truly pointless.
If that sounds like an accurate depiction of your life (wow, sorry if so), according to anthropologist and activist David Graeber you're probably employed in a certifiably "bullshit job".
In 2013, Graeber's Strike! magazine article about jobs that don't serve any actual purpose – On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant – went viral. This led to Graeber being sent hundreds of accounts of people describing their "bullshit jobs", which he's now collated in a book of the same name. The responses are from all over the world, and all sorts of job sectors, from a post-production assistant whose job makes him feel intensely guilty, to a guy who kept being offered pay-rises despite trying to get fired.
I spoke to Graeber about how exactly you know whether you’re in a bullshit job and if we should ever get rid of them altogether.
VICE: Are there any jobs which are categorically bullshit?
David Graeber: I leave that up to the person who is in the job. In a lot of service jobs, my impression is that the people doing them might not like them very much, but they realise they actually are doing something, so it's hard for me to say for something like that.
So it's something you have to realise for yourself?
The last thing I wanted to do is be some asshole saying, "Your job is bullshit." I'm not doing that at all – quite the opposite. If you think your job is of vital importance in the world, then I’m not going to argue with you, but if you think your job is entirely pointless then I'm not going to argue with you either. I think it’s very arrogant to say that I know better.
Have you ever been in a bullshit job?
I've done temp jobs, where basically I was just there to fill a chair, but in a way I don’t come from that world. That’s why all of this was so odd to me. That’s why I noticed it and why [the blog post] became a thing. The whole idea of anthropology is that someone who is a complete outsider will notice things that people who grew up there won't. I don't come from a professional background, so I showed up and I'm like, "These guys don’t actually seem to be doing much – is it just me or are they just sitting there?" So, in a way, it was a new world to me.
Okay, so how exactly do you know if you're in a bullshit job?
Generally speaking, they know. A lot of the time it's so obvious, if you're just sitting there twiddling your thumbs. People literally do nothing all day. Or they just sit there, in case something goes wrong. But I think it's forcing people to do nonsense that seems to be bothering people, and that's why they feel like it's a bullshit job. When it passes a certain point, where 90 percent of what they’re doing is making people feel insecure or lying to them, then it's got into bullshit territory.
The only people I think who might be in bullshit jobs and not know it are people in large bureaucratic organisations where you only know a tiny bit of what you do. You just assume that it must serve some function. It does serve a function within the larger operation, but the larger operation is actually pointless. There’s a lot of that in banks.
Did you get a lot of negative responses to your original blog post?
At least every year or so someone writes to me and says, "This is total bullshit. No one would ever hire someone they didn't need." It's almost always business owners, so they take it personally. People simply say that in the market we don’t hire someone unless you need them.
If they’re pointless, why do they exist?
All of these jobs are just there to make rich people feel good about themselves – [staff] running around and making them feel important, at their beck and call.
So, should we be aiming to get rid of them?
I really don’t want this to be used as an excuse for managers to start firing people, but I think you'd need to reform the whole of society. People say the rise of the robots will take away our jobs: what are we going to do when there's less employment? Isn't the whole point of technology that we won’t have to work so hard? I thought we had a market economy because it was supposed to be efficient. If it can't solve an elementary problem like not needing to work so much, it's not.
We've got people believing that everyone is a lazy skiver if they can get away with it, or at least poor people are. Someone said that unemployment is bad because even if people do have funding, rates of crime and drug addiction go up if people aren’t working 9 to 5. Why don't you just put them in prison from 9 to 5, then they won’t get into as much trouble? We need to change that culture – that’s one of the things that I am trying to do.
From the messages you've received, did you get many insights into how people deal with having a bullshit job?
People figure it out right away. I talk about "scriptlessness". It's a useful phrase. You don’t know how you’re supposed to act or how you’re feeling. I’m being handed something for nothing, I should be happy. It’s being forced to be a parasite against your will, so no one knows how to cope with it and there's a moral confusion. Should I feel guilty? I shouldn’t, because I don’t want to be doing it. But can I complain? I feel like an asshole complaining. People feel at a loss.
Is it inevitable that we’ll end up in at least one in our lifetime?
There are good jobs which are meaningful, fulfilling and pay well. But to get those jobs you have to already be rich or be able to afford three years of unpaid internships in a big city. Nice work if you can get it, but you can't. So your choice is either going to be to go to useful jobs where they pay you so little that even if you do think you can start a family you’ll feel guilty not being able to provide for them properly – you won’t be able to pay your loans. So you'll have the happiness of knowing that you’re doing something useful, like working in a nursing home, but you will bear the brunt of austerity. Or you can get a bullshit job – and those aren't that hard to find; there's a lot of them. But then there's the obvious: you’ve got to live with the fact that you're living a lie. Which is the better choice? Who am I to say? You've got to call that one for yourself.
What are the downsides to having a job in which you do nothing?
I think levels of depression in society in general are linked to this. It's true that depression is about hollowness, meaninglessness and lack of energy. There's a lot of people who assumed that the world of work wasn’t going to be fun, but it would serve some purpose. People find themselves having worked really hard and got themselves a position, for this to be it. The irony is: real work is not real work. Studying is real work – you produce something and they grade you. That’s real.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is out now, via Penguin.