Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is a 2018 book by anthropologist David Graeber that argues the existence and societal harm of meaningless jobs. He contends that over half of societal work is pointless, which becomes psychologically destructive when paired with a work ethic that associates work with self-worth. Graeber describes five types of bullshit jobs, in which workers pretend their role isn't as pointless or harmful as they know it to be: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. He argues that the association of labor with virtuous suffering is recent in human history, and proposes universal basic income as a potential solution.
The book is an extension of a popular essay Graeber published in 2013, which was later translated into 12 languages and whose underlying premise became the subject of a YouGov poll. Graeber subsequently solicited hundreds of testimonials of bullshit jobs and revised his case into a book that was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2018.
In Bullshit Jobs, American anthropologist David Graeber posits that the productivity benefits of automation have not led to a 15-hour workweek, as predicted by economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930, but instead to "bullshit jobs": "a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case."
The author contends that more than half of societal work is pointless, both large parts of some jobs and, as he describes, five types of entirely pointless jobs:
- flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants
- goons, who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists
- duct tapers, who ameliorate preventable problems, e.g., programmers repairing shoddy code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don't arrive
- box tickers, who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy for action, e.g., performance managers, in-house magazine journalists, leisure coordinators
- taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who don't need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals
Graeber argues that these jobs are largely in the private sector despite the idea that market competition would root out such inefficiencies. In companies, he concludes that the rise of service sector jobs owes less to economic need than to "managerial feudalism", in which employers need underlings to feel important and maintain competitive status and power. In society, he credits the Puritan-capitalist work ethic for making the labor of capitalism into religious duty: that workers did not reap advances in productivity as a reduced workday because, as a societal norm, they believe that work determines their self-worth, even as they find that work pointless. Graeber describes this cycle as "profound psychological violence", "a scar across our collective soul".
In turn, rather than correcting this system, Graeber writes, individuals attack those whose jobs are innately fulfilling.
Graeber holds that work as a source of virtue is a recent idea, that work was disdained by the aristocracy in classical times, but inverted as virtuous through radical philosophers like John Locke. The Puritan idea of virtue through suffering justified the toil of the working classes as noble. And so, Graeber continues, bullshit jobs justify contemporary patterns of living: that the pains of dull work are suitable justification for the ability to fulfill consumer desires, and that fulfilling those desires is indeed the reward for suffering through pointless work. Accordingly, over time, the prosperity extracted from technological advances has been reinvested into industry and consumer growth for its own sake rather than the purchase of additional leisure time from work. Bullshit jobs also serve political ends, in which political parties are more concerned about having jobs than whether the jobs are fulfilling. In addition, he contends, populations occupied with busywork have less time to revolt.
As a potential solution, Graeber suggests universal basic income, a livable benefit paid to all without qualification, which would let people work at their leisure. The author credits a natural human work cycle of cramming and slacking as the most productive way to work, as farmers, fishers, warriors, and novelists vary in the rigor of work based on need for productivity, not the standard working hours, which can appear arbitrary when compared to cycles of productivity. Graeber contends that time not spent pursuing pointless work could instead be spent pursuing creative activities.
In 2013, Graeber published an essay, "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs", which argued the pointlessness of many contemporary jobs, particularly those in fields of finance, law, human resources, public relations, and consultancy. Its popularity, with over one million hits, crashed the website of its publisher, the radical magazine Strike! The essay was subsequently translated into 12 languages and became a basis for a YouGov poll, in which 37 percent of surveyed Britons thought that their jobs did not contribute meaningfully to the world. Graeber subsequently solicited hundreds of testimonials of bullshit jobs and revised his case into a book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.
A review in The Times praises the book's academic rigor and humor, especially in some job examples, but altogether felt that Graeber's argument was "enjoyably overstated". The reviewer found Graeber's historical work ethic argument convincing, but offered counterarguments on other points: That the average British workweek has decreased in the last century, that Graeber's argument for the overall proportion of pointless work is overreliant on the YouGov survey, and that the same survey does not hold that "most people hate their jobs". The reviewer maintains that while "managerial feudalism" can explain the existence of flunkies, Graeber's other types of bullshit jobs owe their existence to competition, government regulation, long supply chains, and the withering of inefficient companies—all of which ingredients responsible for luxuries of advanced capitalism such as smartphones and year-round produce.
- Heller, Nathan (June 7, 2018). "The Bullshit-Job Boom". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X.
- Duncan, Emma (May 5, 2018). "Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber quit now, your job is pointless". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460.
- Glaser, Eliane (May 25, 2018). "Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber review – the myth of capitalist efficiency". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077.
- recherche, résultats de; Roy, Elise (September 5, 2018). "Bullshit Jobs". Liens qui libèrent. Retrieved October 22, 2018 – via Amazon.
- Graeber, David (October 14, 2018). "Bullshit Jobs: Vom wahren Sinn der Arbeit". Klett-Cotta. Retrieved October 22, 2018 – via Amazon.