Earlier this week, Politico published a bonkers story about Solomon Lartey and Reginald Young Jr., two former "records management analysts" in the White House whose $65,000-a-year jobs entailed preserving the president's memos, letters, emails and papers for the National Archives. But under President Trump, Politico reported, part of their job became Scotch-taping papers back together that Trump had torn into pieces, an "odd and enduring habit" of the president's that some have described as his "unofficial 'filing system.' "
The story went viral, and one Twitter user noted the Scotch-taping duties were an unusual but apt example of the kind of "bullshit jobs" described in a recently published book by the same name. London School of Economics professor David Graeber, an anthropologist, Occupy Wall Street activist and self-described anarchist, has followed up his widely read 2013 essay about the pointlessness many people see in the value of their jobs — particularly those in clerical, administrative or managerial fields — with a radical, provocative book-length exploration of the phenomenon and what he believes are the political and societal consequences of its growth.
Graeber defines such jobs as those that workers themselves consider pointless — yet must pretend to be important as part of their job. After downloading more than 100 of the online responses to his initial article — quotes from which were posted in London Underground trains in 2015 — and making a public call on Twitter for stories about pointless jobs that produced more than 250 testimonies, Graeber studied the themes that emerged and followed up with respondents. (The polling outfit YouGov even surveyed British residents after the quotes appeared on London's trains, finding that 37 percent said they don't think their jobs make any meaningful contribution to the world.)
From those responses, Graeber produced a taxonomy of b.s. jobs he outlines in the book: "goons," "flunkies," "box tickers," "task masters" and "duct tapers." (The Scotch-taping records management analysts might be the latter — people whose job it is to unnecessarily fix the work of others.) In addition to explaining each type, his book attempts to describe the phenomenon, the impact of such jobs' proliferation, and what might be done about it. (He endorses universal basic income, but calls for even more fundamental economic and societal shifts.)
Graeber's politics are radical, and those who love their jobs in corporate law will likely object to what the New Yorker described as his "ad hoc empiricism." But others will find themselves nodding in recognition of the often funny, too often relatable, even "Kafkaesque dream sequence" job descriptions Graeber shares. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
So how do you define a ‘bullshit job?’
It is a job which is just so pointless that even the person doing it can’t justify its existence to themselves. Either they think that if it disappeared, it would make no difference, or that it might make the world a slightly better place — but they have to play along with the idea that it is needed, useful and important. That’s the b.s. element.
Give us a few examples.
They tend to concentrate in managerial, administrative, clerical fields. A lot of people who are in middle management, in P.R., in consultancies — but also a lot of people who have jobs in administration or corporate law seem to feel that their jobs shouldn’t really exist.
Did you hear from more people in your research who were in government jobs or in the private sector?
I was quite surprised. There were definitely a lot in government but not the majority. Most of these were private-sector jobs. The public sector is under so much pressure not to do this kind of thing. If you look at universities, for instance, the number of administrative staff has skyrocketed in the last 30 years. But that’s happened at twice the rate in private universities as in public ones.
What themes did you hear about the effects these kinds of jobs had on the people who found them pointless?
There were occasions where people liked their "b.s." jobs, but this was not that common. But for the most part, not only were people miserable, they were confused. They couldn’t figure out how they could justify being so miserable. That’s one reason I think the [original essay] piece hit such a chord. We’re all taught that people basically want something for nothing, that we want to get as much reward as possible for the least amount of effort. Basic economics is based on the assumption that we’re rational beings: We go off and try to maximize our utility, so by that logic, people who are being paid a nice salary to do nothing all day should be delighted.
But they’re not, and they can’t figure out why they can even have a right to complain, so that makes it worse. To me it really shows how our assumptions about human nature are wrong. People’s sense of themselves is based around what they do — and what they do means how they contribute and affect the world around them.
One guy who wrote worked four days a week on a new means of diagnosing tuberculosis, but spent the rest of the week writing reports for pharmaceutical marketing conferences. He said they were complete different environments. When you’re working with a team of people on something you all think is important, you treat each other well. There’s a sense of camaraderie. The fact that you’re doing something that you want done makes it much easier to overcome any problems. When it’s the opposite, people are screaming at each other, they bully each other, they freak out over deadlines. Other people said the same thing: The more everybody secretly knows there’s no point in what they’re doing, the worse they treat each other.
You use the word ‘pointless’ a lot. Isn’t there a risk of your judgment getting in there?
I’m trying to figure out what people mean when they say a job is pointless. On the one hand, people do accept the basic principle that if there’s a market for it, there must be a good reason. That’s why people in the service industry didn't usually think their jobs are pointless: "They want this stuff, let them have it." But when the market in labor doesn’t seem to work that way, people are presented with a contradiction.
Technology has rendered many manufacturing jobs obsolete, but the coming A.I./automation boom could do the same to more white collar jobs. What do you think will happen?
Digitization has opposite effects depending on what you apply it to. On the one hand you have manufacturing. On the other hand, you have caring labor — education, health, social services. If you apply digitization to manufacturing, yeah, it will massively increase productivity and you have less people working in the sector. If you apply it to health, education and other things, you’ll have to take what are essentially qualitative experiences and translate them into language or some form that a computer can even recognize. This is why people like me are filling out forms all day. This is why nurses spend so much time filling out forms, why schoolteachers do. A computer can’t do that.
A.I. doesn’t actually make those sectors more efficient. Everybody is saying someday it will, but I don’t think so. I think we need to reevaluate what actually is useful about human labor. The more we have robots doing the factory work for us, the more we’ll realize the really valuable stuff is stuff we wouldn’t want robots doing.
What do you say to people who suggest your job — as an anthropology professor — is a useless one no one would miss?
I would go with the same market logic as anyone else. Lots of people are taking the class. I think there’s nothing more important than understanding the world that we live in.
What's your favorite response you got from people who wrote in with a story about their job?
He’s in the book. This guy who's fresh out of college is hired to take care of an internal computer system at a design company where he realizes nobody really wanted it except one guy. They intentionally hired a guy with no knowledge of computers and got a system that didn’t work. He spends the next year or so trying to figure out if there’s anything he can do that can get himself fired. He tries and tries, but every time he tries to quit they just give him a raise. They just keep giving him more money. They beg him to stay.
You’d assume most people would dream of this. You have nothing to do, they give you money, you can do whatever you like. But he just went crazy. He just completely fell apart.