An excerpt from "Bullshit Jobs," David Graeber's forthcoming book about the rise of useless work

Originally published at:


I’ve had some temp jobs that were of the ‘the machine that automates this is not going to be invested in’ type.

Sorting 3.5 inch diskettes was a memorable one. After doing it for 3 days I caught on that there were brushed finish doors on some disks, and less brushed finish on others, and my job was to sort them. OH.


I look forward to reading this! The sad absurdity of the subject matter will no doubt be both entertaining and stimulating.

However, the cover makes me wish the book also included activities for goofing off at bullshit jobs, e.g. blueprints for office supply weaponry.


Been at the job search over a year now, at this point I would happily take a bullshit job if the pay and benefits were decent…


The Lynx trick is a goddamn lifesaver, can confirm.


This reminded me of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and how they sent all the useless people to Earth.


Two days ago:

I wasn’t being sarcastic then nor am I now. Doing real work is a reward in itself, as discussed recently right here on BB.


But remember that after all of the people who did bullshit jobs like cleaning telephones were sent to earth, everyone who stayed on the original planet died from a disease they caught from a dirty phone.

Douglas Adams worked a security job that wasn’t quite as useless as guarding an empty room, but close – sitting outside a hotel room all night. (There were people in the room, so not quite as bad.) He noticed that the elevators in the hotel didn’t just sit idle during off hours and were on some sort of pattern that had them occasionally opening on his floor to play musak at him. This is where his idea about sentient elevators came from.


The person guarding the empty room reminds me of Samuel Bowles’s estimate that a full quarter of all jobs in the U.S. is “guard labour” which produces no future capital and exists due to and only adds to an atmosphere of mistrust. These jobs may not be as useless as the BS ones but they don’t add a lot of value, either.


Academic citation on Bowles’ guard labor for those who swing that way:

Jayadev, A. and Bowles, S. (2006). Guard labor. Journal of Development Economics, 79:328–348.

Also, a decent interview by Thomas Frank with Graeber on the topic of bullshit jobs a few years back in Salon: David Graeber: “Spotlight on the financial sector did make apparent just how bizarrely skewed our economy is in terms of who gets rewarded”


Phantom shitters and public fuckers. Oh, and adding fake exhibits.


Ah, so you’ve met those cousins of mine!


Under “flunkies,” Graeber identifies doormen and elevator attendants as prime examples of bullshit jobs. They are not. He seems to have confused the official job description with the actual purpose of the job.

If you dispensed with doormen, porters, elevator attendants, etc, you would shortly have to hire security guards to take their place. Their ostensible job is to give a veneer of luxury to the building in which they work, but their actual job (which may not ever be communicated to them because it may not be known to their bosses) is to provide a human presence at the entrance or in the elevator in order to discourage criminal activity. Basically they are security guards who don’t look or feel like security guards - you get the benefit of security without making the building feel like an armed camp, plus the residents/tenants feel like they are being treated extra nicely instead of feeling intimidated and under suspicion/surveillance. Win-win.

CF Jane Jacobs’ Life and Death of Great American Cities, in which she talks about the problem of crime in residential towers and how the atomized and barren nature of the building’s public spaces makes crime more likely because there’s no one in the empty corridors or empty elevator to keep an eye on things the way there is on a normal residential street. IIRC, She specifically mentions the hiring of elevator attendants in South America as a solution that worked to help prevent crime in residential towers there and could be implemented in public housing projects in the US to do the same (the book was written in the 50’s).


A friend once had a job where she was a receptionist at a company that apparently had no business. At all. She read books (thankfully she was allowed that - or there was no one to see her do it) and occasionally fended off the mild advances of the owner, who was rarely seen. She came to assume that it was a front for organized crime, but now I’m wondering if that was true. It never occurred to me that someone might get hired to do a pointless job, just for appearances’ sake. Not because private industry is so efficient - which is a laughable idea - but because the inefficiencies usually benefit those at the top or are a result of incompetence.


These examples of pure bullshit jobs are good for making the point, but they’re relatively rare; what’s much more common is to have a “real” job, but padded out with 80% bullshit so that it takes a week to accomplish what could be done in a day. That’s a murkier issue; if someone’s job is entirely bullshit then there’s no hiding it, but if their job is mostly bullshit, they have a strong incentive to defend the value of the bullshit parts.

In most offices, if you want a new $250 monitor, that’s a big deal; but you can arrange a completely pointless meeting that costs your employer $300 in wages any time you like. That’s not because businesses are totally stupid about where their money is going. It’s because if anyone mentioned out loud that meetings are bullshit, it would raise serious, unwelcome questions about everyone’s job.

I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, though. If we could just admit that it’s the case, then we could drop the bullshit and say that it’s fine to come into work one day a week if your job is getting done. Otherwise, I guess it will pan out more like in the movie Sleeper.


Just one random person coming in off the street and bugging the business’s owner can be enough to cause them to hire a receptionist even if they don’t have enough customers to justify the job.

Also, in some fields a receptionist is table stakes - like a business phone number and an office, it’s part of the minimum necessary to convey to your potential customers that you are a real business and not some fly by night operation being run out of somebody’s basement. If the business doesn’t take off, then the receptionist has nothing to do most of the time but without them the company would get even fewer clients.


In Japan I know there are literal rooms where they put people do do nothing. They can’t really fire them, and generally people join companies for life. But they screwed up or angered someone they are put where they can’t do any harm, trying to make them quit.

That said - meh - hey, a job is a job. If we got rid of these BS jobs overnight, boom, huge unemployment. The good news is, if the company is doing well, extra weight doesn’t hurt it. It is when profits dip that lay offs happen.

I think the larger the org, the more do nothings sneak in and unneeded jobs. Anecdotally, federal jobs also have a fair percentage of people who do the bare minimum and sometimes seem to be just shuffling paper work.


Not only Japan


I’ve read the essay a couple of times. In so far as it’s an issue that affects basically all of us in some way, it’s certainly a deep one. I don’t know if I completely get his line that the cause of it is social rather than economic. But as he’s an economist I’ll take his word for it. The book sounds interesting though as long as it’s not just a fluffy catalogue of amusing stories (Gladwell-style).


What were you doing for the three days before you had the revelation?