David Graeber's "Bullshit Jobs": why does the economy sustain jobs that no one values?

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/06/20/on-stage-tonight-in-la.html

David Graeber defined a “bullshit job” in his viral 2013 essay as jobs that no one – not even the people doing them – valued, and he clearly struck a chord: in the years since, Graeber, an anthropologist, has collected stories from people whose bullshit jobs inspired them to get in touch with him, and now he has synthesized all that data into a beautifully written, outrageous and thought-provoking book called, simply, Bullshit Jobs.


bullshit jobs – even ones that leave you free to dick around on the internet or write your novel all day – make the people who do them miserable.

Off to work…


See, this is what I do wrong. I mostly just read Hacker News comments from Randians and laugh while frittering away my day.


it explains why firms are so quick to cut real jobs (teachers, clerks, waiters, ticket-takers, and other people who interact with the public and do the business of the business) but so reluctant to trim the thick bureaucratic layer surmounting all.

The last department to see “necessary and unavoidable downsizing” is always HR, which directly serves the slow AI itself.

If the anthropological pressure to work can be abated and the individual greed of a class of super-rich can be dampened or neutralized, maybe we could realize that 15-hour week Keynes predicted in the 1930s.

Late-stage capitalism is taking 80%+ of Americans straight from “40+ hours/week is a sign of your virtue and piety” to “a robot or poor person on the other side of the globe can do your job, so bugger off” with no stops in between. At some point there might be a neoliberal version of UBI to prop up a sham consumer economy and make sure that the rich get richer, but that’s about it.


I like to think that nothing in life is more important than trainspotting. I don’t trainspot myself, but that is my benchmark.


Cory, this is a restatement of Parkinson’s Law, originally stated by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1955. He explained the mechanism in much greater detail but in effect exactly as you (and Graeber) have.

This and other essays on organizational pathology were gathered into a book quite a while back. It’s well worth reading.


I would say this is exactly my life, but then I won’t incriminate myself by saying it.


In many ways, I think Games Workshop with WH40k kind of called this one. Where everything from the Empire of Man’s legal code to their industrial production system is ruled over by aristocrats and clerks. The only way things get done is either a rogue trader or a zealous inquisitor upsets the balance of things (aside from Abbadon throwing another Black Crusade at the Imperium to stir up trouble).


As a more general rule whenever an organization does things that don’t seem to be in the organizations best interests, it is time to investigate whether those actions are in the best interest of those individuals making the decisions.


I prefer the term In-Cubicle Sabbatical myself.


Shannon Lee Dawdy wrote a variance of this idea in her fantastic book ‘building the devil’s empire.’ She basically argues that Louisiana was a failed colonial experiment that found success through rogue elements.

Also, David Graeber is hot right now. I’m not sure why, but it makes me glad.


Gee, I can’t help but wonder how many ‘B.S.’ jobs exist in the government sector too?


This guy has really been getting the press. Can I get his publicist’s phone number?


Actually, the roots of work-as-virtue predate the industrial revolution.


Perhaps exclusive to the surreal world of (pharmaceutical) research corporations such jobs were a good sign of a “pump n’ dump” on the horizon. Beefing up the appearance of value, hence price, before the company is sold. In one amazing case, the bench folks were told to chase ahead of the tour so that no lab room would be empty (cf Potemkin village), (note to venture capitalists: try to remember peoples’ faces while you’re counting your millions)


At present 20% of our economy is Medical and another 20% is banking & insurance. At least half of each is devoted not to the productivity but to making sure that the right people get paid. Seems to me the climate that fosters bullshit jobs is disconnected payment, like healthcare, or the way almost all government contracting is done. The NYTimes article about subway cost cited how contractors working cost plus negotiated with the unions, and the MTA really had no say. No one at the table had an interest in cost reduction rather than inflation. A rogue auditor found 200 of 1000 workers on the 2nd ave subway didn’t even have a job description.

In my city the biggest bullshit job is requiring off-duty uniformed cops as flaggers at any construction site impinging on the street. The ex chief and others were arrested for not even showing up for this nonsense. Add this also to why housing costs are so high.


Yeah - ‘stealing your paycheck’ is so 20th century

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Mindful meditation gave me the idea.


I won’t deny that the fact that my job has been specifically singled out as a “bullshit job” is part of the reason BoingBoing’s ongoing promotion of this book sits so poorly with me. But it’s not JUST ego.

The fact is, I enjoy my job and I think I add value to my organization (and my bosses seem to agree). It just rankles that despite the fact that me and everyone involved with my job is happy with the arrangement, some random guy who I’ve never met has determined my job is “bullshit” and Cory has adopted and promoted it like it’s some kind of philosophical breakthrough. It just seems like it’s not his call to make.

How many other people in “bullshit” jobs would say the same thing?


It’s that many others do find their work useless. For example, lets say you work on a CRM app out of dozens that already exist in the world today. How can one conclude that there’s a need for more than one CRM app when the form factor of CRM apps are more or less the same: contact logging, note taking, send/receive messages across multiple channels (phone, social media, email, etc) and etc. These features aren’t magically distinct enough to require more than one implementation in the world which IMO should be open source. Yet here I am just another drone writing CRM related software when said software has either been done by another firm (with equivalent functionality) or is part of a larger FOSS project which I could contribute to instead. This is one of the many reasons why I despise modern software development. It leads to the “not invented here” mentality where devs are being hired to essentially duplicate the same core functionality that’s been whipped up since the days of COBOL. All I can say is “STAAAAAAPH EET(Arnie voice)!”