Bullshit Jobs book cover with David Graeber headshot

Bullshit Jobs

Two-fifths of jobs in the rich world are bullshit, not including those – such as office cleaners – that service the bullshit jobs. These legal, financial and clerical roles don’t add any economic value. Note the difference between “bullshit jobs” (they’re meaningless) and “shit jobs” (you’re not treated well).

They’re capitalism’s equivalent to Soviet communism’s needless roles to maintain high-employment. Or so argued anarchist-anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book Bullshit Jobs. The book came five years after an essay the author wrote on the topic went viral. He struck a chord.

The book’s criticism centered on how much time Graeber spent on definitions for a definitionally murky topic — relying heavily on subjective surveys to define what a “bullshit job” really is. Still the term entered lexicon and so is worth reading. After Graeber’s early death in 2020, I resolved to finally get to it, which I did. Below I share my notes for future reference.

My Notes:

  • It seems a rule that the more you’re paid the less immediately vital your job is (doctors perhaps a rare exception) and it figures because with wealth concentration we prioritize rich people
  • YouGov poll after author’s initial essay in 2015: 37% said their job did not make a meaningful contribution to the world; 50% did and 13% uncertain
  • Jeffrey Sachs gave testimony at the Philadelphia Fed in April 2013 on “fixing the banking
  • Author distinguishes between jobs that are pointless (bullshit jobs) and jobs that are merely bad (shit jobs): they’re practically opposites (comfortable, well paid and unnecessary vs uncomfortable , poorly paid and very necessary)
  • Dostoyevsky wrote that hard labor is only hard if the work is pointless, “complete uselessness”
  • People in uniforms are often tracked and quantified by their companies but their managers work to avoid the same scrutiny
  • The Soviet bloc may have created dummy proletarian jobs but corporate capitalism does the same for white collar managers
  • That Yougov survey: 42% of men and 32% of women thought ther jobs were pointless
  • Time-use surveys suggest most jobs are adding more administrative bullshit with each year but this book is about purely about bullshit jobs
  • Five types of bullshit jobs:
    • flunkies: make others look impressive (unnecessary admin)
    • goons: exist only cause others have them (corporate attorney)
    • duct tapers: fix a broken system
    • box tickers: pure pretense of doing something (DEI consultant)
    • and taskmasters: two kinds, those who oversee a team that doesn’t need overseeing and those who actively create more BS, or “bullshit generators”
  • We assume people don’t want to work but most people with bulllshit jobs feel depressed about not doing real work (most people at least!)
  • Moses Finlay: ancients Greek and Roman’s wouldn’t understand buying someone’s time (as opposed to a product or service)
  • Time was long measured in activities not in time, which was invented (ie in Europe, something might take three Paternosters (length of cooking an egg)
  • Ep Thomson on time essay 1967
  • Yougov poll: 37% British workers felt non pointless but only 33 percent felt unfulfilled (so at least 4% enjoyed their pointless job)
  • Arlie Russell hochschild/ emotional labor (delta airlines)
  • In 1992, Robert Taylor added “information” (not the “FIRE” of financial, insurance and real estate) to agriculture, manufacturing and services (which would otherwise include information) to understand labor trends
  • “The question of why one player won a game rather than another is different from the question of how hard the game is to play”
  • Marx “a reserve army of the unemployed” has to exist for capitalism to work
  • Benjamin Ginsberg: Fall of the Faculty: adminstrators have grown a lot
  • (((My point: he does seem to overlook how many goods have become luxury goods like American universities)))
  • Elephant Tea Factory in Marseille France case study
  • The Keynesian bargain of productivity wage gains between 1945-1975 was broken not just for corporate profits but also to swell the hiring of college grad consultants
  • Maybe these jobs proliferate because it isn’t capitalism but rent extraction by corporate capitalism
  • Why don’t we remove bs jobs, work less and distribute the real work?

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