Browsing through books: Bullshit jobs – A theory by David Graeber (Simon & Schuster, 2018)

Bullshit jobs by Davic Graeber is a well written book with provocative arguments. As the subtitle states, it is a a theory about the utterly useless jobs in (Western) societies. Unlike the main title suggest, it does not remain on the level of accusations but develops a rich and justified narrative how and, most importantly, why some jobs are making our societies worse beyond their immediate impact. The majority of the book focuses on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs, but the end of it has also some suggestions how to overcome the lock in.

After reading this I realise it is an iconic book for a reason. It has been well covered by others, for example

What more to say about this book? Instead of a detailed report, I first recap the core ideas of the book for those unfamiliar with it. For the rest of this text I focus on how this book impacted me, a working life studies and a degrowth scholar who thinks, reads and writes about work(ing), well, all the time.

Recap of the core ideas

Graeber’s book was proceeded by his popular open access short essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. According to Graeber, it is a collection of arguments that are then further explored in the book. So reading the essay one gets a fairly good idea of the core ideas.

In a nutshell: Our contemporary (Western) society revolves around work, but not only because it is related to livelihoods, but even more because certain jobs epitomise neoliberal values that function as the commonly accepted moral justification for the very existence of societies. As a result, we have a (surprisingly big) share of bullshit jobs, which are not necessary and sometimes even harmful for the greater good. There are a lot of morals, values, and valuations taking place in relation to working life, which this book articulates.

The value of the book is in making visible the usually taken-for-granted thinking of our times. The book includes sharp observations about (1) how people are trapped in jobs, which they consider unnecessary and in which they feel unhappy, and (2) how these jobs are undermining the social contract. Chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated for defining bullshit jobs in more detail. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the frequency of bullshit jobs and  the testimonials from people working in bullshit jobs. Chapters 5 and 6 explore the phenomenon of bullshit jobs beyond individuals. Chapter 7 concludes the book with policy reflection.

The book includes fascinating narratives and apt concepts, such as:

  • a testimony of a person trying to quit their (meaningless) job, after several self-inflicted malpractices, but offered a pay rise instead
  • managerial feudalism: an argument of the increase of (bullshit) managerial class and their benefits combined with the decrease in the number of and benefits for performing workers
  • types of bullshit job: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters (descriptions in Wikipedia)

How Bullshit jobs impacted me

Graeber’s book Bullshit jobs managed to articulate many observations, concerns and drawbacks of working life that I had thought of – but not necessarily together. The book manages to connect them into a fluent story easy to comprehend. For instance, there are parts about gendered work and the history of work that ground many of the later arguments.

What is worrying is the so called bullshitisation of society. Based on surveys (referred to in the book), approximately half of work is bullshit. The share has been debated and it can be more or less – but is nevertheless significant. This raises the inevitable question: Who benefits from this bullshitisation? I argue that in the long run not very many people and definitely not Earth others.

The ecological degradation is not a major theme in the book, but I think it is a natural next step in thinking these matters. When there is so much work done that is useless or even harmful, what does that do to our environment and other species? It seems the consequences are nothing to celebrate.

So how to give up bullshit work? In my ongoing research I’m talking with people who choose to reduce their harmful work and invest their time, energy and money for projects that they consider meaningful for the planet and the people. But such choice comes after some privilege.

Therefore, we need institutional changes. These include:

  • reduced working hours in paid labour 
  • basic / care income
  • valuing unpaid work
  • valuing care work
  • modifying professions
  • listening what communities consider valuable for them

I have been on a journey to strengthen these developments before I read the book and I will continue to do so after reading this book. I’m not bullshitting you.

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