The Bullshit Jobs Phenomenon
The idea of “busy work” was commonly seen in school classrooms up to the 1970s. The term describes activities that don’t really have much point, beyond occupying the attention of whoever is doing them. Over time, more progressive education practices have become the norm, engaging learners in creative thinking.
If we’ve moved past this model in classrooms, why is it still happening in jobs and careers? Because it is, according to London School of Economics anthropologist David Graeber. His position, first explained in a 2013 paper that went viral and now the subject of a book, is that with all the technological advances society has made, we should have more free time on our hands than ever before, as John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930.
With all that free time, we’d be able to pursue creative endeavours such a painting a picture, solving a physics problem or playing at our favourite casino. Instead, people are busier, than any other time in history. And Graeber says it’s down to the adult equivalent of “busy work”: what he describes as “bullshit jobs”.
Essentially, this is any work that doesn’t serve a purpose beyond the task itself. Philosophically and anthropologically, the theory is complicated. Getting to grip with the categories of workers who have bullshit jobs can be helpful, and Graeber has identified five of them: Flunkies, Goons, Duct-Tapers, Box-Tickers, and Task Masters.
A Flunky’s primary purpose is to make someone else feel significant. When they’re not also acting as security guards, nobody needs a doorman. And only the very wealthy have elevator operators; the rest of us muddle along pushing the buttons ourselves. Cold callers who contact potential clients because the broker they work for is too busy and important to do it are another example. Essentially, Flunkies legitimise other people and activities.
As has always been the case, in this context a Goon’s job has an aggressive element to it. Graeber says that one of the defining characteristics of a Goon’s role is that it only exists because others are also employing people to perform these tasks.
In other words, if no country in the world had an army, no country in the world would need an army. As it stands, national armed forces have hundreds of thousands of employees. Following this theory, the same could be said for telemarketers, PR specialists and corporate lawyers.
Duct-Tapers do just what their name suggests; they solve problems. But they are problems that shouldn’t exist, and are caused by a glitch of some kind. Think about the poor woman who has to placate angry airline passengers when their bags don’t arrive.
Best practices and middle management are primarily the result of Box-Ticker culture, according to Graeber. Organisations are supposed to keep meticulous records and adhere to certain protocols, and Box-Tickers make sure that they do.
These are the people monitoring how money is spent and whether target figures are being reached – and, arguably, strangling the life force out of whomever they’re watching. How is a doctor supposed to deliver personalised care when they’re under pressure to hit patient quotas?
Graeber’s book explains that there are two kinds of Task Master; those whose entire function is to assign work to other people when they’re capable of knowing what to do themselves, and those who actually create bullshit tasks. The second type could be seen as the epicentre of the bullshit jobs phenomenon; these are the individuals who keep generating more of these roles, which are filled by workers in the other categories.
How Did This Happen?
If we accept that most jobs are, in fact, bullshit, the next question to ask is how we got here. Graeber shows a Marxist influence and argues that a population kept busy is less likely to revolt. Since the rise of the Calvinist Work Ethic, we’ve also been increasingly defining ourselves by how hard we work. And these days, many of us are in a cycle where we indulge in more retail therapy because we deserve it after working in a place that is so stressful and/or depressing.
But is it all true? What about the fact that these bullshit tasks create the infrastructure for the world’s economies? And if we do away with them, what would happen to societies? How can we safely dismantle the evil establishment?
Graeber describes himself as an anarchist, and says the entire way that we conceptualise what work is needs to change. Bottom line: if you want to contribute to society but you feel like your job is pointless, it could well be bullshit!