David Graeber is a Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of DEBT: The First 5,000 Years, and a contributor to Harper’s, The Guardian, and The Baffler. He lives in London.
Bullshit Jobs Chapter 1
What Is a Bullshit Job?
Let us begin with what might be considered a paradigmatic example of a bullshit job.
Kurt works for a subcontractor for the German military. Or . . . actually, he is employed by a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a subcontractor for the German military. Here is how he describes his work:
The German military has a subcontractor that does their IT work.
The IT firm has a subcontractor that does their logistics.
The logistics firm has a subcontractor that does their personnel management, and I work for that company.
Let’s say soldier A moves to an office two rooms farther down the hall. Instead of just carrying his computer over there, he has to fill out a form.
The IT subcontractor will get the form, people will read it and approve it, and forward it to the logistics firm.
The logistics firm will then have to approve the moving down the hall and will request personnel from us.
The office people in my company will then do whatever they do, and now I come in.
I get an email: “Be at barracks B at time C.” Usually these barracks are one hundred to five hundred kilometers [62–310 miles] away from my home, so I will get a rental car. I take the rental car, drive to the barracks, let dispatch know that I arrived, fill out a form, unhook the computer, load the computer into a box, seal the box, have a guy from the logistics firm carry the box to the next room, where I unseal the box, fill out another form, hook up the computer, call dispatch to tell them how long I took, get a couple of signatures, take my rental car back home, send dispatch a letter with all of the paperwork and then get paid.
So instead of the soldier carrying his computer for five meters, two people drive for a combined six to ten hours, fill out around fifteen pages of paperwork, and waste a good four hundred euros of taxpayers’ money.1
This might sound like a classic example of ridiculous military red tape of the sort Joseph Heller made famous in his 1961 novel Catch-22, except for one key element: almost nobody in this story actually works for the military. Technically, they’re all part of the private sector. There was a time, of course, when any national army also had its own communications, logistics, and personnel departments, but nowadays it all has to be done through multiple layers of private outsourcing.
Kurt’s job might be considered a paradigmatic example of a bullshit job for one simple reason: if the position were eliminated, it would make no discernible difference in the world. Likely as not, things would improve, since German military bases would presumably have to come up with a more reasonable way to move equipment. Crucially, not only is Kurt’s job absurd, but Kurt himself is perfectly well aware of this. (In fact, on the blog where he posted this story, he ended up defending the claim that the job served no purpose against a host of free market enthusiasts who popped up instantly—as free market enthusiasts tend to do on internet forums—to insist that since his job was created by the private sector, it by definition had to serve a legitimate purpose.)
This I consider the defining feature of a bullshit job: one so completely pointless that even the person who has to perform it every day cannot convince himself there’s a good reason for him to be doing it. He might not be able to admit this to his coworkers—often there are very good reasons not to do so. But he is convinced the job is pointless nonetheless.
So let this stand as an initial provisional definition:
Provisional Definition: a bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.
Some jobs are so pointless that no one even notices if the person who has the job vanishes. This usually happens in the public sector:
Spanish Civil Servant Skips Work for Six Years to Study Spinoza
—Jewish Times, February 26, 2016
A Spanish civil servant who collected a salary for at least six years without working used the time to become an expert on the writings of Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, Spanish media reported.
A court in Cadiz in southern Spain last month ordered Joaquin Garcia, sixty-nine, to pay approximately $30,000 in fines for failing to show up for work at the water board, Agua de Cadiz, where Garcia was employed as an engineer since 1996, the news site euronews.com reported last week.
His absence was first noticed in 2010, when Garcia was due to receive a medal for long service. Deputy Mayor Jorge Blas Fernandez began making inquiries that led him to discover that Garcia had not been seen at his office in six years.
Reached by the newspaper El Mundo, unnamed sources close to Garcia said he devoted himself in the years before 2010 to studying the writings of Spinoza, a seventeenth-century heretic Jew from Amsterdam. One source interviewed by El Mundo said Garcia became an expert on Spinoza but denied claims Garcia never showed up for work, saying he came in at irregular times.2
This story made headlines in Spain. At a time when the country was undergoing severe austerity and high unemployment, it seemed outrageous that there were civil servants who could skip work for years without anybody noticing. Garcia’s defense, however, is not without merit. He explained that while he had worked for many years dutifully monitoring the city’s water treatment plant, the water board eventually came under the control of higher-ups who loathed him for his Socialist politics and refused to assign him any responsibilities. He found this situation so demoralizing that he was eventually obliged to seek clinical help for depression. Finally, and with the concurrence of his therapist, he decided that rather than just continue to sit around all day pretending to look busy, he would convince the water board he was being supervised by the municipality, and the municipality that he was being supervised by the water board, check in if there was a problem, but otherwise just go home and do something useful with his life.3
Similar stories about the public sector appear at regular intervals. One popular one is about postal carriers who decide that rather than delivering the mail, they prefer to dump it in closets, sheds, or Dumpsters—with the result that tons of letters and packages pile up for years without anyone figuring it out.4 David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King, about life inside an Internal Revenue Service office in Peoria, Illinois, goes even further: it culminates in an auditor dying at his desk and remaining propped in his chair for days before anyone notices. This seems pure absurdist caricature, but in 2002, something almost exactly like this did happen in Helsinki. A Finnish tax auditor working in a closed office sat dead at his desk for more than forty-eight hours while thirty colleagues carried on around him. “People thought he wanted to work in peace, and no one disturbed him,” remarked his supervisor—which, if you think about it, is actually rather thoughtful.5
It’s stories like these, of course, that inspire politicians all over the world to call for a larger role for the private sector—where, it is always claimed, such abuses would not occur. And while it is true so far that we have not heard any stories of FedEx or UPS employees stowing their parcels in garden sheds, privatization generates its own, often much less genteel, varieties of madness—as Kurt’s story shows. I need hardly point out the irony in the fact that Kurt was, ultimately, working for the German military. The German military has been accused of many things over the years, but inefficiency was rarely one of them. Still, a rising tide of bullshit soils all boats. In the twenty-first century, even panzer divisions have come to be surrounded by a vast penumbra of sub-, sub-sub-, and sub-sub-subcontractors; tank commanders are obliged to perform complex and exotic bureaucratic rituals in order to move equipment from one room to another, even as those providing the paperwork secretly post elaborate complaints to blogs about how idiotic the whole thing is.
If these cases are anything to go by, the main difference between the public and private sectors is not that either is more, or less, likely to generate pointless work. It does not even necessarily lie in the kind of pointless work each tends to generate. The main difference is that pointless work in the private sector is likely to be far more closely supervised. This is not always the case. As we’ll learn, the number of employees of banks, pharmaceutical companies, and engineering firms allowed to spend most of their time updating their Facebook profiles is surprisingly high. Still, in the private sector, there are limits. If Kurt were to simply walk off the job to take up the study of his favorite seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher, he would be swiftly relieved of his position. If the Cadiz Water Board had been privatized, Joaquin Garcia might well still have been deprived of responsibilities by managers who disliked him, but he would have been expected to sit at his desk and pretend to work every day anyway, or find alternate employment.
I will leave readers to decide for themselves whether such a state of affairs should be considered an improvement.
why a mafia hit man is not a good example of a bullshit job
To recap: what I am calling “bullshit jobs” are jobs that are primarily or entirely made up of tasks that the person doing that job considers to be pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious. Jobs that, were they to disappear, would make no difference whatsoever. Above all, these are jobs that the holders themselves feel should not exist.
Contemporary capitalism seems riddled with such jobs. As I mentioned in the preface, a YouGov poll found that in the United Kingdom only 50 percent of those who had full-time jobs were entirely sure their job made any sort of meaningful contribution to the world, and 37 percent were quite sure it did not. A poll by the firm Schouten & Nelissen carried out in Holland put the latter number as high as 40 percent.6 If you think about it, these are staggering statistics. After all, a very large percentage of jobs involves doing things that no one could possibly see as pointless. One must assume that the percentage of nurses, bus drivers, dentists, street cleaners, farmers, music teachers, repairmen, gardeners, firefighters, set designers, plumbers, journalists, safety inspectors, musicians, tailors, and school crossing guards who checked “no” to the question “Does your job make any meaningful difference in the world?” was approximately zero. My own research suggests that store clerks, restaurant workers, and other low-level service providers rarely see themselves as having bullshit jobs, either. Many service workers hate their jobs; but even those who do are aware that what they do does make some sort of meaningful difference in the world.7
So if 37 percent to 40 percent of a country’s working population insist their work makes no difference whatsoever, and another substantial chunk suspects that it might not, one can only conclude that any office worker who one might suspect secretly believes themselves to have a bullshit job does, indeed, believe this.
· · ·
The main thing I would like to do in this first chapter is to define what I mean by bullshit jobs; in the next chapter I will lay out a typology of what I believe the main varieties of bullshit jobs to be. This will open the way, in later chapters, to considering how bullshit jobs come about, why they have come to be so prevalent, and to considering their psychological, social, and political effects. I am convinced these effects are deeply insidious. We have created societies where much of the population, trapped in useless employment, have come to resent and despise equally those who do the most useful work in society, and those who do no paid work at all. But before we can analyze this situation, it will be necessary to address some potential objections.
The reader may have noticed a certain ambiguity in my initial definition. I describe bullshit jobs as involving tasks the holder considers to be “pointless, unnecessary, or even pernicious.” But, of course, jobs that have no significant effect on the world and jobs that have pernicious effects on the world are hardly the same thing. Most of us would agree that a Mafia hit man does more harm than good in the world, overall; but could you really call Mafia hit man a bullshit job? That just feels somehow wrong.
As Socrates teaches us, when this happens—when our own definitions produce results that seem intuitively wrong to us—it’s because we’re not aware of what we really think. (Hence, he suggests that the true role of philosophers is to tell people what they already know but don’t realize that they know. One could argue that anthropologists like myself do something similar.) The phrase “bullshit jobs” clearly strikes a chord with many people. It makes sense to them in some way. This means they have, at least on some sort of tacit intuitive level, criteria in their minds that allow them to say “That was such a bullshit job” or “That one was bad, but I wouldn’t say it was exactly bullshit.” Many people with pernicious jobs feel the phrase fits them; others clearly don’t. The best way to tease out what those criteria are is to examine borderline cases.
So, why does it feel wrong to say a hit man has a bullshit job?8
I suspect there are multiple reasons, but one is that the Mafia hit man (unlike, say, a foreign currency speculator or a brand marketing researcher) is unlikely to make false claims. True, a mafioso will usually claim he is merely a “businessman.” But insofar as he is willing to own up to the nature of his actual occupation at all, he will tend to be pretty up front about what he does. He is unlikely to pretend his work is in any way beneficial to society, even to the extent of insisting it contributes to the success of a team that’s providing some useful product or service (drugs, prostitution, and so on), or if he does, the pretense is likely to be paper thin.
This allows us to refine our definition. Bullshit jobs are not just jobs that are useless or pernicious; typically, there has to be some degree of pretense and fraud involved as well. The jobholder must feel obliged to pretend that there is, in fact, a good reason why her job exists, even if, privately, she finds such claims ridiculous. There has to be some kind of gap between pretense and reality. (This makes sense etymologically9: “bullshitting” is, after all, a form of dishonesty.10)
So we might make a second pass:
Provisional Definition 2: a bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to ...