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Bullshit jobs and a very simple solution
Monday 🩳 No. 3
This is bizarre category of high-earners whose work adds no meaningful value to society. If we plot jobs against two dimensions of compensation vs. value, these so-called bullshit jobs live in this odd upper left quadrant:
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Graeber draws a clear distinction between bullshit jobs and well, shit jobs, which live in that lower left quadrant:
A lot of people confuse bullshit jobs and shit jobs, but they’re not the same thing.
Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful.
Whereas bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely pointless, and the people doing them know this.
David Graeber interviewed in Vox
These are the kind of jobs that if they disappeared overnight, no one would really notice. Maybe you can name a few examples right off the top of your head.
Lots of people online can too and reading their hot takes feels a lot like this:
If we let the peanut gallery loose on determining whether a given job makes a meaningful contribution to the world, quick judgements get thrown around.
It’s a lot of noise. Determining if a particular job is bullshit is an impossible task to do from the outside without making sweeping assumptions.
Who might be in a better position to determine whether a job has meaningful impact? Well, if the individual literally doing the job thinks the job is bullshit, that is considerably more interesting.
Trusting the perspective of the worker is an easy way to cut to the chase. If they are unconvinced of their value, despite every incentive to convince themselves their job is having positive contribution, it’s probably safe to say it’s a bullshit job.
How prevalent is this willingness to admit one’s own job is pointless?
In a recent poll by YouGov of nearly ten thousand Americans, 22% of workers think their job makes no meaningful contribution to the world.
If we assumed this sentiment was representative of the nearly 160 million US employees, that would mean 35 million US workers think their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. It’s not just the United States either. YouGov ran a similar poll in the UK back in 2015 and the results were even more bleak (with 37% saying their jobs are meaningless).
In other words, it is very prevalent to admit one’s own job is pointless.
But are these high paying jobs?
While compensation information was not explicitly surveyed, we can assume that industries like finance, accounting, and consulting or law are fairly likely to have comfortable, well-compensated roles represented here.
In a capitalistic system where the free market should trim out non-value add work, this is a surprising phenomenon.
What is happening?
There are dozens of potential root causes for the emergence of such a situation. Many experts have their opinions, which is as loud and chaotic as the previous online party:
Capitalists might blame poor management practices or the difficulty in cutting staff due to regulations. Graeber called into question the lack of a safety net like a universal basic income or being forced to work a 40 hour week despite having been promised a future capitalist system where we were granted more leisure.
These are calls for *big* solutions to help us get out of this trap of generating more bullshit jobs. I’m a fan for many of the proposed solutions, but for this particular problem, these ideas feel like complete overkill.
To me, a system-wide solution for this particular problem seems unnecessary for the simple reason that this is not a vulnerable class of people. Systemic change is absolutely important for problems where people are trapped in their situations and there are systemic barriers preventing them from breaking free. But the people we are talking about here are entirely capable of getting themselves out of their current situation. They have power. They have money, given their decent pay. They likely have respect or skills or degrees or a network that allowed them to land such a position with decent pay. They even have time, so long as they are willing to give up the front of pretending the are busy.
What’s so puzzling about this category is that while perhaps there is some disadvantage to society to have a bunch of people doing bullshit jobs, it feels to me like the toll is taken on primarily by the individual in that soul-sucking job.
If you think you might have one of these so called bullshit jobs, no need to wait to be saved. Take as much time as you need to make a thoughtful change. It sounds like getting your job done is after all, not that important.
Extend this week’s shorts
The Monday Shorts can always be read in 5 minutes or less, but who doesn’t love the flexibility and option of adding some length to your Monday outfit?
Explore Graeber’s theory on bullshit jobs with podcasts, articles, and books
📗: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber, the book written years after the original essay was published and expanded on the theory
📝: “Bullshit jobs: why they exist and why you might have one” - Vox interview with Graeber
As I was writing this short, I found some great pieces from essayists I have been following for some time. Check them out.
📝: “The Riddle of the Well-Paying, Pointless Job” an illustrated essay from More To That
📝: “The Busy Spectrum (Low Busyness): What You Need to Know about Bullshit Jobs & Performative Busyness” from Kyle Kowalski at Sloww
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