‘Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.’
The premis behind David Graeber’s book ‘Bullshit jobs: A Theory’ (building from an original essay on the topic) is that there is a notable proportion of the working population doing jobs that they do not feel create much value or even really need to be performed at all. These are the kind of jobs that feel somewhat pointless and don’t seem, at least to the outsider, to really accomplish very much or make any discernible difference in the world. Graeber’s ‘official’ definition of a bullshit job is:
‘…a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.’
He cites a 2015 YouGov poll in the UK that found that 37% of British workers think that their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. And one conducted by Dutch firm Schouten & Nelissen that found that out of 1900 workers surveyed 40% did not think that their work was useful.
This is, he believes, a great tragedy. A situation that generates resentment and even quiet rage amongst the notable numbers of people (he believes around two-fifths of jobs in the developed world) who work harder than they should at jobs that they secretly believe should not exist.
Whilst his book doesn’t necessarily generate many powerful theories for what we need to do about this situation it’s hard not to agree with his arguments around how important meaning is to us in our working lives, how we’ve become a civilisation that sees work as an end in itself but also how often meaning is lacking in that. There’s certainly some truth in the assertion that it seems to be a general rule in our society that the more obviously someone’s work benefits other people, the less likely they are to be paid well for it.
It’s hard to quantify how many people feel that they do a bullshit job but it’s a powerful thought that this could be a phenomenon that is far more widespread than we recognise and yet we never talk about it.