A ‘bullsh*t job’ is better than no job at all

Anthropologist believes ruling class ‘has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on its hands is a mortal danger’

We’ve all been there, sitting in an overheated conference room, halfway through your seventh consecutive meeting about some upcoming meeting, when it suddenly dawns on you that the whole thing is a giant Ponzi scheme. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

We’ve all been there, sitting in an overheated conference room, halfway through your seventh consecutive meeting about some upcoming meeting, when it suddenly dawns on you that the whole thing is a giant Ponzi scheme. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Wed, Sep 11, 2013, 01:00

One of the few remaining advantages of my job – now that the bright future, the long lunches and the veneer of glamour have all been stripped away – is that it is possible to describe what I do to a five year old.

I have friends who make more money, doing important sounding things in wealth creation, business development, fund management or life coaching. But I’m pretty sure they can’t explain what it is they actually do to the average preschooler. In fact, I bet some of them would be hard pressed to explain it to their boss.

The American anthropologist and one of the first members of the Occupy movement, David Graeber, has a theory about jobs like these. He calls them “bullsh*t jobs”.

In an essay on the Strike! Magazine website, Graeber writes that John Maynard Keynes promised that by now we would all be working a 15-hour week. “In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more.”

Graeber believes that the “ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on its hands is a mortal danger” and so has invented work to keep us all busy. Into the general category of “bullsh*t jobs” he puts most positions in the financial services, telemarketing, corporate law, administration, human resources and public relations. (If you think the idea of a capitalist economy rustling up jobs, Soviet style, out of thin air is a bit far-fetched, I’ve got three words for you: “Y2K readiness engineer”.)

It’s an intriguing notion. We’ve all been there, sitting in an overheated conference room, halfway through your seventh consecutive meeting about some upcoming meeting, when it suddenly dawns on you that the whole thing is a giant Ponzi scheme. But then someone produces a plate of custard creams, and your Jerry Maguire moment passes, and you’re back to being Tim from The Office, dreaming of a future beyond Wernham Hogg.

Somewhere along the way to our leisure society, work seems to have become the end in itself, to the extent that many people are now employed specifically to find ways to entertain people who are supposed to be working. App designers and social media site developers clamour for the attention of that sought-after demographic: the bored-at-work (BAWs).

Without BAWs, there might still be a YouTube, but it almost certainly wouldn’t be mostly populated by videos of cats going up elevators.

Even people in jobs that most of us would agree are “meaningful” seem to spend an ever-greater proportion of their time doing nonsense work.

Last weekend, a doctor recounted on the Marian Finuncane show how he was so exhausted filling in paperwork after a 30-hour shift that he fell off his chair, sound asleep.

Graeber argues that, with the exception of medicine, most jobs which directly benefit others are those least well remunerated and the subject of most misdirected rage in a capitalist society (only this week, Rupert Murdoch demonstrated this point by tweeting about “public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy”.)

But let’s not get carried away. There may have been more honest toil around in our grandparents’ time, but there were plenty of “bullsh*t jobs” too.

Was the need for a 12 volume set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica so pressing that it required teams of salesmen travelling door-to-door? Did people really have to have their milk delivered daily? Why did buses need a conductor and a driver?

The other problem with Graeber’s essay is that he is coming at it from a perspective of privilege – notions like useful work and dignity in labour become a lot less urgent if you’re on the dole and preoccupied with feeding a family.

But his central point stands. As we have moved from the industrial age to the information age, there has been a shift not just in the type of jobs we do, but in the way we view work itself.

With the migration from actual farms to cubicle farms, we have come to see our jobs as extensions of ourselves, the 50-hour week and the always-on iPhone as covetable status symbols. Keynes imagined a world where no-one would work more than 15 hours; instead what we’ve ended up with is a world in which no-one is ever really not at work, and hardly anyone has a clue what anyone else is doing.

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