Why your meaningful job probably isn't all that meaningful

by David Hill / 07 September, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - David Graeber Bullshit Jobs

Many of us like to believe our jobs are valuable, but 40% make no "meaningful contribution to the world," says American anthropologist David Graeber. 

If you’re rushing off to your meaningful and fulfilling job, you could just glance at page 21 of David Graeber’s preface. That pretty much gives you the guts of his thesis.

The said preamble references – indeed, it reprints – his 2013 magazine essay on meaningless employment. Well, that essay did get into all the media, and even inspired guerrilla posters on the London Underground.

Now, the American social anthropologist (he concedes that many people would see his profession as encapsulating his book’s title) offers an anecdote-stuffed expansion of his earlier assertion that some 40% of jobs make no “meaningful contribution to the world”.

He suggests various, mostly subjective definitions: “If you think your job is worthless, it probably is.” Hmm. He tries a taxonomy – “flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box-tickers, taskmasters” – and strews predictable examples: lawyers, compliance companies, authors of strategic vision statements. Mafia hitmen don’t qualify; their occupation is purposeful.

He gives a useful history of the Western work ethic from medieval guilds to “hard-working families”. He considers reasons for pointless positions (“managemental feudalism”; the neo-liberal economy; even governments anxious to keep workers occupied and placid) and their socio-psychological effects, most obviously bewilderment and aimlessness.

That’s it in a nutshell, but Graeber takes you on a tour of the whole tree. The case histories are individually illuminating and sometimes affecting, particularly in the section on exactly what it’s like to have such a job – “the misery of … forced pretence” – but there’s much repeating and overlapping. It’s probably inevitable, though still unfortunate, that a book about so many negative experiences should develop a pervasive sourness.

Bullshit Jobs may be more valuable for what it provokes than what it portrays. Its author grandiosely presents it as “an arrow aimed at the heart of a civilisation”. A fish hook up the nose of that civilisation is probably closer to the mark. It’s interminably quotable. “(A) rising tide of bullshit soils all boats”. “The left demand ‘More jobs!’ The right urge ‘Get a job!’” It knows a good anecdote when it needs two or three. You’ll appreciate the Finnish tax collector who sat dead at his desk for 48 hours before his colleagues noticed; the novelty company’s bright-red pay cheques with clown faces on them; the Spanish civil servant whose six-year, fully paid absence from work was noticed only when his long-service award came up. Perfect dinner-table stuff.

There are usefully sharp barbs at our still-pervasive belief that employment equals morality (and the reverse), and at why the most nebulous jobs – what is an “interface administrator”? – are often the best paid. There’s a surprisingly buoyant final section on alternatives: the UK’s wages-for-housewives movement; Indian experiments in universal basic incomes. Read around in it as much as right through it; you’ll be challenged and channelled.

Oh, and may I assert how fulfilling and productive I found it to write this review. You felt the same as you read it, didn’t you? Please?

BULLSHIT JOBS, by David Graeber (Allen Lane, $50).

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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