Book review

Bullshit about jobs

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July 31, 2018

The current trend for fashionable post- and anti-work thinking has been given a boost by David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs, recently featured in an RSA event and accompanying video. Graeber’s critique of the modern world of work has been understandably popular and gained widespread media coverage. Stemming from a provocative piece in Strike magazine five years ago, the concept has spawned not just the book, but spin-off articles about the ‘bullshitization of academic life’, alongside similar efforts from others.

The bullshit job thesis (BJT) rests on two main claims. First that workers actually do hate their jobs or at least find no meaning or pleasure in them. The only reason we do such jobs are coercive effects of necessity and the work ethic. Secondly, as many as half of all jobs are ‘pointless’, have no social value and could be abolished without personal, professional or societal cost. The only reason they exist is for show, indicating that the boss has status or that time is being filled. The two claims are joined together by the view that, these ‘forms of employment are seen as utterly pointless by those who perform them’.

You’d have to be excessively hard hearted not to get some gratification from the BJT. Nobody likes managerialist jargon and telemarketers – as one of us should know, having worked the phones for four years in a past life. Plus, it’s not difficult to find humorous examples of people doing wasteful or daft tasks at work. But the two central claims of the BJT are an evidence-free zone. This is not the image promoted by Graeber and his fellow travellers. Much rests on an endlessly re-cycled 2015 YouGov poll, also reported by universal basic income enthusiast and author of Utopia for Realists Rutger Bregman, which showed that 37% of British workers think that their job doesn’t need to exist.  The thing is, they didn’t say that at all. 37% said that their job didn’t ‘make a meaningful contribution to the world’. Well, that’s hardly surprising as that loaded question sets a very high bar. What is more surprising is that 50% said their jobs did make a meaningful contribution! The same poll found 63% found their job very or fairly ‘personally fulfilling’, while 33% did not. This non-bullshit outcome is entirely consistent with other evidence of high levels of work attachment. For example, the widely used longitudinal sampling of the Workplace Employment Relations Survey shows that, job satisfaction increased between 2004-2011 and that 72% were satisfied or very satisfied with ‘the work itself’, while 74% had a ‘sense of achievement’.

That is not to say that British or any other employees are a bunch of uncritical happy clappers. As one of us noted elsewhere, ‘survey and qualitative research indicates a complex mixture of positive attachments to work and work identity, but also increasing concerns about issues such as insecurity, recognition, underemployment, work pressures and unfair rewards’. In other words, workers are quite capable of disliking aspects of their jobs and the way they are treated, but there is not a shred of evidence that most find no positive meanings in their work. These can vary hugely from intrinsic task satisfaction, enjoyment from interactions with co-workers and customers, pay and security, to having a job that they don’t have to think about when they leave the premises! Any positivity tends to be ascribed by Graeber and similar critics to a misguided adherence to an externally-imposed work ethic or ‘ideology of work’. There is a strong whiff of ascribed false consciousness to these formulations.

This brings us to the pointlessness claim. Again, we get the confident assertions about ‘research’ and ‘evidence’. This turns out to be ‘testimonies’ commissioned or sent by sympathisers in the wake of the original Strike article. They are often insightful and amusing about the idiocies of their own work. Again, this is not surprising. They are people who find their jobs pointless and struggle to find ways filling their time with anything meaningful or indeed anything at all. Roland Paulsen calls this empty labour; Graeber prefers ‘make’-work’. But the testimonies of a self-selected group of people already predisposed to agree with the author’s argument – from frustrated anarcho-syndicalists to student union jobs – is a poor basis for any plausible, general claims.  This problem is compounded by Graeber’s insistence that there can be no objective measure of social value, yet he treats the self-understanding of those who opt into the classification of having a bullshit job as a surrogate form of objectivity. He seems unaware of the extensive literature on job quality, within which there is a significant degree of consensus on objective and subjective measures of what makes for a ‘good job’.

If pointlessness is shaky on the subjective side, what else has Graeber got in his locker? In our view, not much. The figure of 50% pointless jobs is plucked seemingly from the air. It’s all very well to have a go at private equity CEOs, bailiffs, consultants and foreign currency speculators, but there just aren’t enough of these people to get anywhere near 50%. Actually, pointlessness itself is a concept with no explanatory power. It’s the equivalent of describing criminal or anti-social behaviours as ‘mindless’. It tells us nothing and denies purpose and agency. Most of us are very critical of the ‘point’ of some of the things we do at work – the form filling, the meetings, responding to emails copied to all and sundry – but that does not make the job pointless. Graeber largely fails to distinguish between bullshit in the job and the job as such. A superficially radical critique of the latter stands in for a more specific and arguably more radical critique of the former. Take the example used by Graeber of the frustrations felt by nurses and teachers due to bureaucratic hoop jumping. The ‘point’ of such measures is obvious to those subject to them. They are the outcome of political and managerial choices to meet the requirements of policies such as internal market competition, centralised targets, corporate or state regulation, performance metrics and so on. In no way are they integral to the job – a political ramification the anarchist Graeber somehow seems to miss.

Now it is entirely possible that Graeber categorises teaching and nurses as ‘real jobs’ that somehow escape the pointlessness label. At one stage he comes up with the claim that there is something called a ‘real service sector’ that is supposedly flat at 20% of total employment. No source is given. It’s clear that he either doesn’t know or doesn’t understand occupational trends in societies such as the UK and US. He wants to make an argument that job growth is driven by (pointless) administrative roles., but it’s not true. The share of administrative and secretarial jobs in the UK has been static or falling in the last decade. In the US Bureau of Labour Statistics projected job growth figures 2016-2026, ‘office and administrative support’ is the third lowest of the 22 categories.

Setting aside the statistics, talk of real jobs, service or otherwise, is a is a slippery slope towards unhelpful divisions between productive and unproductive, with overtones of parasitical jobs that don’t ‘serve the public’. Such distinctions ignore the inter-connections between types and levels of jobs. The ‘non-bullshit’ job may be that way precisely because it is supported by the ‘bullshit’ ones – such as those Graeber labels ‘duct tapers’ and ‘box tickers’ – from which it is conceptually distinguished. This is where the BJT really feels the lack of a wider analysis of how the distribution of different bullshit and non-bullshit tasks between different groups of workers is influenced by market, corporate or state imperatives. Without any wider political economic transformation, were the unproductive ‘bullshit’ jobs to be eliminated, the ‘bullshit’ tasks of which they consist would soon land on the desks and in the inboxes of those with presently ‘non-bullshit’ jobs. At the moment, the latter are kept apparently bullshit-free by the delegation of these tasks to a vast supporting cast of administrators and other functionaries. But should what Graeber labels ‘bullshit jobs’ be abolished, those currently in possession of ‘non-bullshit’ jobs – say, university professors- would quickly find themselves on the receiving end of a new division of labour comprising precisely the same ratio of productive and apparently unproductive tasks – the only difference being that those who formerly performed them would be unemployed.

The trouble is, if you label large numbers of jobs pointless without a wider analysis of what it is that makes them problematic, it is inevitable that explanation will be defective and so it proves. One of Graeber’s central concepts for doing so is ‘managerial feudalism’. Bullshit jobs are the outcome of the powerful in the private and public sectors surrounding themselves with an entourage of ‘flunkies’ who do little or nothing but provide aesthetic or aural validation. Though used as a general argument, it is in practice a partial one. Even if true, it couldn’t explain whole ‘bad’ or ‘goon’ occupations such as management consultants of corporate lawyers. Through the examples used, it refers to administrative and managerial staff. Whilst the numbers in these categories have risen as a proportion of the occupational structure and in particular sectors such as health and universities, very little evidence is put forward for the proposition that this is a result of an expansion of ‘unnecessary’ hierarchical service roles.

The managerial feudalism argument is ahistorical and largely disconnected from any economical rationality. With respect to the former, a perspective based on ‘bosses need flunkies’ fails to explain how managerial hierarchies emerge in certain institutional and market settings. Being an academic, gives Graeber an opportunity rail at length against administrative hierarchies in the university sector. In this he finds common purpose with other academics who rail, sometimes on the basis of fiscal rectitude, against the ‘bloated bureaucracy’ that, for better or for worse, keeps the whole sector afloat. Graeber is right to note that that administrative roles have grown in proportion to academic ones over the medium term. He concedes that a lot of support staff actually do what it says on the tin and support academics, but then proceeds to ignore it in invoking his standard managerial feudalism-and-flunkies line.

There has been a proliferation of second layer leadership roles in universities as they have centralised authority and moved away from more collegial, horizontal governance. Some of these may resemble the testimonials Graeber collects. Moreover, in a wider frame, there may well be corporate bloat at senior executive level. But that is not the main story in the private or public sectors. In academia, most of the administrative expansion in what is known as professional services has come about due to changes in and a rapid expansion of what universities do in response to regulatory or market environments. A pertinent example is the support services that have mushroomed in response to successive research assessments. Academics can question some of their monitoring and metrics or indeed the rationale and outcome of the whole state-sponsored exercise. But again, the point is clear and the origins only too contemporary, rather than some kind of feudal relic.

The dubious economics surfaces when examining the application of Graeber’s analysis to the private sector. He seems astonished by the idea that managers could be overseeing other managers, but this is a long-term trend in business organisation. The idea that the business models of large firms in global value chains could tolerate large numbers of pointless administrative or managerial positions – whether ‘flunkies’ or ‘taskmasters’ – is absurd.  Competition is marked by intense pressures to control and squeeze labour costs. Whilst some of these pressures fall on routine workers, read sources such as the Financial Times and you see regular reports of big companies slashing middle management and back office jobs, delayering and ‘flattening the management structure’. If such jobs were simply time filling flunkies, they would disappear without trace, but as a recent FT article notes, the burden of work will fall on colleagues.

There is a wider point here about lack of knowledge or understanding of labour market and process trends. The whole thrust of 50% pointless jobs and the impression given of widespread ‘make-work’ jobs is also at odds with extensive evidence of rising work intensity in many sectors and punitive target-led regimes in other.  Caught between the twin claims of workers hating their jobs or those jobs being empty and pointless, Graeber allows no effective space for a radical critique of those aspects of job trends that workers actually do dislike, and disengage from.

Agency is, again, a problem for Graeber. ‘It’s as if someone out there were making up pointless jobs for the value of keeping us working’, he writes. But such statements lend themselves to vague and conspiratorial thinking. On occasions, this ‘someone’ becomes something, notably ‘the ruling class’ or ‘powerful people’, who have apparently ‘worked out that a productive population with time on their hands is a mortal danger’. As for labour agency, given their disinterested lethargy or submission to the work ethic, Graeber does not think that labour can mount a challenge to bullshit jobs or bullshit in jobs. For example, referring to academics, he says that they are ‘utterly incapable of any meaningful rebellion’. With no chance of change from above or below, how is the crisis of bullshit jobs going to be resolved? The answer appears to be, through the state. Graeber argues that given that work is horrible and pointless, workers can be set free and their creativity liberated through the provision of a universal basic income. Setting aside any arguments about the merits or otherwise of this proposal, given the existing acquiescence to the ideology of work it is not entirely clear who is going to compel the state to grant such a contentious demand. Struggle exits stage left. It is certainly a strange place for a self-proclaimed anarchist to end up.

In sum, the BJT has the appearance of radical critique, but behind the combative language and occasional managerialist target successfully skewered, lies a series of claims that are empirically unsustainable, conceptually flawed and politically a dead end. Writing off very large numbers of our fellow workers as flunkies, duct tapers and box tickers is not a plausible route to challenging the choices being made in the name of neoliberalism or new managerialism. Underneath those choices are also the exploitation and control dynamics of the commodification of labour in a capitalist economy. In other words, while work is certainly open to question, it should not be at the expense of questioning the circumstances that give rise to bullshit in jobs in the first place. Graeber’s missive does not meet that challenge.

Cross-posted at The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce blog.


6 Comments

  • Reply ERIK PATTISON July 31, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    All of these criticisms have fairly obvious rejoinders – some are even in the text! Just read the whole book! Graeber is starting a conversation and it sounds like you want to squash it. Given the mimetic pressure to pretend to find work fulfilling the response to the original essay was remarkable. He is not writing people off – he is responding to them,

    • Reply Rob Lewis August 2, 2018 at 9:24 pm

      So…that’s a yes?

    • Reply Matt Vidal August 3, 2018 at 5:36 pm

      Graeber is not starting any new conversations.

      Karl Marx argued in the 1840s that capitalist employment is alienating because the division of labor tends to create highly specialized, standardized jobs in which a worker does a simple task over and over again. This transfers creativity and judgement from workers to engineers and managers, leading to boring, unfulfilling work that can cripple workers both physically and intellectually.

      Marx also theorized a distinction between productive and unproductive labor. To simplify slightly, the former are jobs that produce useful goods are services that are sold for profit (farm workers, production workers, service providers). The latter are jobs where labor does not add any new value to a product or service (salespeople, advertising workers, unnecessary supervision, etc).

      Around the turn of the 20th century, Max Weber wrote about the subjective meaning and purpose of work. He noted how the subjective meaning of work varies over time, across societies and across occupations. For example, manual workers are more likely to have an instrumental orientation to work, while professionals are more likely to seek intrinsically rewarding work.

      Following these classical sociological foundations there have developed entire subdisciplines – the sociology of work, organizational psychology, human resource management, industrial relations – that have produced a corpus of theory and research whose central focus is job quality, job satisfaction, job characteristics and the like. This research has carefully delineated specific characteristics that make jobs good or bad, meaningful or meaningless.

      Other than a superficial, single-paragraph engagement with Marx on unproductive labor, Graeber entirely ignores this rich body of theory and research. The only new thing he has added is an incoherent concept – the bullshit job – as compelling explained by Thompson and Pitts in the above post.

  • Reply Rob Lewis August 1, 2018 at 9:39 pm

    Is it true that there are falsehoods and fabricated data in the story that you two are refusing to correct and omit?

  • Reply Paul Thompson and Frederick Harry Pitts August 4, 2018 at 9:27 am

    There are two comments on our article. The first says that in critiquing a book that is merely starting a conversation, we are trying to shut that down. Our view is simple. There are a variety of strong claims in Bullshit Jobs that have circulated extensively in the mainstream and left media. The idea that a short critique of those claims will stop that circulation and debate is absurd.

    The second comment asks whether ‘Is it true that there are falsehoods and fabricated data in the story that you two are refusing to correct and omit.’ In short, no it isn’t. The question of ‘falsehoods’ aside, to ‘refuse to correct’ assumes a request to do so from the author, with whom there has been no contact at all. Indeed, David Graeber has now acknowledged that the person to whom the request for retraction was addressed was not in fact one of the authors but rather someone who had simply retweeted our article.

    Despite this, Graeber continues, by means of a number of Twitter exchanges with other individuals, to make the incorrect allegation that we make ‘false claims’ about his work. Graeber has not engaged us directly about this, so we will take the opportunity to respond here. In his exchanges over the last few days, Graeber has made three recurring, specific objections to the piece: two about data and sources and one about who is counted in ‘real jobs’.

    The first objection Graeber raises is with regard to our claim that ‘the figure of 50% pointless jobs is plucked seemingly from the air.’ Graeber derives this 50% figure from an extrapolation from data generated in a YouGov survey conducted following the publication and rapid-fire reception of his initial article on ‘bullshit jobs’.

    It is worth keeping in mind that Graeber argues from a subjectivist standpoint, contending that there is no objective basis for deciding whether a job is bullshit or its opposite, of positive social value. This is, in part, why he is compelled to make so much of this survey and later of individual ‘testimonies’ sent to him. It is where this subjective assessment takes on a quantitative appearance that things come unstuck.

    The ‘50%’ figure is impactful in a way that, say, 37% would not be, and it crops up repeatedly in the book, albeit by means of a handful of different workings. This is what Graeber has to say at various points of his argument:

    ‘If 37 percent to 40 percent of jobs are completely pointless, and at least 50 percent of the work done in nonpointless office jobs is equally pointless, we can probably conclude that at least half of all work being done in our society could be eliminated without making any real difference at all.’ (Graeber 2018, p. 30)

    ‘If 37 percent of jobs are bullshit, and 37 percent of the remaining 63 percent are in support of bullshit, then slightly over 50 percent of all labor falls into the bullshit sector in the broadest sense of the term.’ (Graeber 2018, p. 55)

    ‘But already right now, 37 to 40 percent of workers in rich countries already feel their jobs are pointless. Roughly half the economy consists of, or exists in support of, bullshit.’ (Graeber 2018, p. 200)

    The definitions and exact compositions of the figure differ across the three statements quoted above, but all combine different extrapolations from the YouGov data, among other sources, that are in some way creative.

    For us to have said that this 50% figure is ‘plucked seemingly from the air’ is therefore not an assertion that Graeber has lied, ‘made up’ or engaged in any kind of fabrication of the facts. Our assertion is rather in recognition of how Graeber has arrived at the number through the interpretation of existing data to bring about something not necessarily there to begin with- which is analytically not anything unusual in academic work- but our issue is with the precise way in which this has been done.

    We spend some time in our critique focusing on the evidence base of the survey from which Graeber derives the claim and its limitations, but it is perhaps fair to say that we did not make sufficiently clear how Graeber gets from the survey data to the 50% figure, which lies at the heart of the matter. If we drill down further into this reasoning, we can see the problem with how Graeber has ‘plucked seemingly from the air’ the figure that some half of all jobs are bullshit.

    In a footnote, Graeber gives an explanation of how the 50% figure was reached from the YouGov survey data, and himself admits its imprecision:
    ‘This figure is obviously inexact. On the one hand, a very large percentage of cleaners, electricians, builders, etc., work for private individuals and not for firms at all. On the other hand, I am counting the 13 percent who say they aren’t sure if their jobs are bullshit or nonbullshit jobs. The 50 percent figure (actually 50.3 percent) is based on the assumption these two factors would roughly cancel each other out.’ (Graeber 2018, p. 55)

    For the figure of 50% to be plausible we first have to accept the formulation of the question ‘Is your job making a meaningful contribution to the world?’. Lack of meaningful contribution and ‘bullshit’ are or used interchangeably throughout the book. As we pointed out in our article, this formulation is heavily loaded, yet still produces a positive response of 50% yes.

    Graeber’s 50% figure is made up by adding together the 37% who said no and the 13% who said they weren’t sure, on the assumption, it seems, that latter can be taken to ‘suspect’ (his term) their jobs are bullshit in some way.

    There is no polling or social science precedent for aggregating two such figures. Even if there was a precedent, there is a potentially significant difference between saying your job doesn’t make a meaningful contribution to the world and your job is bullshit.

    Also, as we pointed out in the article, in the same survey 63% of respondents said that their jobs were very or fairly personally fulfilling, while only 23% said ‘not at all’. This is entirely inconsistent with the 50% figure.

    The second issue Graeber raises with our critique concerns data about the size of the service sector. Graeber has asserted that we have falsely claimed no source is given for the figure of a steady 20% ‘real service sector’. Graeber wants to make a case that the non-bullshit component is relatively small and has been static over a long period, with the expansion coming primarily from information workers (administrators, consultants, clerical, accounting and others of the ‘FIRE’ sector).

    He puts the ‘real’ services figure at 20%, for which in our critique we said no source was given. Graeber has objected to this, stating that a source given. On the basis of normal citation practice, this is only partly true. On pages 108 and 174 there are references to a ‘real services sector’ standing at 20% of occupations. There is, on page 108, an in-text mention of a 1992 study by ‘Robert Taylor, a library scientist’, with a diagram from the study apparently reproduced.

    However, as a likeminded review by Jason Smith notes, ‘These data are attributed to an uncited source (“Robert Taylor, a library scientist”) from a study done in 1992—the study is not listed in the bibliography, or footnoted’. We are not suggesting Graeber made this source up, but a search online for the works of the library scientist Robert Saxton Taylor (we assume it is the same person) does not throw up anything matching the year given. A citation directing readers to where the source can be located would assist the curious in understanding more about the topic, and help critics verify the claims made from it so as to contrast them with differing evidence available elsewhere. Perhaps this was an error in copyediting or typesetting- but it matters nonetheless. For, as Smith states in his review,

    ‘A recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report on the fastest growing occupations in the US offers a sobering correction to Graeber’s tableau of do-nothing “salaried paper pushers:” personal care aides, home health aides, “combined food preparation and serving workers, including fast food,” retail salespersons, nursing assistants, customer service representatives, restaurant cooks, medical assistants, and “janitors and cleaners, except maids and housekeeping cleaners.”’

    Moving to the third bone of contention, Graeber has raised objections to a perceived claim that he does not consider nursing or education to be ‘real’ work. In fact, we claim the precise opposite! We write, ‘Take the example used by Graeber of the frustrations felt by nurses and teachers due to bureaucratic hoop jumping. The ‘point’ of such measures is obvious to those subject to them. They are the outcome of political and managerial choices to meet the requirements of policies such as internal market competition, centralised targets, corporate or state regulation, performance metrics and so on. In no way are they integral to the job – a political ramification the anarchist Graeber somehow seems to miss. Now it is entirely possible that Graeber categorises teaching and nurses as ‘real jobs’ that somehow escape the pointlessness label…’. In other words, we do actually suggest that he considers them ‘real’ work!

    We would like to reiterate one point concerning our article. Though we questioned Graeber’s sources and methods, the vast bulk of it was concerned with challenging his explanations for the growth of what we call bullshit in jobs. It would be nice to have a real debate on that free from accusations of bad faith and falsehoods.

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