David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018)

Author: David Graeber

Title: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 335

Series: –

Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory is a curious book. It is not as much an academic dissertation, or in any way a scientific book, as it is an elaborate opinion piece. It is emotional, forceful and only shallowly researched, and goes as far in its crusade as to bend some of the facts to the overarching idea – not to mention the fact that said crusade is being led from a comfy professorial chair in one of the expensive American universities. And yet, I read it with growing relief and weirdly depressing comfort stemming from the assurance that I’m not the only one feeling oppressed by the growing idiocy and uselessness of many modern jobs.

Graeber doesn’t write much that could be construed as new or original. The strength of this book lies in the author’s ability to gather these pieces, these facts and testimonies, in one place, and bind them together into a form of a narrative. There are barely any bones of a theory here, so if you’re expecting a full-fledged, well-researched theoretical construct, look somewhere else. But thanks to the sheer force and number of the testimonies gathered by Graeber, the many and varied anecdotes which fuse into a coherent picture of modern workplace and modern work, this is, at least for now, the main source of exploration of the woes of our late form of capitalism.

Graeber argues that the 40hr/week requirement for office jobs is bullshit. In this era of automatization (and he wrote his book before the apperance of AIs such as ChatGPT) workers should be able to work much less – 20 or even 15 hours per week, because their quintessential work tasks can be easily done in this amount of time. The rest is spent on useless, counterproductive, and/or mind-numbing tasks, or even on the completely unrelated to work but essential to workplace effort of pretending-to-look-busy. Not surprisingly, he focuses his wrath on meetings and bureaucracy, so I’m not sure if socializing is or isn’t included in his 20hr prescription. While I believe bureaucracy to always be a worthy recipient of my wrath, and I’ve had my share of totally useless meetings that lasted for eternity, I am curious as to what Graeber imagines would happen in his ideal world to jobs like teachers, nurses, preschool care, etc. Not everybody’s job could or should be limited to 20hr/week. The solution, I guess, would be to have enough people working in those jobs to fill the double the amount of roles, but who would pay for it? A diehard socialist, Graeber is the first to tax the richest – and I agree, I don’t see how we can still pretend that the money the richest 1% earn or inherit is completely their own and not owed to the society in any part. That said, the actual action of taxing the richest would have to be a global effort, with every country agreeing to tighten their tax system to a similar level so that various island destinations would be no longer so incentivizing as a means to escape the payment. In other words, as much as I’d rally behind these concepts, as things stand now, I cannot see them as anything but utopian. Though I still believe, like Graeber, that a form of universal basic income will be the way to go in the future – hopefully not too far future, but we’ll first need to face the pension crisis, so who knows?

And yet, there is a part of me that clings to the radical idea that job should have an intrinsic meaning – not just to provide the means to live the remaining part of your life in relative security, but to allow you to do stuff that matters. We spend over a third of our adult life at work. We actually spend much more, we do need to sleep sometimes, so a more realistic calculation would put the number as closer to half than to a third. What’s more, what we really sell to our employers is not our skills, it’s our lives – those 40 hours every week, the time we’re not ever getting back. And yet, the meaningful jobs are often the least paid, not very respected, and often requiring much more than 40hrs/week. How does this work?

Graeber offers some ideas, though they are very speculative, a sort of brainstorm of intuitions, some of which work better than others, but none of which are even remotely provable. There is a long tradition of critical theory, embodied by the Frankfurt School, the members of which were apt to use psychoanalytic terms to analyze societal beliefs, activities and structures. I’m not going to bore you to tears with academic scrutiny, so let’s just say I see Graeber as somewhat whimsical and fickle descendant of this tradition – more interested in Marxist-leaning progressivism and anarchism than in theoritical thought, but still fascinated by the concepts of sadomasochism or guilty resentment. His diagnoses are simplistic and largely controversial; and however liberally we approach social anthropology, it has certain rules that say, for example, that we should not equate individual feelings, however deeply felt, with statistically releveant representation. One oral testimony, or even fifty, does not form a sound basis for statistical generalizations. That said, Bullshit Jobs is clearly onto something – these feelings are widespread and firmly entrenched in the popular awareness, affecting multitudes beyond the people quoted in this book. These stories resonate.

So why did I like this book? Ah, I guess the main drive is the aforementioned feeling of not being alone. It is deeply comforting to have another firebrand idealist around (though, admittedly, Graeber passed away a few years back) who is actually able to publish their ideas and garner significant feedback. The economic system in which we’re living is broken; we’re increasingly forced to choose between family life and professional career, and our generation is the first in a long time that will statistically achieve a lower living standard than that of our parents – not through any fault of our own. We’re living in times of nearly constant social and economic crises, in times of continuously growing economic and social inequalities; it is therefore not surprising, though still deeply saddening, to see the flourishing of the radical fringes on both sides of the spectrum. Graeber doesn’t offer any quick or entirely realistic solutions, or even much in terms of deep analysis. But his book is a first necessary step to recognize that the problem exists and to get to these solutions and these analyses.

Score: 8/10 stars

22 thoughts on “David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (2018)

  1. Very interesting, Ola! I’m going to put this on my list, right after I’ve read the other Graeber book on there, The Dawn of Everything. I think that in some parts of Western Europe, countries start to realise that it is ok to work four days a week without much or any loss of productivity. Some companies offer full 40 hour salary for 32 hour weeks. In the Netherlands, the four day work week has become so normalised in recent years that it is almost the rule. This occasionally causes a backlash among certain economists and politicians who mock it and want everyone to work more, but the people have realised that four days a week leaves you with so much more time to destress and live your life. Also, there are so many people getting burnouts because of our stressful society, and many people with long covid or other health issues, that five days a week is just hard. Or an unattainable goal.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s certainly worth reading, even if you don’t agree with everything. Be aware though that Graeber doesn’t care about scientific rigor or even research overly much 🙂 I wonder if his The Dawn of Everything is similar in this regard, but Bullshit Jobs certainly fits into a “theory better than facts” approach – which is fine in my book as long as everybody is aware of it and treats his work as exhaustive political opinion rather than sound scientific theory 🙂

      Man, I envy you… Any chance one can find work knowing no Dutch?? 😉 NZ is very American in this respect, and I suspect Australia too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Dawn of Everything was fascinating and I thought it worth reading, but the overall point being made was not convincing at all. As far as scientific rigor goes, you really get the sense they just use the data they like and interpret it the way they want to.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Forewarned is forearmed 😀 I feel like Graeber felt he had the licentia poetica to treat facts that didn’t suit him like inconvenient obstacles on his way to righteousness. But I can roll with that since he’s quite open about this – he’s happy writing informed opinion pieces published by popular publishers. I might give Dawn… a go, I’m pretty curious now – thanks for the rec and the comment, Alex!


      2. I heard that thing about The Dawn of Everything about that it is criticized for not being rigorous enough. But i still want to read it. Books like Guns Germs and Steel and Harari’s Sapiens were also criticized after release, but I am still glad that I’ve read them because of the ideas inside.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh yeah, totally – and I’ll be the first to criticize them for that very reason 😁 but it doesn’t stop me from reading them and appreciating the ideas and the opportunity to discuss them!

          Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, I noticed your review. I’m still curious, and with the approach I take to Graeber’s stuff, i.e. treating it as an opinion piece and not scientifically rigorous dissertation, I think I should be okay? Or was his cavalier approach totally pissing you off?

          Liked by 1 person

      1. See, right there, that’s half the problem. People want money, not just to have enough to buy the necessities, but for excess. And thus they are willing to do jobs that no right-thinking (correct thinking since you mentioned politics in your review) person would do.
        We currently have a guy at work who works 45hrs for us, then does bar tending in the evenings and during the summer, works for a one man land survey company on the weekend. And his wife is a nurse who is getting paid quite well.
        And they have 2 car payments, an rv payment (that sucker cost 60K) plus daycare for 2 kids with a 3rd on the way.
        And he is well on his way to burnout. But they want what they want instead of being willing to live with less.

        Mrs B and I have always had the attitude of “if you can’t afford it, you don’t buy it”. Amazing how much better life is when we’re not chasing down stuff. Or worrying about all the stuff we don’t have.

        Materialism is alive and well, and killing people by inches 😦

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think having kids these days is an investment on a cosmic scale. I just looked up the recent data, you can find it here: https://www.investopedia.com/articles/personal-finance/090415/cost-raising-child-america.asp#:~:text=While%20it%20can%20vary%20due,per%20child%20to%20the%20total. That’s a price of a house for one kid. If this guy you mentioned decided to have three, it means at least three houses, not counting the one he already needs to have to actually raise these kids. And that’s not counting uni costs.

          But apart from that, I agree with you. We don’t need all that stuff. These days companies make money on inventing new needs and then pushing them on us, creating market around them, and hiking up the prices of what we’ve started to believe we need. People so easily become victims of greed – and the painful thing is that even those not greedy become victims of someone else’s greed. Think medical costs, or housing costs, or third world countries.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. There are a lot of interesting arguments discussed in this one and it’s absolutely true that a 40-hour structure is such a structural norm but that we can all achieve way more in way less time. I’m glad this vibrated at the same frequency as you currently are these days, Ola. It sounds like a great read if in the right mindset.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! I wonder what frequency I am on, these days, though – do you have any impressions? It’s certainly eye-opening to have all that stuff in one place. Even if one doesn’t agree with Graeber it is worth reading – not for finding causes, but for realizing the extent of the problem. Thanks for reading, Lashaan!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. LOL, I took your previous comment to mean that the “old” me would not like this book as much and that my reading tastes changed. That got me curious and naturally I wanted to find out more! But I just as well may have read too much into your comment, so no worries if that’s not the case 🤣

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Paul Connelly

    I read somewhere that the modern concept of “management” was based on the structure of the military chain-of-command and rankings, which may not be the optimal design for other types of organizations. And a question is: how far up in the hierarchy do you have to go before you hit a manager who has no idea what you and others on your level are actually doing to contribute to the enterprise? Yet the decisions on whether to lay you off, add to your workload, or tighten your deadlines are probably being made at that manager’s level and above. I’m not familiar with the military, but does a major know what each private is contributing? Does a colonel?

    That makes it easy for pockets of people doing useless or even counterproductive work to develop. Managers’ sense of importance can be derived from the size of their fiefs, so in good times they over-hire to add staff for contingencies that may not eventuate. (I remember interviewing several times for positions where the work had not been fully defined or where they hadn’t made important platform decisions like what database product to use.) In my years with a large corporation I saw many people working at bullshit jobs writing white papers that everyone ignored or creating rules and procedures for other people to follow (adding to their workload) based as much on whims and superstition as factual research. With multiple apparently qualified people applying for open positions, the hire of the most likable person was very common. And managers tended to surround themselves with their favorite likable individuals and tried to preserve those people’s positions when times got hard. So the opportunities for the content of jobs and the well-being of the enterprise to get misaligned were frequent.

    I put Graeber in the category of authors I read in order to see the conventional wisdom on some subject challenged, and here he does that based on anecdotes and self-selected respondents–but that’s good enough for the subject under discussion, which must resonate with many workers. And I thought The Dawn of Everything was a good read on the same score, not that I was going to hunt down every work they cited (in the many hundreds of footnotes) in support of their arguments to see if it all checked out. The interpretation of prehistoric and even a few centuries old historic evidence is always a fraught endeavor, one in which we fall back on our tendency to construct coherent narratives just because that pleases us. But all of those narratives of history are questionable, and the more overarching and generalized the more fragile and myth-adjacent they become. From the standpoint of challenging the “inevitable progress” narrative, I thought The Dawn of Everything did fine, even if its alternatives were not entirely convincing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for this very insightful comment, Paul. What bugs me the most about our current system are not flunkies, whose situation you so eloquently describe. They are a pain, sure, and mostly serve as the buttressing for some manager’s ego – I feel Graeber’s analogy with the feudal system was spot on. But the main problem of this system I see in creating jobs and tasks which bring no value whatsoever, but are maintained at the cost of the hours of our lives. In other words, we could work more efficiently and do the stuff we do that has some significance, and is not a result of whim (for the most part, not everyone is in this situation) in less than 40 hours/week. I would love to have that time back, please.

      Yes, I agree: Graeber is great for stirring up the pot. Do I agree with everything he writes? Nope. But what he writes is refreshing, and it resonates with my own experiences. I will read The Dawn of Everything with much the same approach: I won’t treat it as a scientific treatise, but rather as an opinion piece: informed, elaborate, and essentially political (which is not a bad thing, but which by championing one version/vision above all others allows one to indulge their own biases and interpret facts according to them with a level of impunity higher than that accorded to scientific papers).


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