Book Review: Bullsh*t Jobs by David Graeber

Quote of the book

“We need to ask ourselves, not just how did such a large proportion of our workforce find themselves laboring at tasks they consider pointless, but also why do so many people believe this state of affairs to be normal, inevitable – even desirable?”

5 key points

  • A bullshit job is a form of paid employment which is so pointless and unnecessary that even the employee can’t justify its existence and they have to pretend it is useful.
  • Graeber explains how, instead of creating efficiency and productivity, capitalism has resulted in the creation of bullshit, meaningless jobs.
  • Graeber makes the observation that the more the job helps other people, the less it is paid.
  • Having a bullshit job can have profound impacts on the human psyche. For example, a psychological phenomenon called the “trauma of failed influence” can occur, where someone suffers after being told they can cause an effect but are later denied the possibility to.
  • Graeber wants people to think about what a free society and human freedom looks like, away from the chains that have tied up many people to bullshit labour.

Review

“So, what do you do?” This is one of the first questions someone tends to ask in a round of introductions, usually referring to what is done for a living. For many people, this question brings up feelings of dread, wondering ‘how do I make my job sound interesting’, as well as a sense of uneasiness if their job title does not accurately sum up their personality and interests.

Written by the late anthropologist David Graeber, this funny and provocative book may make the reader re-evaluate their jobs, in some ways uncomfortably, but in many ways humorously. It does not provide a list of every type of pointless job, although he does name drop many jobs that are considered bullshit. Instead, this book fundamentally questions how, as a society, we have reached a point where we are stuck in jobs which add no value to society and that if these jobs did not exist, the world could be a better place. It is deeply honest and revealing, sharing unspoken truths about the human condition, ultimately asking how we can reach human freedom.

The book was published only recently in 2018, following the attention received on Graeber’s article in the magazine Strike. However, this book has become even more relevant in 2020 and 2021, when a clear category of “key workers” or “essential workers” was defined during the coronavirus pandemic. This raised questions of what is meaningful and socially valuable work. The book crosses the disciplines of economics, politics, economic and social anthropology, philosophy, and sociology.

The book starts slowly, explaining in depth what is meant by the term “bullsh*t job”, which I thought was a little over descriptive, but it was still useful to understand the thinking that Graeber went through to derive the term. He eventually came to the definition that a bullshit job is one which is so pointless and unnecessary that even the employee can’t justify its existence and they have to pretend it is useful.

There is great emphasis on the psychological implications of having a bullshit job, embellished with examples of people whose stories he shares. For example, there was someone who was so mindlessly pained by the pointlessness of their job, that they started turning up to work drunk and booking paid business trips for non-existent meetings, just to see how far they could push it. Graeber describes having a bullshit job as being a form of “spiritual violence” which results in feelings of “hopelessness, depression, and self-loathing”. Later on in the book, he raises the point that there comes a certain pride with being able to say that you have been grinding all week, with it being socially unacceptable to say that, actually, you might enjoy what you do. This despairing contradiction reveals a lot about how society has let the number of bullshit jobs keep growing, despite the fact that many bullshit jobs, such as corporate lobbyists and financial consultants “seem responsible for a disproportionately large share of the harm done in the world”.

Towards the middle of the book, it slows down in pace as there are only so many arguments which can be made about bullsh*t work, so it frequently reads like a rant. Many reasons are cited for why the work is damaging, not least because it stifles creativity and means people have inflexible work patterns. I was particularly taken aback by Graeber’s claim that most people are aware that they are in bullsh*t jobs. He says he is not sure he has met a “corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit”. It made me question why, even when people are aware of the nature of their work, this type of work is so common. This is a question the book attempts to answer in the last third.

Here the pace picks up as the book asks challenging questions, such as why people are still insisting on working in this way when it would be better for the planet to work less. Or, how come Uber managed to have running operations without a CEO, CFO, or chief operating officer for a period of time. He also questions why, even with technological advancements, we still as a society pride over working, which is now being questioned more since a lot of people have been remote working. Whilst asking these questions, Graeber also attempts to find some reasons why a capitalist society has resulted in this situation.

I found Graeber’s analysis on social value to be insightful. He argues that creating value for other people, not just wealth, is at the core of meaningful work. In other words, it is the sociability of the work. He explains how the jobs with the most social value in fact pay the least with numerical figures. For example, hospital cleaners create £10 of social value for every £1 they are paid, whilst a city banker destroys £7 for every £1 they are paid.

Overall, Graeber wants the reader to reflect on what a free society and human freedom looks like, away from the chains of bullshit labour. This is important when 37-40% of people in rich countries think their jobs are pointless, despite it being “profoundly upsetting” to “live in a state of utter purposelessness”. I was pleasantly surprised with how philosophical and moral the book is, revealing truths about the human condition and what human needs are. 

I recommend it to those interested in what is meaningful for humans, economics, sociology, anthropology, as well as those who are going through career transitions. It may well offer you some food for thought in that aspect.

Overall rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Get the book | Official website | Goodreads

Published by sharemylibrary

Non-fiction book reviews, summaries, and recommendations

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