MOST PEOPLE feel, from time to time, that their work is meaningless. David Graeber, the late anthropologist, built an elaborate thesis out of this insight. He argued in a book in 2018 that society has been deliberately creating more and more “bullshit jobs” in professions such as financial services to fill the time of educated workers who need the money to pay off student debts but who suffer from depression because of their work. His thesis has been cited more than 800 times by academics, according to Google Scholar, and often repeated in the media.
When the book came out, this columnist was unimpressed, arguing that the thesis was a partial reworking of the insights of C. Northcote Parkinson, who argued that bureaucracy has an innate tendency to expand and make work for itself. Three academics—Magdalena Soffia, Alex Wood and Brendan Burchell—have undertaken a systematic analysis* of the claims behind Mr Graeber’s work and found that the data often show the exact opposite of what he predicted. The bullshit-jobs thesis, in other words, is largely bullshit.
In his book, Mr Graeber relied heavily on surveys of British and Dutch workers that asked participants whether their job made a meaningful contribution to the world. This seems a high bar to clear; it is unsurprising that 37-40% of respondents thought their job didn’t qualify. By contrast, the academics used the European Working Conditions Surveys, which by 2015 had talked to 44,000 workers across 35 countries. They focused on those respondents who thought that the statement “I have the feeling of doing useful work” applied to them “rarely” or “never”.
In contrast to the high share of bullshit jobs reported by Mr Graeber, in 2015 only 4.8% of respondents in the EU felt their work was useless. And this proportion had fallen, not risen, in recent years, from 5.5% in 2010 and 7.8% in 2005.
Furthermore, those who work in clerical and administrative jobs are far less likely to view their jobs as useless than those who are employed in roles that Mr Graeber regarded as essential, such as refuse collection and cleaning. Indeed, the researchers found an inverse relationship between education and the feeling of usefulness. Less educated workers were likelier to feel that their jobs were useless. And student debt does not appear to be a factor. In Britain, where its level is the highest in Europe, non-graduates under 29 were twice as likely to feel useless as their indebted graduate peers.
So what is really going on? Part of the problem, surely, is the prejudice felt by academics like Mr Graeber towards those who work in finance or other capitalist occupations, and a resentment that such people earn so much more than those who work in the caring professions or manual labour. To be fair, Bartleby has met many a financier and businessman who is prejudiced in the other direction—believing that academics and those in other “dilettante” jobs (like journalism) are living off the wealth that capitalists generate. Another factor is the human tendency to adopt the culture of their profession; those who sell assault rifles or homeopathic medicines eventually come to believe they are doing good work.
But part of Mr Graeber’s thesis turns out to be correct. Employees who think their work is useless tend to feel anxious and depressed. The reason, the academics suggest, is linked to the Marxist idea of “alienation”, which described what artisans felt in the 19th century when they stopped working for themselves and were dragooned into factories.
Alienation depends on how the workers are treated by those in charge. “If managers are respectful, supportive and listen to workers, and if workers have the opportunities for participation, to use their own ideas and have time to do a good job, they are less likely to feel that their work is useless,” the researchers write. Workers are likelier to feel useless when they lack the chance to use their skills or display autonomy. This problem more often bedevils those in low-paid work than graduates in the professions.
In essence, this is a restatement of the old adage that “people don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers.” It is a backhanded compliment to managers that less than 5% of workers feel their efforts are useless. You need not envision an elaborate conspiracy to explain why people occasionally find their jobs boring or dispiriting. That’s life.
* “Alienation is not ‘bullshit’: an empirical critique of Graeber’s theory of BS Jobs”, Work, Employment and Society, June 2021
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Detecting the real bullshit”