If you think your job is meaningless, you are far from alone

If you think your job is meaningless, you are far from alone
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One of the few things both the left and right always seem to agree on is that jobs are always good.

Whether it is the politician evoking the troubles of “hardworking families;” left-wing peace protestors waving banners demanding “money for jobs, not for war;” or the right-wing bystanders muttering “get a job!” as they march by; everyone seems to agree that jobs are a good thing, that we need more of them and that everyone should be in one.

It is simply taken for granted that if a job exists, it serves a useful purpose, and that it's better that someone is doing it than doing nothing.

There is every reason to believe this isn't true.


Workplace surveys tend to focus on whether employees find their jobs satisfying, stressful or fulfilling, but they rarely ask whether workers believe their jobs have any good reason to exist at all. When they do, the results are often startling.

Surveys in the U.K. and Holland, for instance, found that between 37-40 percent of workers felt their jobs made no meaningful contribution to society.

Even if these numbers are high, it appears that increasing numbers of people in almost all rich countries are convinced that they are trapped within what I've termed “bullshit jobs” — forms of employment so completely pointless, pernicious or of so little social value that, were they to disappear, it would either make no difference whatsoever, or the world might actually be a slightly better place.

For several years I have been conducting research on such pointless occupations: jobs that tend to concentrate not (as one might suspect) in service or retail but overwhelmingly in clerical, administrative, managerial and supervisory positions.

They also appear to include significant proportions, probably the majority, of those working in advertising, public relations, lobbying, finance and corporate law and almost anyone who works in fields like telemarketing.

Many report themselves to be literally doing nothing all day; working perhaps an hour or two a week but otherwise surfing the net or playing computer games.

My own research proceeds on a very simple, if radical premise: What if all these people are right? After all, who would know better? If the numbers revealed in the surveys are even close to correct, it's quite possible that as much as half the work currently being done in Europe and North America is completely unnecessary.

After all, one would then have to take into consideration all the second-order meaningless jobs, i.e., those providing real products or services to those who are really doing nothing — the people, for example, cleaning or doing security for offices that are part of some elaborate tax scam.

Also, consider the “bullshitization,” as some have put it, of real work: American office workers for instance reported in 2016 that at best, half of their time is spent doing their actual jobs, and the rest is spent on useless meetings, emails and administrative obligations.

Many nurses and teachers — people who do some of the most obviously useful jobs — report that up to three-quarters of their time is spent on paperwork; paperwork that seems to exist largely to justify the existence of the ever-swelling ranks of school or hospital administrators upstairs.

Even a moment's reflection should reveal how dire a situation this really is. Think only of the health and psychological effects: Those trapped in crap jobs regularly complained of forms of stress, anxiety, depression, workplace bullying and abuse, all of which were often reported to disappear when teams were given a meaningful task or they switched to what they considered a more useful form of employment.

Think of the cultural effects: Is it a surprise, really, that almost all the new cultural innovations of recent decades, from cat memes to youtube rants, consist of things you can produce while pretending to be working? More serious arts have languished. Everyone is simply working too hard, and frequently, at nothing. And I need hardly remark on the likely effects on climate change.

How could this situation have come about? After all, isn't this precisely the sort of thing we associate with the old Soviet Union, the very thing that shouldn't be happening under capitalism. Yet, the bullshitization of our economy seems to be proceeding as quickly — if anything, even more quickly — in the private sector.

Almost anyone familiar with the interior life of large corporations, corporatized hospitals, newspapers, museums or universities, is aware of the burgeoning army of flunkies, box-tickers, consultants and managers whose sole task seems to involve managing other managers, and endless tiers of empire-building executives whose entire jobs seem to consist of coming up with performance metrics and flying off to meetings.

We need to start asking some serious questions about how this came about and what can be done about it. How has public policy inadvertently created an environment where meaningless jobs proliferate?

Once, when policymakers wished to encourage employment, they acted to put more money in the hands of consumers so that employers would hire people to make and sell things.

Has trickle-down economics created a situation where “job-creators," now flush with resources and under pressure to actually create jobs of some sort, simply end up hiring endless legions of minions instead? Is it an inadvertent effect of digitization? Or is it the sign of some deeper tectonic shift in the very nature of our economic system?

If nothing else, one thing seems clear: Our obsession with the moral value of work has blinded us to a social problem that is having absolutely disastrous effects on society, human happiness and the planet itself.  

David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of, "Bullshit Jobs: A Theory," and "Debt: The First 5000 Years."