For more and more people, work appears to serve no purpose. Is there any good left in the grind?
[The] bullshit employment has come to serve in places like the U.S. and Britain as a disguised, half-baked version of the dole—one attuned specially to a large, credentialled middle class.
In “Bullshit Jobs” (Simon & Schuster), David Graeber, an anthropologist now at the London School of Economics, seeks a diagnosis and epidemiology for what he calls the “useless jobs that no one wants to talk about.” He thinks these jobs are everywhere. By all the evidence, they are. His book, which has the virtue of being both clever and charismatic, follows a much circulated essay that he wrote, in 2013, to call out such occupations. Some, he thought, were structurally extraneous: if all lobbyists or corporate lawyers on the planet disappeared en masse, not even their clients would miss them. Others were pointless in opaque ways. Soon after the essay appeared, in a small journal, readers translated it into a dozen languages, and hundreds of people, Graeber reports, contributed their own stories of work within the bullshit sphere.
Those stories give his new book an ad-hoc empiricism. YouGov, a data-analytics firm, polled British people, in 2015, about whether they thought that their jobs made a meaningful contribution to the world. Thirty-seven per cent said no, and thirteen per cent were unsure—a high proportion, but one that was echoed elsewhere. (In the functional and well-adjusted Netherlands, forty per cent of respondents believed their jobs had no reason to exist.) And yet poll numbers may be less revealing than reports from the bullshit trenches. Here is Hannibal, one of Graeber’s contacts:
I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn’t used in the end because they didn’t manage to get to that agenda point.
Under a different social model, a young woman unable to find a spot in the workforce might have collected a government check. Now, instead, she can acquire a bullshit job at, say, a health-care company, spend half of every morning compiling useless reports, and use the rest of her desk time to play computer solitaire or shop for camping equipment online. It’s not, perhaps, a life well-lived. But it’s not the terror of penury, either.
…his point is that the bullshit economy feeds itself. Workers cram in Netflix binges, online purchases, takeout meals, and yoga classes as rewards for yet another day of the demoralizing bullshit work that sustains such life styles. (Graeber’s frame is mostly urban and educated middle-class, which seems unobjectionable, since, one suspects, his readers are, too.) Acculturation happens early….
Jeffrey Eugenides wrote much of “The Virgin Suicides” during his employment as a secretary….