"They are turning OUR atmosphere into THEIR atmosphere."

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century's end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There's every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn't happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

Why did Keynes' promised utopia -- still being eagerly awaited in the '60s -- never materialise? The standard line today is that he didn't figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we've collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment's reflection shows it can't really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the '20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers. [...]

It's as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery. In capitalism, this is precisely what is not supposed to happen. Sure, in the old inefficient socialist states like the Soviet Union, where employment was considered both a right and a sacred duty, the system made up as many jobs as they had to (this is why in Soviet department stores it took three clerks to sell a piece of meat). But, of course, this is the sort of very problem market competition is supposed to fix. According to economic theory, at least, the last thing a profit-seeking firm is going to do is shell out money to workers they don't really need to employ. Still, somehow, it happens. [...]

There's a lot of questions one could ask here, starting with, what does it say about our society that it seems to generate an extremely limited demand for talented poet-musicians, but an apparently infinite demand for specialists in corporate law? (Answer: if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call "the market" reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.) But even more, it shows that most people in these jobs are ultimately aware of it. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever met a corporate lawyer who didn't think their job was bullshit. The same goes for almost all the new industries outlined above. There is a whole class of salaried professionals that, should you meet them at parties and admit that you do something that might be considered interesting, will want to avoid even discussing their line of work entirely. Give them a few drinks, and they will launch into tirades about how pointless and stupid their job really is.

This is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment. Yet it is the peculiar genius of our society that its rulers have figured out a way to ensure that rage is directed precisely against those who actually do get to do meaningful work. For instance: in our society, there seems a general rule that, the more obviously one's work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it. Again, an objective measure is hard to find, but one easy way to get a sense is to ask: what would happen were this entire class of people to simply disappear? Say what you like about nurses, garbage collectors, or mechanics, it's obvious that were they to vanish in a puff of smoke, the results would be immediate and catastrophic. A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.


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43 Responses:

  1. Tyler Newman says:

    thank you for posting that! great stuff.

  2. I looked at the author's CV. He doesn't identify ever having had a post-high school job outside of academic research assistant or assistant/visiting professor positions. In anthropology. On magic. Hooray to him for calling out me and the rest of my fellow benighted parasites in professional services industries for our undignified, bullshit vanity.

  3. Tom Lord says:

    In support of the thesis of this article, someone offered me this observation:

    It is an empirically true cliche that many holders of bullshit jobs will complain about, say, a BART strike by saying "Why, I would do their job for HALF the money!" This typically uttered by someone who makes considerably more than the typical BART worker, at a job that surely wouldn't be missed by anyone else.

    What is that, then, but a manifestation of the psychological tension of the envy of meaningful but inaccessible work, converted to hatred of the luckier worker?

    • slacker says:

      I think the complaint more often goes "Lots of people who currently make much less than BART workers would happily do their job for less. Why not let them?" They are paid above market rates and get concessions most would-be-employees would not require, which is the whole point of having a union, but is also fair grounds for some resentment and frustration, since they have a monopoly on a critical public service.

      The fact that market rate is not enough to live on is the real problem there. If we let salaries fall to market value, more of us could work, but could more of us pay rent and feed ourselves? I think those issues are well beyond the scope of the article or the BART strike though.

      As for the article, I agreed with some of it, but I was disappointed that he never got into why the shit jobs pay so little. I would guess it's because many of them don't require much skill, so the labor pool is very large and the jobs are easy to fill. But it's not true of all of them — good teachers are far more valuable than bad teachers, and yet we pay them all crap because we are stupid and short sighted.

      My favorite bit was:

      if 1% of the population controls most of the disposable wealth, what we call “the market” reflects what they think is useful or important, not anybody else.

      Though I think it's wrong, because it's all the spending that determines market prices, not just "disposable" wealth.

      I also want to give a shout out to actuaries. I'd miss you if you all vanished! Reducing variance through risk-pooling is tremendously valuable (keeping the hard times from breaking you), and pricing insurance correctly saves us a ton of money collectively and generally makes insurance as affordable as it can be.

      • Tom Lord says:


      • James says:

        Because it's a very illiquid market. Most people don't have voluntary location mobility, and most people are locked into benefit, compensation, and promotion structures that strongly discourage switching jobs.

      • Elusis says:

        "Lots of people who currently make much less than BART workers would happily do their job for less. Why not let them?"

        The question I always ask people who are pursuing this line of complaint is "then why not go apply for one of those [government, union, etc.] jobs if they're so cushy and un-skilled?" Then I usually get a bunch of grumbling about how they'd never get one, because it's who you know, and quotas, and etc. Which, the more I think about it, makes me wonder if the resentment of government and union workers is in part because the civil service and union systems has been more effective in reducing racial discrimination than the private sector, and hence contains more visibly black and brown people getting paid decent money and benefits than the private sector. I have come to suspect that the resentment of these jobs may just be racism at its core.

        • gryazi says:

          Having watched a family member try to apply for a state government job once [over here in New England], it's also just a convoluted rabbit-hole of I, II, III rankings, mandatory placement tests you don't get called back to actually take (IIRC), etc.

          Private industry has its own bureaucratic BS but since most of the business press doesn't treat 'government' as a real industry you don't get a lot of 'how to navigate this crap' articles compared to 'how to tweak your resume for McDonalds'. And now, years later, there's a minor slowly-unrolling scandal about 'nepotism' because too many new hires are relatives of people who understand The System. [We also end up furloughing everyone every few years because Budget Crisis to keep a siege mentality up on the inside.]

      • Chris says:

        The current situation with teachers (who IMHO are payed quite handsomely in my country, Canada) is that they persistently resist any attempts to tie salary with outcome (more accurately, they deny that we can come up with a "fair" way to measure classroom outcomes in any way, and resist the application of any such to their salaries). So the only thing varying the salary determines is whether you get enough or not enough teachers. Since we have thousands of unemployed teachers with hundreds more graduating each year, the salary is probably too high.

        Some people claim that the higher the salary, the more likely we are to get better teachers. How they intend to determine who the good ones are before they start working when it's apparently impossible to determine who the good ones are once they're already working is unclear to me.

        • deathdrone says:

          I've heard stories that some organizations used to pay programmers according to how many lines of code they produced. Nowadays, thankfully, everyone seems to take it for granted that programming is too complicated for such crude metrics to be useful.

          But since HUMANS are so very SIMPLE compared to computers, I'm sure you won't have any trouble.

        • MetaRZA says:

          Tieing teacher's sallaries to results has been tried in the USA. It was called "No Child Left Behind" and ended up lowering the quality of education.

          • Chris says:

            Tried once, and not in a very good way. But fine, let's posit that trying it once means we've proven that we'll never be able to come up with a useful way to tie teacher compensation to quality. Then we're not short-sighted for not paying teachers more than we are -- we'd be fools to pay teachers more when we already have enough to do the job.

            If there's really no way to measure teacher quality, then all speculation about whether a higher salary would attract better teachers is just masturbatory. We'd have no way to figure out who's better, and thus no way to pick the good ones out of the presumably larger crowd of applicants attracted by the higher salary.

  4. Jeff Warnica says:

    Well, when someones boss asks them "Are you busy" and they respond with anything except "yes", then they get themselves fired.

    If the question was "If you are honestly not busy, and can do you 40/hr a week job in 4hrs, from home, and want to do that, I'll pay you the same, you want to do that?", then everyone would jump at that.

    But that isn't the question.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      So, first of all it turns out that many of them wouldn't "jump at that". I was genuinely interested in this problem and I've spent time asking real people with real jobs about it rather than trusting some gut instinct. While there were people who agreed with you they weren't the majority. Whether you think it crazy or not, it turns out that many workers value working for its own sake‡. They also value specific kinds of work. Many independent market traders (ie people who stand in a public square for hours at a time yelling things like "Ripe juicy pears, two for a pound. Sink your teeth in!") I spoke with said the selling was important to their self-esteem and they wouldn't want to do essentially the same job but where they just give the products to people who need them and get paid a commission or whatever. That's fascinating.

      I don't think I know any "corporate lawyers" well, but I do know one lawyer who works in commercial property pretty well, and she describes her job as getting people to reach an agreement and then writing it down in such a way that they avoid conflict if anything goes wrong. I doubt that she's alone in seeing her work as valuable.

      But basically this post just descends into the standard rant of "I don't understand job X, therefore it's pointless and we'd get along fine without it". When you say this about the people who drive the city buses and sweep the sidewalk you're a jerk living in a bubble, but weirdly when you say it about actuaries and bailiffs you're just telling it how it is... I doubt the post's author knows what a Nightclub Impresario does, should we add that to the list?

      ‡ Note that it's totally possible for someone to simultaneously value working, and then slack off, fall asleep on the job or cut corners. Humans are not very self-consistent.

      • jwz says:

        But basically this post just descends into the standard rant of "I don't understand job X, therefore it's pointless and we'd get along fine without it".

        But he wasn't saying that. He was specifically saying, "I have talked to people doing job X, and they think their job is without merit." Ok, [citation needed] if you like, but that's not a fair characterization of what the article was about.

        • Ian Young says:

          Was netscape mail merited, then? What was the market for netscape's "platform"?

          (now, admittedly, you "sell booze to people preoccupied with flashing lights", which I suppose, employs talented poet-musicians or some such, but... would you be in this position without meritless busywork created by the increasingly cone-headed 1%?)

          • Nick Lamb says:

            I doubt our host thinks any of his real jobs have been futile or stupid. Tim's baby (the Web) is technically very ugly but it works and it undoubtedly changed the world for the better even if you don't like cat pictures. Without Jamie's work (or the work of similarly dedicated hackers) that would have happened much later or on a far smaller scale.

          • jwz says:

            Maybe if I used smaller words...

            ...nah, fuck it.

            • Ian Young says:

              The problem with his two examples: "poet-musicians" vs "corporate lawyers" is that the reasons corporate lawyers don't talk about their jobs are:

              1. They simply cannot
              2. If they could, you would be intensely bored

              There are lots of corporate lawyers because of Market Forces; laws and rules and those formal systems are exactly what bind a huge pile of assholes into "A Corporation". Suing and managing those rules are, together, one of the major means of inter-Corporation communication, and I'm sorry, but for the purposes of modeling a market, Corporations are people my friend.... Complaining that there's too many corporate lawyers is like complaining that people have too many fingers because--hey--"we already have beautiful voices, why don't we interact with the world through poetry and singing?"

              I was going to posit that the person who wrote the article was an anarchist, but I see that they are an anarchist. So I dismiss their argument out of hand. Someone who doesn't believe in rules, maaaaan would surely not see the purpose in employing someone to interpret and manipulate those rules.

              • jwz says:

                Obviously you read a completely different article than I did, so arguing about it with you is pointless.

                • Ian Young says:

                  I read the edited selections here, so, yes.

                  I'll just say that if you apply Hanlon's Razor to his thesis "The Rich Have Made Clerical Work the Opiate of the Masses", you're left with very little.

                  You could also write an article about how "Big Government Has Made All These Regulations So Hard That They're Killing My Company With Lawyers". Who's to say the author's not on the side of Ross Perot?!

                  • Ben says:

                    You started an argument based on having read an excerpt of an article? How lazy and self important can you be? I'd wager that on more than one occasion you've left a shopping cart in a parking space.

        • k3ninho says:

          I've got to ask what happens to this article when we apply 'absence of evidence (for why your job is a worthwhile position) isn't evidence of absence'? If I didn't see the impact of my work in a billion-dollar multinational, I might think it's without merit, particularly if I was a cherry-picked example of a former musical frontman and performer turned team player.

          Hoping there's some parallel in my experience trying to explain the content of my PhD research to my then girlfriend (now wife), who had at that time completed the first of her two doctorate-level qualifications: embarrassed that she wouldn't understand, the discussion was cut short and I learned that some people would prefer to to not be shown up for what they don't know. And so it goes in the wider media, a dumbing-down which means that there is no habit of explaining why your specialist job is worth your time. It's from this that so many people might believe that their job is without merit and their time wasted.

          I'm invested in the system, so I have to support my self-worth and skew my choices toward keeping going back there. What did you want to highlight from sharing this link with us, JWZ?

        • [citation needed], along with [carefully check these citations] followed by [really, I don't think that's quite what that citation said] is pretty much Graeber's standard M.O., and woe betide you if you have the temerity to, even gently and respectfully, call him on it. (All links are of the TL;DR nature, beware.)

          I will also note that "person I met at a cocktail party said X" is functionally equivalent to "my taxi driver said Y".

  5. MattyJ says:

    So. You take the reports from the printer, then you do what with them?

  6. J Curwen says:

    It's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.

    They forgot the telephone sanitizers.

    • Jens Kilian says:

      We'll not make the same mistake the Golgafrinchans did. Let the sanitizers stay.

      • Erbo says:

        Clearly, it was someone from the "B" Ark that misclassified the telephone sanitizers, who should have been on the "C" Ark (one of the two that never left Golgafrincham).

  7. deathdrone says:

    This article is fucking garbage and it was very painful trying to read it.

    Jesus. Just wrong. About everything. You people. Not even wrong. Wrong implies coherency. Wrong implies falsifiable. This shit is just pure vapid whiny paranoid tech nerd delusion disconnected from anything one might call reality.

    You faggots are all rich as fuck and compared to the whole of human history, you're probably all in the top 1% when it comes to leisure and comfort. But still you're unhappy and you don't know why. You feel something isn't right. And the best thing you can think of to complain about is… that the establishment is out to get you? Wow. That is just… … … I mean…

    You ARE the establishment, you fucking retards. What, you're complaining because you're not an oil mogul? Because you're not a prince or a CEO? Are you really not capable of perceiving what a massively ineffectual whiny bitch you are?

    There are only two kinds of "real jobs" in this world:

    1) Farming.

    2) A job you enjoy.

    I really doubt any of you fucking nerds are sad that you're not farmers. What does that imply? Seriously, let's have someone else try to offer a concrete example of a "real job" so we can all fucking laugh at you.

    Christ, just wrong on every single level…

    Real wages have been decreasing since the 70s. The past few years have particularly bad. If you're looking for something "real" to complain about, there it is. And yet you shitlords are so fucking deluded that you complain about… the opposite? Unreal.

    "Technology" is not a fucking power source. We get to sit on our asses all day long because of FOSSIL FUELS, fertilizers and an oil-based transportation infrastructure, not fucking Bill Gates. And the efficiency with which we convert oil to iphones and bigmacs is DECREASING because we fucking burnt most of it up already.

    People have jobs for the same reason they go to high school: you can't get laid if you don't. Yes, it's a mindlessly hostile environment. That's the fucking point. Sheltering the weak is not on the agenda when it comes to evolved social rituals. If you honestly think "let's all be nice to each other" is a social paradigm that exists ANYWHERE in ANY context, you might as well just tattoo "BETA" on your forehead.

    If you're feeling depressed because the kids are school are mean to you and you can't get a girlfriend and you're thinking about dropping out, fine, whatever. Shit is getting tight, suicide is on the rise, and someone's going to have to take the fall. But for god's sake, why does "petulant whining" have to be such a commonly used tactic for opting out of the gene pool?

    • Rick C says:

      " we fucking burnt most of it up already."

      [Citation needed]. It's funny how people have been saying that my entire life, and yet every time you turn around, the total recoverable amount keeps going up.

      That's not to say we won't run out eventually, but complaints that we area already on the downward slope are just plain wrong.

      • MetaRZA says:

        [citation needed] right back at you. As far as I known "Total recoverable amount" hasn't gone up since roughly the 80s.

        BTW, we haven't burned up most of "it" already. But we have drilled into most of the easy and cheap to get crude oil. So to increase supply, we have to go after the hard, expensive (dollars) and costly (enviromental) sources.

        If demand increases (and it always has) but supply doesn't (and this is currently the case) prices will go up (which, lo, they have in recent years). Peak oil might be a misleading term; the image it brings to mind is a steep slope on the other side. When in fact we are on a plateau.

    • MetaRZA says:

      If I understand your thesis correctly, because I own an expresso machine and I'm not a farm I'm not allowed to complain about how society is currently organised.

      • deathdrone says:

        I complain constantly, so it would be pretty hypocritical for me to complain about complainers without at least one or two caveats.

        I apologize for not being more precise. In my defense, I feel this is a surprisingly complex and taboo topic, and the accepted dialog is so wacky that I'm forced to use broad strokes because I don't really know where to begin. It also touches on a topic that is important to me personally, so I got kind of angry.

        I guess my thesis is this:

        1) Society is organized entirely by unconscious evolved impulses. These structures invariably arise because they are necessary for the continued existence of our race.

        2) There is only one self-evident definition for "real issue," and that is this: "A real issue is an issue which influences the survival of my self, my family, my tribe or my race." Since evolution already optimizes society in response to these issues far more effectively than your dumb ass ever could, there's nothing to complain about.

        Attributing social structure to some vague powerful force doesn't bother me, since evolution is a vague and powerful force. But attributing our society's organization to a MALIGNANT force is tilted unless you're a slave race or anti-semite.

        In the abstract, I actually think this article is really interesting, so it's kind of unfortunate that it made me so fucking angry I had to look away every five seconds. It's pretty amazing to me that it could be so totally wrong about every single thing, and yet still achieve circulation from misguided anarchist sentiment alone. And on a fucking tech blog too, for fuck sake. It's a sign of the times, I fear.

        It's like putting "smash the state" as the official logo on an ATM or something, it's just ridiculous.

        If you white techies are really that anxious to throw down against powerful dudes who are fucking with your shit, you should be talking about the federal reserve. Nothing else really comes close, as far as I can tell.

        But if you can't even identify the true nature of the forces that you think you're rallying against, you should probably just shut the fuck up and let nature run its course.

        • gryazi says:

          "These structures invariably arise because they are necessary for the continued existence of our race."

          This elephant repellent sure is working!

        • nooj says:

          If you white techies are really that anxious to throw down against powerful dudes who are fucking with your shit, you should be talking about the federal reserve.

          We all have our pet projects, bro. Mine is getting great music from small record labels. The authors' is to question the existence of jobs that would be obviated by good behavior. Let me know how well you do with yours.

        • MetaRZA says:

          I almost agree with your points. However, I would definately qualify Sam Walton, the Koch brothers, Donald Trump et al as malignant. I don't think Sam Walton initially set out to destroy the economy of the USA. But when he became aware that his actions were having this result, he did not modify his business. In this I see malice.

          What's more, while an unstable system will change into one that is stable, this change is most often painful for all involved. Look at the American Civil War or the Russian Revolution.

        • Who says this complex system is converging on a state that results in our continued survival? Who says the system is converging on any stable state at all? Maybe it's a system of continual chaotic change. Past results do not guarantee future results. Circumstances change. Half the human species could go extinct tomorrow from some cascading failure of our "evolved" organisational structures. Evolution is neat but it's not some substitute god. It has no intelligence to it.

    • phuzz says:

      Blimey. Bad day?

  8. Alex says:

    "Lawyer" (aka "legal consultant", which is an englishing of "jurisconsult" in Latin, probably the original version of the profession) is the very definition of a job that sounds like a lot of bullshit right up to the moment when you need one, and then turns out to be VITAL. Graeber was in Occupy early on; didn't he ever worry about getting arrested?

    (A big lesson from the Bush Age for me: I gained respect for lawyers and the law.)

    "Actuary", well. Who runs the US Social Security Administration?