Book Review: 'Bullshit Jobs: A Theory' by David Graeber
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory David Graeber Simon & Schuster (May 2018)
So many jobs — too many jobs — whose patron saint is Sisyphus
To what does the title of this book refer? According to David Graeber, a recent research study comparing employment in the US between 1910 and 2000 reveals that “professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers” tripled, from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment.” In other words, “productive jobs have, just as predicted, been largely automated away.”
Graebner says these tend to be “bullshit”: pointless, dead end/no end, and without purpose except, of course, for minimal income. They offer little (if anything) that will contribute to personal growth and professional development. Consider these four dimensions of contemporary life that Graebner cites in the Preface:
o “Huge swathes of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”
o “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working.”
o “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.”
o “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feel one’s job should not exist?”
Graebner wrote this book in order to “open up,” widen and deepen, a discussion of “a social phenomenon that has received almost no systematuc attention,” at least (in his opinion) until now: bullshit employment.
He adds: “It’s as if we have collectively acquiesced to our own enslavement. The main political reaction to our awareness that half the time we are engaged in utterly meaningless or even counterproductive activities — usually under the orders of a person we dislike [and do not trust or respect] — is to rankle with resentment over the fact there may be others out there who are not in the same trap. As a result, hatred, resentment and suspicion have become the glue that holds society together. This is a disastrous state of affairs. I wish it to end.”
The title of each chapter is a question to which Graeber then responds:
1. What’s a Bullshit Job? 2. WhAt Sorts of Bullshit Jobs Are There? 3. Why Do Those in Bullshit Jobs Regularly Report Themselves Unhappy? 4. What Is It Like to Have a Bullshit Job? 5. Why Are Bullshit Jobs Proliferating? 6. Why Do We as a Society not Object to the Growth of Pointless Employment? 7. What Are the Political Effects of Bullshit Jobs, and is There Anything That Can be Done About This Situation?
The information, insights, and counsel that Graeber provides in abundance support “a theory” to which the book’s subtitle refers. No spoiler alert is needed because I think the theory and how Graeber delineates it are best revealed within his lively and eloquent narrative, in context. However, I do suggest, here, that those who disagree with him must bring to the discussion the focus, substance, and passion that he does in this book.
In an article by Ed O’Boyle and Jim Harter cite Gallup analytics that reveal this: only 15% of worldwide workers came to work today engaged and ready to maximize their performance. In the U.S., the percentage is less than 30%. Obviously, whatever the statistics, whatever the nature and extent of the problem, David Graeber offers a powerful argument for human freedom in the workplace. He hopes to “start us thinking and arguing about what a genuine free society might actually be like.”
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.