I like books that fundamentally question society — what it is and what it can be.
Some of the best books I’ve ever read are by sociologists and anthropologists because they’re trained to observe and critique how humans and societies actually work.
For example, I read several books by economists and economic historians to better understand money and capitalism. But it wasn’t until I read David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years that I felt like I discovered the another perspective, and frankly, a missing piece on understanding the origin of money. Graeber’s insights helped me immensely, as I researched and wrote Coined.
An anthropologist, Graeber is someone who I disagreed with at times, notably the motives and tactics of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. But his writings usually made me think, usually about a contrarian perspective.
I was surprised to learn that he passed away in 2020, and I made a point to put his other books on my reading list. That’s how I came upon Bull* Jobs, which makes a powerful and persuasive argument: Many jobs are pointless, so why do we keep doing them?
Here are 7 takeaways:
- Bull* Jobs are self-evident
Graeber wrote his book based on an article he had written on the same topic that went viral. He started to hear from many people that they had BS jobs. Graeber set up an email address, and folks flooded it with their stories of working pointless jobs. And that’s just it – you know if you have a BS job. And it can be an exasperating situation.
Could there be anything more demoralizing than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one secretly believed did not need to be performed — that was simply a waste of time or resources, or that even made the world worse?
In one survey, folks were asked whether their job made a “meaningful contribution” to the world.” Some 37% said no, 13% were unsure, and 50% said yes. Let that soak in. Almost 40% of workers didn’t think their job made a difference.
And it wasn’t just one poll. Several have found that many are indifferent about their jobs and find them pointless. So, if you are reading this and feel like you can relate — just know that you have company. People with BS jobs can’t justify their job. That’s the very definition of a BS job.
- 5 Types of BS jobs
Graeber creates a schema for thinking about these types of jobs.
These jobs are only to make folks feel important. These jobs are feudal in nature, in that important men and women surround themselves with servants, clients, and other vassals. For example, during the Victorian era, wealthy people employed footmen who ran alongside carriages to check for potholes and bumps. Modern examples might be concierge, doormen, elevator operators, receptionists. In many cases, these people end up doing their boss’ jobs for them. The point of these jobs is to make someone else look and feel good, but it’s really just a game of status and pettiness.
These are people who have jobs that involve aggression, and are employed other people. He posits that military personnel can be in this camp, and nation’s have armies because other nations have armies. In this group, he also includes lobbyists, public relations experts, corporate lawyers, and telemarketers.
Like literal goons, they have largely negative impact on society. I think almost anyone would concur that, were all telemarketers to disappear, the world would be a better place. But I think most would also agree that if all corporate lawyers, bank lobbyists, or marketing gurus were to similarly vanish in a puff of smoke, the world would be a little bit more bearable.
3. Duct Tapers
These jobs exist because companies are inefficient. These employees serve as bridges to make sure various parts of the company are working together. Graeber cites the example of a programmer at a company who had to received a timetable by email and then copy its contents into an Excel document every week. Another example is an employee who monitored an email inbox and then copied the contents of each email into another form.
4. Box Tickers
These are employees who perform a perfunctory role. For example, someone’s job was to interview residents about their recreation preferences. They would fill out a form, put it in a binder, and forget about the forever. The company could say it was prioritizing the interests of the residents.
Many of these reports are nothing more than props in a Kabuki-like corporate theater – no one actually reads them all the way through. But this doesn’t stop ambitious executives from cheerfully shelling out half a workman’s yearly wages of company money just to be able to say, ‘Ooh yes, we commissioned a report on that.'”
These are usually the people that assign the work. But in reality they are themselves unnecessary superiors. They are the creators of BS. Taskmasters don’t like admitting that their jobs are pointless, but a few intrepid ones confessed to Graeber.
“I have a BS job, and it happens to be in middle management. Ten people work for me, but from what I can tell, they can all do the work without my oversight. My only function is to hand them work, which I suppose the people actually generate the work could do themselves.”
- Policies to maximize working
As a society, we’ve created policies to ensure full employment. In fact, full employment is one of the Federal Reserve’s mandates. We track the unemployment rate and enact policies to get folks to work. What would happen if folks didn’t have to work, or had too much time on their hands? Would they start painting or become meddlers?
The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.
- Essential workers don’t have BS jobs
When the London tube workers went on strike, they brought the city to a standstill. They have jobs that impact others. Their occupation matters. Graeber contrasts this with the 1970 bank strike in Ireland, which didn’t have much discernible impact, as money kept flowing and checks were still circulating. The point here is that essential works have immense societal value and one shouldn’t overlook them.
- 12-Hour Work Week
Prognosticators at the turn of the twentieth century predicted that in the future we would be working less. The thinking was that technology would advance to the point so that robots and automation would make busy schedules obsolete. The irony is that they were probably correct, yet we continue to work longer hours and cram our schedules with meetings.
We could probably get the real workweek down to fifteen hours — or even twelve — without anyone noticing.
Graeber’s point is perhaps more palatable now that work-for-home has become more acceptable. Many have realized how they can get more done in fewer hours. Our eyes have been opened to how much time we wasted at the office just to be at the office.
- Be the cause
The recipe for success in any job is knowing that you’re making a difference. Workers who are the most satisfied know that they’re making a difference, contributing to the larger goals of a company and to that of society. Karl Groos, a noted psychologist, discovered that children are happy when they realize they can impact the world. Maybe that’s by drawing with a crayon. That a child can have an effect brings them tremendous joy. This “pleasure of being the cause” is a primary driver for humans.
If this is so, then it begins to give us a sense of why being trapped in a job where one is treated as if one were usefully employed, and has to play along with the pretense that one is usefully employed, but at the same time, is keenly aware one is not usefully employed, would have devastating effects…A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.
- Universal Basic Income
Graeber was clear that he didn’t want his book to be about finding solutions. It’s about diagnosing a problem, which many refuse to acknowledge. But he does posit one solution: Universal Basic Income (UBI). However he doesn’t want his book pigeonholed as a book about UBI.
Graeber’s book is a fascinating account of the modernity of work. It’s taboo to admit one’s job is pointless, so one can end up working years in a demoralizing role.
While I disagree with some of Graeber’s points, he has issued a clarion call to reexamine our jobs and their contributions to society.
If you feel that you have a pointless job, read this book to know you’re not alone and there may be a way out.