Isn’t this a surprise?

Most people feel, from time to time, that their work is meaningless. David Graeber, the late anthropologist, built an elaborate thesis out of this insight. He argued in a book in 2018 that society has been deliberately creating more and more “bullshit jobs” in professions such as financial services to fill the time of educated workers who need the money to pay off student debts but who suffer from depression because of their work. His thesis has been cited more than 800 times by academics, according to Google Scholar, and often repeated in the media.

When the book came out, this columnist was unimpressed, arguing that the thesis was a partial reworking of the insights of C. Northcote Parkinson, who argued that bureaucracy has an innate tendency to expand and make work for itself. Three academics—Magdalena Soffia, Alex Wood and Brendan Burchell—have undertaken a systematic analysis* of the claims behind Mr Graeber’s work and found that the data often show the exact opposite of what he predicted. The bullshit-jobs thesis, in other words, is largely bullshit.

David Graeber? Wrong?

Tsk.

23 thoughts on “Isn’t this a surprise?”

  1. Ha the phenomenon was correct, people performing small cogs in a big clockwork organisations do often feel their just turning a hamster wheel but David’s so called great insight: that capitalism was all hamster wheels was as off as you can be.

  2. Aren’t the bull-shit jobs in activist victimology organisations, ‘charities’, outreach and community work, government bureaucracies, equality, gender and climate change compliance?

    And aren’t these for ‘educated’ workers so-called because they were Blair’s 50% who went to ‘uni’ and came out with qualification and abilities which wouldn’t get them jobs in the competitive, wealth producing economy, other than shelf-stacking and in fast food restaurants?

  3. It’s the Death of Capitalism, of course. The bureaucratisation of the means of production.
    As corporations grow, there is an increase in bullshit jobs usually created by HR managers. People who seem to be very busy but produce nothing for the common weal. Seen it everywhere, usually goes with nice new corporate HQ with an atrium and fountain.

  4. Business Secrets of Genghis Khan

    Many people ask Genghis, “Genghis, what is best in business?”

    And Genghis say this: be like Genghis, always negotiate from a position of strength.

    When manager ask for one-to-one, surprise him with horse archers and beheading.

    When man from marketing try to steal your job, boil him alive in cauldron and make belt from his skin to wear at office parties.

    Establish dominance in PowerPoint presentations by always presenting trophies of vanquished foes on FIRST slide. That way customer know that if he not GIVE you his business, you will TAKE his business.

    Genghis very strict on sexual harassment in workplace. If she have strong hips, give her many children to make tribe strong. Otherwise make her slave to bear cups and meat for weekly sales meeting.

    Genghis has spoken.

  5. “bureaucracy has an innate tendency to expand and make work for itself” defintiely. Bureaucracy in all industries continuously bloats itself to make more and more work for itself. If useless arts graduates can’t convince companies to hire more of them, they’d all be unemployed and the whole scheme might fail.
    Bunch of blood leeches.

  6. Graeber is suffering from a Dilberts-boss-ism, “Anything I know nothing about is simple”

    Yes, there may be more employees in Financial Services now than eg 50 years ago, but those services are more diverse, more widely available, more regulated, and cheaper too. As well as being more used on an entirely voluntary basis. No bullshit. Can he say the same of anthropologists?

  7. Bloke in North Dorset

    “ As corporations grow, there is an increase in bullshit jobs usually created by HR managers. People who seem to be very busy but produce nothing for the common weal. Seen it everywhere, usually goes with nice new corporate HQ with an atrium and fountain.”

    That new HQ is usually the first sign that a company has entered the first stage of terminal decline. As Tim Newman often points out, the 2nd stage is a female CEO.

  8. Hallowed Be,

    “Ha the phenomenon was correct, people performing small cogs in a big clockwork organisations do often feel their just turning a hamster wheel but David’s so called great insight: that capitalism was all hamster wheels was as off as you can be.”

    The trouble with people like Graeber is that they start from the perspective that capitalism is broken, and then find things that they think fit the idea.

    And the thing with his “bullshit jobs” wasn’t just the C Northcote Parkinson thing, but also that he didn’t actually understand why those jobs mattered. Graeber was the classic ivory tower academic. Left school, went into academia, never had the stupid commie bullshit removed by facing the real world. His view of what jobs should be was based on movies, school and Richard Scarry books. He thought dock workers were a proper job, even though we’ve been eliminating those jobs for 30 years. But he thought actuary was a “bullshit job”. What a fucking tool.

    This is also why so much of academia is a pile of wank. You can do what you like in anthropology, because when is it going to be tested in the real world?

  9. A friend has just told me about his job interview. Three people on the board.

    One of them – the junior – seemed to know what he was talking about. The Senior Manager didn’t seem to understand anything, read her questions from a prepared sheet, and looked blankly at me when I answered.

    The person in charge was HR, and he did most of the talking. But the only thing he contributed to the proceedings was to introduce and end the meeting.

    Sounds to me like that company is overstaffed by 2/3…

  10. BoM4- yep, though I’m a bit surprised that he apparently made falsifiable predictions. Even though they turned out to be falsified (according to the economist) I suppose that would raise him marginally above most agenda driven academics.

  11. “C Northcote Parkinson…”

    I do believe the whole expanding bureaucracy/bullshit jobs thing was remarked on by some Ancient Greeks, definitely by the Romans. Very definitely some Angry Letters in Gothic, Latin, and Cyrillic about the “why is that idiot there doing that, is that even necessary?” principle.
    Not too fluent in Cuneiform/Hieroglyphs, but if I’m not mistaken there’s the odd lamentation about the Wheels of Government turning slow/That bastard chairwarmer in those scripts as well..

    So… Rather a fair amount of previous art there…

  12. Thanks for posting.Very interersting, My first thought was my inner Popper – Well at least Graeber had formulated a theory that was clear enough for empirical falsification. I have checked out the three sociologists who did the work (I haven’t read the Economist paper you quote from). I do not think they are natural allies to your particular project. This is the bit of Bullshit Jobs they rather dislike:

    ‘Therefore, this article debunks Graeber’s (2018) claim that millions of workers are engaged in BS jobs of no social value and that the solution is that they be set free by a universal basic income. Instead, it suggests the need for unions that are willing and able to engage in what Umney and Coderre-LaPalme (2017) term ‘meaning of work conflicts’ so as to overturn those social relations in which people’s work is devalued by toxic workplace cultures that leave workers feeling their labour is pointless and of no use.’

    So it turns out, poor old Graeber, wrong, and not actually Marxist enough 🙂

  13. “Most people feel, from time to time, that their work is meaningless.”
    If you are one of these people, just think, with sympathy, of those employed by BMW to fit indicators to their cars.

  14. Why would any sane person assume that capitalism creates bullshit jobs? The wages/salaries reduce the profits accruing to the capitalist.
    Governments creating bullshit jobs paid for out of taxes to reward their supporters is plausible; bureaucrats creating bullshit jobs for their family and friends to be paid for by someone else – utterly predictable.
    Someone living in an environment with no capitalists and state-funded bureaucrats dreams up the idea of bullshit jobs

  15. I’d quite like to see an upswing in unions forcing their members to refuse to work. More work for me! We’ve already forced the capitalist scum to increase wages by reduced the size of the workforce by removing 300 million EUians, next step is for a large chunk of that remaining workforce to refuse to work. Bingo! Guaranteed job.

  16. @ jgh
    Are you a plumber?
    In a lot of businesses the strike will mean a *loss* of work for the innocent workers who aren’t members of that union.

  17. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/09500170211015067

    David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs theory’ has generated a great deal of academic and public interest. This theory holds that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value. Despite generating clear testable hypotheses, this theory is not based on robust empirical research. We, therefore, use representative data from the EU to test five of its core hypotheses. Although we find that the perception of doing useless work is strongly associated with poor wellbeing, our findings contradict the main propositions of Graeber’s theory. The proportion of employees describing their jobs as useless is low and declining and bears little relationship to Graeber’s predictions.

    Graeber’s book offers several clear predictions that are straightforward to test quantitatively. This article, therefore, seeks to empirically test several of Graeber’s (2018) main propositions:

    that the number of employees doing useless jobs is high (i.e. 20–50%);

    that useless jobs have been increasing rapidly over time;

    that some occupations have very high rates of BS jobs (e.g. financial services, marketing, administration) and others very low (e.g. refuse collectors, cleaners, farmers);

    that young workers with higher education qualifications are more likely to be doing BS jobs due to student debts;

    that useless jobs cause ‘spiritual violence’ and poor mental health.

  18. I don’t understand some of the arguments here.

    The man on the BMW production line may think his job is pointless but he is part of the means of production – Smith, Ricardo, Marx.

    Bureaucratisation of capitalism, where corporations forget why they exist is Schumpeter. Shirley ?

  19. Ottokring,

    Assuming that driving habits are much the same in the UK as they are in the states, I think Penseivat was commenting on the uselessness of indicators on BMWs as their drivers never use them. Arrogance being a common flaw among them is widely understood to be a truism.

    Chris

  20. Yeah, sorry Chris, I didn’t express my self very well.

    I got the (amusing) dig at BMW drivers, but I was making a generic point that nevertheless they were still producing something even if it was never used and thus conforming to classic economic models. Whereas a diversity coordinator or “relationship manager” or some other bollox job only produces rancour and frustration.

  21. I’m not so sure that I concur with Ken’s suggestion that “that young workers with higher education qualifications are more likely to be doing BS jobs due to student debts;”

    I reckon that they take the BS jobs because their “qualifications” make them consider more manual (but probably much better-paying) jobs, such as binmen, brickies, etc. somewhat beneath them. Hence they take up nice, clean, impressively-titled posts such as “diversity coordinators” or whatever, and go on to become leeches on the body public.

  22. @baron jackfield
    Sorry should have been clearer those are Graeber’s hypotheses tested by the article.

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