Bulshit Jobs: a theory (D. Graeber)

“To anyone who would rather be doing something else with themselves” (Graeber)

This is a good read for those looking to demystify the emotional realities of post industrial labor market while doing so with some humor. Graeber compares wage labor to slavery and an alternative form of sadomasochism that has been widely accepted in our societies. He claims that conservative Calvinism played an important role in the normalization of the concept living to work as a way to show moral purity, a practice that has profound negative psychological implications.

I found it extremely interesting that during antiquity a free citizen such a ceramic artist or carpenter would not dream about selling their time because it was equated to willingly submitting to the power of another. This, he claims is not only demoralizing but also soul crushing. Yet, today’s world allows two completely abstract concepts (money and time) to govern our everyday decisions, from what types of purchases we make, which degree to pursue, how much time we spend working, sleeping, eating and to some extent, it also dictates efforts to maintain certain social circles for some people.

Statistical analysis reveals that between 37-50% of jobs in rich countries are unnecessary as they do not carry any intrinsic social value. As a matter of fact, Graeber claims that if these jobs disappeared the world would be fine. I agree with him in that the most terrible problem would be devising a new game to keep the millions of paper pushers and box tickers occupied. He claims that the current labor system is similar to a game, with some implied and explicit rules where people act certain roles. This statement reminds me a lot of the game D&D, which is a strategy game, where there are characters with special powers and teams have to remember their strengths to overcome random obstacles that the dice may throw in their path. Except that somewhere along the way, we began to take some games more seriously than others. Many of societal roles and functions are nothing but make belief labels that only fictional characters can fulfill. No wonder life is so full of disappointment.

Graeber describes the emotional journey of people in bull shit jobs all too well. It is explained as a very familiar mix of impostor syndrome, widespread disengagement with final results, the stress of pretending to be busy to avoid getting fired. All while dealing with those at the top who take their BS jobs too seriously and invent new ways of bullying subordinates to justify the existence of their own jobs. He attributes the disconnect between purpose and work, to living in some sort of bull shit society that values the wrong things and forces people into boxes for the sake of maintaining the status quo of certain elites. People who are too busy struggling with money, pressure and moral dilemma’s ask very few questions. He goes as far as to make a distinction between bull shit jobs and shitty jobs 😀

“Your job is more like a boss’ unzipped fly that everyone can see but also knows better than to mention.” If this phrase sounds familiar you may have a bull shit job.

He claims that the main problem fueling the illusion of needing to keep people occupied lies with our entitlement and cultural value system; Which requires money to access life necessities, while allows societal pressure to be exercised towards those who willingly admit that their job does not give them anything to do, labeling them as ‘lazy turds.’ If we focused in real work hours, the workweek could be reduced to merely 17 hours or less, but this would not be sufficient to afford the bare necessities. I think that the COVID-19 pandemic supports the veracity of this claim, as millions of paper pushers and non essential workers found themselves unemployed and the lives of those who remain employed continue relatively undisturbed.

However, I disagree with their assessment that there is no reason for certain services or skills to be more expensive across different providers. If we use the example of several hair dressers who charge $15, $30, $67 and $150 for a haircut, it could very well be that the best value may sit with the one that charges $67 simply because of the quality of the work and the experience. There is a big difference between price and value, and as we know value is very subjective.

His argument regarding BS jobs provides an interesting contrast to Amartya Sen’s concept of ‘development as freedom‘ where he claims that freedom is reflected as access to an education, food security access to credit and so forth. Whereas Graeber claims that individuals who actually achieve these ‘freedoms’ find themselves trapped on a different form of repressive system. Although the book seems to offer a nihilist view of our world, it also explores the institutional changes that should take place if we were to create a more meaningful way of spending our scarce time on this earth.

I am curious to learn what your thoughts are about the concept of bull shit jobs. Do you have one? Feel free to leave a comment below 🙂

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: