Nation of Beancounters

“Bullshit jobs”

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on August 21, 2013

That’s what famous anthropologist David Graeber calls

… the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

According to Graeber, the most damning evidence that these jobs are bullshit is the fact that the people who have them think so:

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 (an anthropologist, for example), 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.

It’s easy enough to see why people are doing these jobs – they need the money. But why do these jobs exist? Why are companies, governments and universities paying people to do them?

The answer clearly isn’t economic: it’s moral and political. The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.

It’s sad to see a thinker of Graeber’s status turn into such a low quality conspiracy theorist. Imagine you’re a CEO. Suppose that (a) there are a bunch of bullshit jobs in your company, (b) that the number of bullshit jobs in your company are a minuscule fraction of the total number of bullshit jobs in the economy and (c) that the existence of bullshit jobs is the only thing preventing people from being some kind of revolution that will undermine your power. If you fire people from those bullshit jobs, two things will happen – your profits will rise, and you will undermine the capitalist power structure. By how much will the structure be undermined? Very little, because of (b). Indeed, (b) doesn’t really matter. If there were millions of bullshit jobs, you could rid your own company of bullshit workers without undermining the capitalist power structure very much. If there were zero bullshit jobs, you’d lose money (and gain little or no power) by creating them in your company. Zero bullshit jobs is not merely economically stable, but also “politically” stable.

While CEOs as a whole might want to see the economy full of people stuck in bullshit jobs (in the interests of morality or discipline), none of them will want those jobs to be in their own company. It’s a classic “who will bell the cat” problem.

Graeber has no feet to stand on. I strongly suspect that “bullshit jobs” do not exist to the extent that Graeber thinks they do. People do not realize the degree to which a world as complex, over-regulated and interconnected as ours requires coordination, the preserve of the administrative class. What’s more, lots of people end up in jobs that they feel over-qualified for, and think that their jobs are “bullshit” – that doesn’t mean that such jobs actually serve no function.

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4 Responses

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  1. Suhasini said, on September 4, 2013 at 11:26 pm

    The biggest compliment I could offer you(and not that you care about the relative size, coming from someone you don’t know) is I enjoy reading you as much as Marginal Revolution. You have a refreshing candour, and a way of getting to the point without a lot of the paraphernelia that seems to come with economics writing these days. Well done, sir.

  2. stonerwithaboner said, on October 30, 2013 at 4:57 am

    Navin,

    I think your point above was similar to something about the “wage gap” that Warren Farrel said…

    ie if women were paid less to do THE SAME work, employers would be lining up to employ them. In many states in the US, employers do what they can to get illegals working for them and the government mostly looks away. Ironically when the government actually enforces the law, both conservative businessmen and liberal types are critical. Anyone agreeing with the laws is accused of being a redneck or racist. (It is usually working class/service jobs taken by illegals so there is a huge class element.) So Farrell implied that the wage gap would either have to be caused by business owners putting their misogyny ahead of profits or women making different choices than men….

    I see your point that employers wouldn’t rationally create “make work” BS jobs….

    However….

    I felt the author captured a much bigger “spiritual” truth that many jobs are soul crushing. One cannot see the positive impact they are making in society. One feels isolated sitting in a cubicle. One feels no ownership over their work and that they are only a cog in a system (and an easily replaced cog at that.)

    I haven’t gotten much gratification from paid work. I suppose you might say that I should appreciate what the paycheck allows me to do….

    • Navin Kumar said, on October 30, 2013 at 1:39 pm

      I agree that many jobs are soul crushing, but I don’t think that’s what Graeber was aiming to say. I think he genuinely believes that one could do away with these jobs with little loss of social value.


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