Book Review – Bullshit Jobs (David Graeber) – By Shivam Chhaparia

By | April 29, 2019
Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit JobsWhat would happen if you wake up one day and all the jobs of the carpenters, nurses, teachers, plumbers, cleaners, and drivers were to disappear? Your life will become more difficult and challenging that you already find it to be. Yet these are the classes of people that are mostly ignored and paid less than other jobs that are of virtually of no significant importance a.k.a Bullshit Jobs.

About David Graeber

David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics and the author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, defines Bullshit Jobs as those which if were to disappear the next day no one in the world would notice. The author had become famous in 2013 when he wrote an essay titled “On the phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” that made him an international internet sensation for a very brief period. Many people wrote to him agreeing with his assessment by confessing that they felt that their jobs were indeed bullshit.

Subsequently, YouGov, a polling agency, used the language of the essay to ask the people of Britons whether they believed that their job created any meaningful contribution to the world. Astonishingly 37 percent believed it did not while 13 percent were uncertain and the rest believed it did. This book, based on the testimonies of various people who personally wrote to the author regarding their jobs, focuses upon some of the same themes that the author had previously mentioned in the essay but expands on them by elaborating on how bullshit jobs are generated and proliferated, their types and psychological impact of having them and suggests a solution that may lead to the elimination of such jobs.

A bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

These sort of jobs tend to be white collared and salaried. The author gives several anecdotes from all around the world, from a man in Finland who was lying dead in his office for 2 days before anyone noticed him to Kurt, who was employed by a subcontractor of a subcontractor for the German military. As confusing as that sounds, David Graeber through such examples makes it very easy for the reader to understand what is a bullshit job and how it differs from a useful job, shit job and jobs made up of people that are just selfish.

The author based on his research outlines five types of bullshit jobs: – flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters.

Flunky jobs are those that exist mainly to make the employer feel more important. Goons refer to people having jobs that are considered as having an aggressive and manipulative nature and only exists because other people employ them. Duct Tapers are employees whose job exists only because of a glitch or a fault in the organization; who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist. Box-tickers are employees who exist only for an organization to claim it is doing something when in fact it is not doing.

Taskmasters are divided into two subcategories: – Type 1 and type 2. Type 1 Taskmasters are those whose role contains assigning work to others thus being opposite to what flunkies do: unnecessary superiors rather than unnecessary subordinates.

Type 2 taskmasters are those whose primary job is to create bullshit tasks for others to do, to supervise that bullshit and to even create bullshit jobs. Some of the other types of bullshit jobs include:- ‘Imaginary friends’ that force people to through elaborate games of make-believe like seminars, ‘Flak Catchers’ who might be considered a combination of flunky and duct taper but have their own unique characteristics and finally jobs that are created for the support of the bullshit jobs.

The author gives several anecdotes and examples of recent research studies which are in complete contradiction with the basic ideas of economic theory that seek to explain human nature. Instead of using economic theory to explain why people having bullshit jobs are unhappy the author uses the actual testimonies of people who did such job, analyses the prevalent work culture in corporations and other industries, uses the discourse of history to explain the unhappiness of such individuals.

Why then people still have these bullshit jobs and what’s it like to have these jobs? Why are bullshit jobs proliferating and not being questioned by society? Do they have any political effects?

These are the questions that the author addresses in the last few chapters. People have these jobs because they need the money and because some of them may have a purpose in their life. This purpose may be their kin or some kind of individual goal that they seek to accomplish. Most of the people that have given testimonies in the book have mentioned that they lost interest in life as they pursued these jobs and then decided to quit. But most of them did not. The author believes these jobs are mainly from the FIRE sector, which is a part of the Service industry. The Finance, real estate, and insurance sector have increased remarkably over the years and it is this sector that has increased the role of directors, managers, and administrators whose jobs are mostly bullshit.

Throughout this book, the author, who is an anarchist anthropologist, argues that the current world that we live in is not of capitalism but of managerial feudalism. There can be seen several specks of post-anarchism thinking in his writing. There also have been several references throughout the book to Marxism and leftism which may make us think that the author himself is a communist, but when you complete reading the book, you can undoubtedly say that the author is an anarchist. He really cries for a revolution, like Marx, but unlike him, he calls for the abolishment of the middle management system and the system of bullshit jobs by the societal class of people that are contributing most to the society i.e., useful job people. Yes, several comparisons can be made of the author with Karl Marx.

David Graeber although doesn’t mention it, but makes his intention clear that he would prefer nurses, carpenters and such to be paid more. But Graeber also many times in the book acknowledges the fact that UBI is a utopian dream and the creation for a world free of bullshit jobs has a very low possibility. He realizes that such thinking is really arduous to get people to see since they don’t see the proliferation of bullshit jobs to be trouble.

The author has done well in making us understand how the world has moved on from producerism to consumerism and now we identify ourselves based on things that we consume.

Yet this identity is in complete contradiction to our work identity which we consider to give meaning to our lives. David Graeber also calls out the general public and the economist and likewise to not confuse labor with factory workers only, as labor also contains other classes of people.

But the problem in David Graeber theory lies with his research base. He is an anthropologist based in London, which is located in a developed nation. In the book too, he mentions the case of the United States of America, a developed country again. The testimonies that he has observed in the book also seem to be of people who belong to a developed nation. So while Graeber may be dead on target about the concept of Bullshit Jobs and his subsequent analysis, this analysis can only be supposed to be applicable for such countries and not for countries such as India.

For it can be argued that Countries like India, which are developing, need an all hands on decks approach to become developed and thus it may change the value of jobs that are generated in developing countries. Graeber often goes into the very fundamentals of several concepts like time and employment which is appreciated but it may lead some readers to get lost within. They may not be able to figure out how it relates to the very idea of bullshit jobs.

While the first three chapters tell the basics of the concept of bullshit jobs, the last 4 chapters take us into a deep hole but that which is devoid of any kind of light. The author is our only guide. He manages to successfully take us into the deep hole but he finds it very difficult to take us out of that hole. One thing is for sure whether the other critics like the book or not, you can be sure that the unemployed would love this book!


Shivam Chhaparia is an Economics Honors graduate and a student of M.A. International Affairs (Diplomacy, Law, and Business) at Jindal School of International Affairs at O. P. Jindal Global University.


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