You Might Want to Read … Bullshit Jobs

So this post isn’t quite a “Why You Should Read …” but at the same time, I did want to throw this book out for consideration.

You might have heard of it. Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber is the eventual path taken by an essay written in the early 2010s that you also might have heard of. Specifically because it set the internet on fire for a time, prompting everyone from national news chains to CEOs and middle managers everywhere (unsurprisingly, given the context) to descend upon the small web-host that carried it, crashing it numerous times.

You can still read the original essay on that same site, in fact, and it’s reproduced in the opening chapter of the book. And it still argues the same thing: That many of the jobs embraced by modern America are, in fact (and understand I’m using the author’s terms here), bullshit. They’re pointless jobs that serve no real purpose, to the degree that if those “working” them were to secretly vanish, no one would notice.

Surprised? Well, the author actually posts several examples of people doing just that, including one “highly important” individual who, after the company attempted to give them an award for not missing a day in eight years of work, was discovered to have not even shown up at the building nor done any work in over six years, and in fact was out of the country on yet another vacation, collecting a paycheck for a pointless job with no other requirement than “make the people above you feel important.”

Which in short is the entire phenomenon the book examines. It doesn’t present a theory that these jobs exist: Rather it demonstrates that they do exist, are a staggeringly large part of the American working world, and then asks the question “Why?” Positing that a job might be pointless is fairly subjective. Proving that one is pointless is very doable. Bullshit Jobs points out that they do exist, and in large numbers, something acknowledged both by those working them and the companies employing those positions themselves. It then goes on to ask “Why?”

Which is why I recommend it. Not sternly, not with the same energy I recommended The War on Normal People, but recommend it all the same. To the degree of “If this sounds like a topic that would interest you, then you should find a copy and give it a read.”

Does it have some interesting ideas and concepts in it? Yes. And it does draw conclusions, some I felt made logical sense (usually those of “it’s already happened”), but a few of those where the author clearly laid their cards on the table, and you’ll either agree or disagree (as apposed to Yang’s more “here are the details, please come to your own conclusion, here’s mine but don’t feel obligated to accept it, the more ideas we have the better).

The ideas it does present certainly are interesting. I was particularly interested in several studies that examined what each job actively has as a net gain or loss compared to what it is paid, for example. You might be surprised to learn that the lower paid you are in the US, the more your job tends to contribute, while some of the highest paid jobs around tend to have a net negative.

There’s interesting stuff in this book. It examines how the phenomenon of “Bullshit jobs” is used to crank up price of goods without any regard to actually improving the good, such as with colleges and the bloated administrations they now have.

Actually, that’s one of the more interesting elements of the book. In examining how bullshit jobs came to be, how it became commonplace for managers who hold a position solely of a title with a dozen people under them pretending to work became a modern, commonplace thing, the book does dive into depth on the evolution of work in America. It provides some interesting tidbits along the way too.

For example, early in the book it points out that one of the rallying cries against communism during the cold war was that communism, in its assigned jobs, had to create pointless jobs to keep people busy. Curious now, then, the book notes, that in the US we have more useless jobs, by percentage, than the Soviet Union did at its height.

Ultimately, this isn’t a book I think you have to read. If you’re only passingly curious a read of the original essay will suffice. If you’re already rankled and coming form an angle of “None of this can be true because I don’t like it” well, I’d recommend reading it anyway. Shutting down when exposed to contrary ideas isn’t exactly healthy. It’s good to be exposed to ideas we may not agree with in moderation.

Personally? This book was like that. I absolutely didn’t agree with everything in it. For starters, the author is a self-admitted anarchist (and is very forthright about that in the book) while I myself am a firm believer in rule of law and proper governance. But I read it anyway, because seeing what the view is like from the other side can be enlightening. And despite my voice of “Well, I don’t agree with that opinion” there was still plenty of interesting information that was fact to derive from reading this book, which I why I recommend it.

But again, as a “maybe.” You might be interested in the subject matter. You might not. I certainly wouldn’t call it a “must read” when the essay covers the gist of it.

However, if the essay interests you or you already know you’d be inclined to go through a whole book on the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs,” then yes, I would recommend this title for your consideration. It explores the idea of what “work” is in the US, or rather what it has been and evolved to become over the years. It also explores the social, mental, and psychological effects and implications our strange relationship with “modern work” has on people and populations … and even recursively on our perceptions of work.

So do I recommend it? Yes … with caveats. It’s not a must read if you’re interested in the topic of economy and labor. But it is one I’d recommend if you want to expand your views and concepts about such. So should you read it? Well … maybe. I leave that up to you. Hence … you might want to read this.

Addendum: As I was writing this post, this story showed up in my feeds. Yup. Evidence.

Now, with all that said, I do want to dive into two elements of it a bit more closely. Despite having written the entire UNSEC Space trilogy before having read this book (along with Fireteam Freelance) it was interesting to me how some of the elements in Bullshit Jobs were touched on or discussed across the series. At the very least it lends some weight to the idea that yes, they’re already here, and yes, we’re being affected by them. Though I would note that how the UNSEC Space trilogy solves these problems is different from the limited solutions proposed by the author of the book (but then, he is an admitted anarchist insofar as political positioning goes).

Honestly, this just makes me feel good about the research I did do and the effort I put into the UNSEC Space series.

But there’s one more thing I wanted to bring up in this post. Sadly, it’s something that’s brought up very late in the book (second to last chapter, actually), because it stood out to me as one of the most important elements of it.

Moral Envy.

The author of Bullshit Jobs posits this as part of the deep-rooted problems that the culture given to us by “bullshit jobs.” The idea is this: If a middle manager contributes nothing to the function of a company outside of the occasional push of papers, while the people under them contribute vital elements that keep the company running, from producing actual product to keeping the bathrooms clean … then on some level the manager knows that the people “under” them are more valuable, ultimately, and have skills that are more valuable to the function of the company’s existence.

This creates a “moral envy” where to justify their own existence, this manager will mock, decry, and disparage all those under them, routinely reminding those workers that the manager is “better” and “more valuable,” all to sooth their own ego. They may even go as far as to “punish” these workers regularly, as if retroactively giving them undesirable work, rewards, and treatment justifies said treatment.

Ever worked a job like that? I sure have. Plenty of times.

It’s an interesting concept, and I’m almost sad the book brought it up so late in the book. Though in fairness, maybe it wanted to bring up all the other data first to back up that this treatment truly was undeserved, rather than dropping the idea immediately.

But did it make a good point? Yes it did. One that, in my experience, I’d happen to agree with, having watched self-styled “Big, Important Managers” mock, deride, and insult their employees, reminding them how worthless they are, while doing little to nothing all day (if they even showed up for work that day at all) in jobs I’ve worked over the years.

Moral Envy is a term that’s going to stick with me more than almost anything else from that book, because I happen to think it’s one place where the nail was hit squarely on the head. People disrespect restaurant staff because unlike them, the restaurant staff is actually doing something with an impact at the end of the day. While they sit in an office pretending to work so that someone over them can say “Well, I manage a dozen people, surely that shows how important I am, right?”

So, roundabout closer. Do I think you have to read this book? No.

But should you consider it? If you’re interested by the concept, and the article did naught but wet your whistle, then yes. Definitely consider it. It’ll give you some food for thought. Something to chew on and stew over.

And hey, fact or fiction, isn’t that what all the best books do?

One thought on “You Might Want to Read … Bullshit Jobs

  1. So, you get a job. You find ways to automate it, improve your efficiency, and document your processes. The only difference between that and what the fellow in your referenced article did is sharing. And heck at least he tried to share, but got shut down.
    Honestly there’s no glory in mindlessly keeping noses to the grindstone. But when you try to share new ways to work better, and no one wants to listen, what can you do? Except maybe start shopping for a better job.


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