Hey, do you have a bullshit job?

“Do I have a bullshit job?”

This is probably the first question that comes to mind after reading “Bullshit Jobs: a theory” written by the American anthropologist David Graeber. The book is about nonsense work that makes you rich and unhappy and is the basis for the new global capitalism.

It is a very interesting essay, which offers much food for thought. Starting with the primary issue: what is a bullshit job? After trials and errors, Graeber arrives at the final definition: “A bullshit job is a form of paid 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 is not the case”.

Reading the book one finds out there are many jobs that have no reason to exist in a normal society. Positions invented just to give an occupation to someone; or which are created to cover an operative hole in a system that should be better implemented; or to justify the existence of a role that could and should be covered by someone else inside the organization.

But beyond these borderline cases, every one of us should aim to understand if our job is necessary or not: what if tomorrow my job will disappear? What would happen if my role simply did not exist anymore from tomorrow and I stopped working?

Some kinds of job would not be missed; one would sense the difference without some other jobs just in the medium-long term; but everyone would notice the absence of certain positions. Indeed, we can say that without some of these key-workers the world would probably fall quickly apart.

Think about it. Think exactly in this moment at your work: what would happen if tomorrow you stayed at home or went to have a dip in the sea instead of working? Would someone miss you (from a working point of view and not a human one, because if you are not an asshole someone is going to miss you)?

It’s quite likely that the world would move on without great difficulty. Then ask yourself: why am I doing this? Why am I going to work everyday if in the end I am busy doing some superfluous or useless (and sometimes even harmful) activity?

Graeber reports many cases of nonsense jobs that people do just because it is important to have an occupation, make a lot of money, come up through the ranks or have something to write in a curriculum. Even if these “experiences” in your CV are empty titles, positions where you didn’t really do a thing.

But is it important to have a bullshit job just because “society” forces us to have some kind of job? Or wouldn’t it be better to just learn a useful craft or do some pleasant activity, something good for us and/or for others?

Bullshit Jobs gives some answers but above all it poses questions and instills doubts.

It’s very interesting, for example, Graeber’s consideration regarding the utility of work that seems to be inversely proportional to its economic remuneration. How many super-paid managers and brokers are really necessary? Would anyone miss them if they just disappeared from the Earth? At the same time, think about the garbage men, the station cleaners, the people who are sweeping your offices, the cooks in restaurants and even the very kind barista that serves you that amazing espresso every morning: would you miss them if they just disappeared? Of course you would. It would be impossible to live without some of them (think about what happens when the trash stays for just some days in the streets).

Yet the more a job is needed, the more it seems to be poorly paid (with some exceptions, such as doctors).

Another interesting cause for reflection is the problem of working hours. It has always been an important issue for me because I have personally been through this: why is it necessary to show to our bosses that we are working even if we are doing nothing? It is not just to trick them, because in many cases they know it’s just a show, a role play. But this creates a serious short circuit in which to be seen to be working is more important than the work itself.

But not only that. Because this situation creates a paradox.

I have happened to be in workplaces where it was so important to show that I was busy all the time that I was “forced” (or I felt forced, which in this case is the same thing) to work overtime. This idea hovering in the workplace created a psychological complex so if I left on time, it meant I was working less than the others who were staying later. And this is crazy! I realized it perfectly when I moved here to Sweden, where regularly working overtime is not allowed (perhaps because you will be paid and no employer likes to pay for useless extras). It is possible to sometimes work overtime, but if it happens every day it means that: either you’re slow because you’re not able to accomplish your goals over the course of the working day; or there is a leadership problem because your boss is assigning you more tasks than you’re able to complete. (Generally speaking, because even the Swedish labour market has its own defects)

The question that every professional and competent employer should ask himself is: if one employee works more than the others, is it because he is really working more or because he is slower at completing the tasks that others complete in less time?

And in the end, the big philosophical question: if I am able to complete my job in 6 hours instead of 8, why should I stay 2 hours more in the office instead of spending my time as I wish, in a pub with friends or learning to crochet? Why must every job be a sort of punishment, like: “I pay you for staying here eight hours and you must stay even if you don’t do anything useful”?

As said, a very interesting and enlightening essay. If you arrived at the end of this article, and what I wrote inspired your thoughts and considerations, then you should also buy the book. Even if you may not agree with everything written.

In the second part of the book Graeber debates a UBI – Universal Basic Income. A very interesting economical-philosophical theory. But this is already something else…


David Graeber – “Bullshit Jobs: a theory”

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