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David Graeber on bullshit jobs


This was published last year but well worth the read: here is anthropologist David Graeber speaking with writer Thomas Frank on “bullshit jobs.” An excerpt below, the full piece on Hampton Institution.

(Frank) Let’s start at the beginning: Keynes’ prediction, back in the 1930s, that before too long workers would have all sorts of leisure time because of improving productivity. Is there a history of this idea? I mean, others have argued this as well, correct?

(Graeber) Well, radical elements in the labor movement began embracing such visions from quite early on. After the successful campaigns for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, people immediately started thinking, can we move this to seven, six, or less. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, and author of " The Right to Be Lazy," was already calling for something along those lines in 1883. I have a Wobbly T-shirt with a turn-of-the-century style design that says “join the IWW for a new dawn,” it has a sun rising over the rooftops, and on the sun is written, “four-day week, four-hour day.” I don’t know how old the image really is but I’m guessing it’s from the Teens or the '20s. In the 1930s, a lot of labor unions did move their industries to a 35-hour week. My mom was a garment worker at the time and that’s how she ended up getting involved in the ILGWU musical review “Pins and Needles,” because everyone had moved to a shorter week and the union started providing leisure activities.

And when did this expectation finally start dying out?

By the '60s, most people thought that robot factories, and ultimately, the elimination of all manual labor, was probably just a generation or two away. Everyone from the Situationists to the Yippies were saying “let the machines do all the work!” and objecting to the very principle of 9-to-5 labor. In the '70s, there were actually a series of now-forgotten wildcat strikes by auto workers and others, in Detroit, I think Turin, and other places, basically saying, “we’re just tired of working so much.”

This sort of thing threw a lot of people in positions of power into a kind of moral panic. There were think-tanks set up to examine what to do-basically, how to maintain social control-in a society where more and more traditional forms of labor would soon be obsolete. A lot of the complaints you see in Alvin Toffler and similar figures in the early '70s-that rapid technological advance was throwing the social order into chaos-had to do with those anxieties: too much leisure had created the counter-culture and youth movements, what was going to happen when things got even more relaxed? It’s probably no coincidence that it was around that time that things began to turn around, both in the direction of technological research, away from automation and into information, medical, and military technologies (basically, technologies of social control), and also in the direction of market reforms that would send us back towards less secure employment, longer hours, greater work discipline.

Today productivity continues to increase, but Americans work more hours per week than they used to, not fewer. Also, more than workers in other countries. Correct?

The U.S., even under the New Deal, was always a lot stingier than most wealthy countries when it comes to time off: whether it’s maternity or paternity leave, or vacations and the like. But since the '70s, things have definitely been getting worse.

Do economists have an explanation for this combination of greater productivity with increased work hours? What is it and what do you think of it?

Curiously, economists don’t tend to find much interest in such questions-really fundamental things about values, for instance, or broader political or social questions about what people’s lives are actually like. They rarely have much to say about them if left to their own devices. It’s only when some non-economist begins proposing social or political explanations for the rise of apparently meaningless administrative and managerial positions that they jump in and say, “No, no, we could have explained that perfectly well in economic terms,” and make something up.

After my piece came out, for instance, The Economist rushed out a response just a day or two later. It was an incredibly weakly argued piece, full of obvious logical fallacies. But the main thrust of it was: well, there might be far less people involved in producing, transporting, and maintaining products than there used to be, but it makes sense that we have three times as many administrators because globalization has meant that the process of doing so is now much more complicated. You have computers where the circuitry is designed in California, produced in China, assembled in Saipan, put in boxes in some prison in Nevada, shipped through Amazon overnight to God-knows-where… It sounds convincing enough until you really think about it. But then you realize: If that’s so, why has the same thing happened in universities? Because you have exactly the same endless accretion of layer on layer of administrative jobs there, too. Has the process of teaching become three times more complicated than it was in the 1930s? And if not, why did the same thing happen? So most of the economic explanations make no sense.

All true, and very correct about the universities, but there’s got to be an official-if not economic-explanation for why we didn’t get this Truly Great Thing that everyone was expecting not all that long ago. Like: Keynes was all wet, or such a system just wouldn’t work, or workers aren’t educated enough to deserve that much vacation, or the things we make today are just so much better than the things they made in Keynes’ day that they are worth more and take more work-hours to earn. There must be something.

Well, the casual explanation is always consumerism. The idea is always that given the choice between four-hour days, and nine or ten-hour days with SUVs, iPhones and eight varieties of designer sushi, we all collectively decided free time wasn’t really worth it. This also ties into the “service economy” argument, that nobody wants to cook or clean or fix or even brew their own coffee anymore, so all the new employment is in maintaining an infrastructure for people to just pop over to the food court, or Starbucks, on their way to or from work. So, sure, a lot of this is just taken as common sense if you do raise the issue to someone who doesn’t think about it very much. But it’s also obviously not much of an explanation.

First of all, only a very small proportion of the new jobs have anything to do with actually making consumer toys, and most of the ones that do are overseas. Yet even there, the total number of people involved in industrial production has declined. Second of all, even in the richest countries, it’s not clear if the number of service jobs has really increased as dramatically as we like to think. If you look at the numbers between 1930 and 2000, well, there used to be huge numbers of domestic servants. Those numbers have collapsed. Third, you also see that’s what’s grown is not service jobs per se, but “service, administrative, and clerical” jobs, which have gone from roughly a quarter of all jobs in the '30s to maybe as much as three quarters today. But how do you explain an explosion of middle managers and paper-pushers by a desire for sushi and iPhones?

And then, finally, there’s the obvious question of cause and effect. Are people working so many hours because we’ve just somehow independently conceived this desire for lattes and Panini and dog-walkers and the like, or is it that people are grabbing food and coffee on the go and hiring people to walk their dogs because they’re all working so much?

Maybe part of the answer is that people forgot about the expectation of more leisure time, and there’s no political agency to demand it anymore, and hence no need to explain what happened to it. I mean, there’s no wildcat strikes anymore.

Well, we can talk about the decline of the union movement, but it runs deeper. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal-that we work more and more for more and more stuff-is rotten from the get-go.

I’ve said this before, but I think one of the greatest ironies of history is how this all panned out when workers’ movements did manage to seize power. It was generally the classic anarchist constituencies-recently proletarianized peasants and craftsmen-who rose up and made the great revolutions, whether in Russia or China or for that matter Algeria or Spain-but they always ended up with regimes run by socialists who accepted that labor was a virtue in itself and the purpose of labor was to create a consumer utopia. Of course they were completely incapable of providing such a consumer utopia. But what social benefit did they actually provide? Well, the biggest one, the one no one talks about, was guaranteed employment and job security-the “iron rice bowl”, they called it in China, but it went by many names. You couldn’t really get fired from your job. As a result you didn’t really have to work very hard. So on paper they had eight- or nine-hour days but really everyone was working maybe four or five.

I have a lot of friends who grew up in the USSR, or Yugoslavia, who describe what it was like. You get up. You buy the paper. You go to work. You read the paper. Then maybe a little work, and a long lunch, including a visit to the public bath… If you think about it in that light, it makes the achievements of the socialist bloc seem pretty impressive: a country like Russia managed to go from a backwater to a major world power with everyone working maybe on average four or five hours a day. But the problem is they couldn’t take credit for it. They had to pretend it was a problem, “the problem of absenteeism,” or whatever, because of course work was considered the ultimate moral virtue. They couldn’t take credit for the great social benefit they actually provided. Which is, incidentally, the reason that workers in socialist countries had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted the idea of introducing capitalist-style work discipline. “What, we have to ask permission to go to the bathroom?” It seemed just as totalitarian to them as accepting a Soviet-style police state would have been to us.

That ambivalence in the heart of the worker’s movement remains. Growing up in a lefty, working class family, I felt it all the time. On the one hand, there’s this ideological imperative to validate work as virtue in itself. Which is constantly being reinforced by the larger society. On the other hand, there’s the reality that most work is obviously stupid, degrading, unnecessary, and the feeling that it is best avoided whenever possible. But it makes it very difficult to organize, as workers, against work.

Let’s talk about “bullshit jobs.” What do you mean by this phrase?

When I talk about bullshit jobs, I mean, the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist. A lot of them are made-up middle management, you know, I’m the “East Coast strategic vision coordinator” for some big firm, which basically means you spend all your time at meetings or forming teams that then send reports to one another. Or someone who works in an industry that they feel doesn’t need to exist, like most of the corporate lawyers I know, or telemarketers, or lobbyists…. Just think of when you walk into a hospital, how half the employees never seem to do anything for sick people, but are just filling out insurance forms and sending information to each other. Some of that work obviously does need to be done, but for the most part, everyone working there knows what really needs to get done and that the remaining 90 percent of what they do is bullshit. And then think about the ancillary workers that support people doing the bullshit jobs: here’s an office where people basically translate German formatted paperwork into British formatted paperwork or some such, and there has to be a whole infrastructure of receptionists, janitors, security guards, computer maintenance people, which are kind of second-order bullshit jobs, they’re actually doing something, but they’re doing it to support people who are doing nothing.

When I published the piece, there was a huge outpouring of confessionals from people in meaningless positions in private corporations or public service of one sort or another. The interesting thing was there was almost no difference between what they reported in the public, and in the private sector. Here’s one guy whose only duty is to maintain a spreadsheet showing when certain technical publications were out of date and send emails to the authors to remind them it needed updating. Somehow he had to turn this into an eight-hour-a-day job. Another one who had to survey policies and procedures inside the corporation and write vision statements describing alternative ways they might do them, reports that just got passed around to give other people in similar jobs a chance to go to meetings and coordinate data to write further reports, none of which were ever implemented. Another person whose job was to create ads and conduct interviews for positions in a firm that were invariably filled by internal promotion anyway. Lots of people who said their basic function was to create tasks for other people.

The concept of bullshit jobs seems very convincing and even obvious to me-I used to work as a temp, I saw this stuff first-hand-but others might pull market populism on you and say, who are you to declare someone’s else’s job to be bullshit, Mr. Graeber? You must think you’re better than the rest of us or something.

Well, I keep emphasizing: I’m not here to tell anybody who thinks their job is valuable that they’re deluded. I’m just saying if people secretly believe their job doesn’t need to exist, they’re probably right. The arrogant ones are the ones who think they know better, who believe that there are workers out there so stupid they don’t understand the true meaning of what they do every day, don’t realize it really isn’t necessary, or think that workers who believe they’re in bullshit jobs have such an exaggerated sense of self-importance that they think they should be doing something else and therefore dismiss the importance of their own work as not good enough. I hear a lot of that. Those people are the arrogant ones.


This system is about to fall. It’s a matter of time for people to realize there is much more to life than just doing meaningless things to meaningless institutions that only care about themselves. To realize that this whole modern system is a big lie, which we mistakenly got tricked in by very few ones who take advantage over it.


That’s really interesting stuff. To me it’s an original way of looking at work. Still have to read the original essay and find out about how the author got to his findings. Whether it’s more tending to a kind of associative philosophizing, observing or research based on facts/ interviews - that’s what I’m wondering about.

During one of my last jobs, in fact, I made myself obsolete by not following the sacred rule of taking time and spreading my tasks over the whole duration of a workday. When you got an artist-background - i.e. being used to working, creating, readiness around the clock - and you’re kind of idealistic trying to contribute as best as you can, or when you simply don’t wanna be bored to death and hence just work like you conceive of the activity of work, then (in a temporary job) it can so happen, that at some point they don’t have anything for you to do anymore. Looking back, having read this article I imagine that in such a situation I could have tested Graeber’s assertions first hand.

Another way of calling behaviour like mine is by the word naive. Maybe that’s just another vocable of mean working ideology. Because if not being naive means that you subordinate to something stupid like that, there is some sneaky thing going on with how people talk to each other.