The damage done by bullshit jobs

In a recent post about the idea of a universal basic income, I mused at the end about what would happen to people if they no longer had to work because they had a guaranteed income. Would they begin to feel that they were no longer contributing to society in some way by working for a living, and would that leave them with negative feelings about their own worth? What I did not consider was the fact that many people who work already feel that way because they see their jobs as pretty pointless.

In the latest June 2018 issue of Harper’s magazine I came across an article titled Punching the Clock which is an excerpt from the book Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, who argues that working at jobs that one sees as pointless makes people miserable.

He says that in the past, meaningful work did not look anything like what the modern workplace requires.

Historically, human work patterns have taken the form of intense bursts of energy followed by rest. Farming, for instance, is generally an all-hands-on-deck mobilization around planting and harvest, with the off-seasons occupied by minor projects. Large projects such as building a house or preparing for a feast tend to take the same form. This is typical of how human beings have always worked. There is no reason to believe that acting otherwise would result in greater efficiency or productivity. Often it has precisely the opposite effect.

One reason that work was historically irregular is because it was largely unsupervised. This is true of medieval feudalism and of most labor arrangements until relatively recent times, even if the relationship between worker and boss was strikingly unequal. If those at the bottom produced what was required of them, those at the top couldn’t be bothered to know how the time was spent.

He says that this changed dramatically when the nature of jobs changed and people essentially rented out their time, typically one third of their day, to their employers and worked under constant supervision. This was accentuated with the arrival of ubiquitous clocks and watches so that “Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. And these new time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold. Factories started to require workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving.”

Graeber says that this resulted in employers seeking to make sure that the time they had rented from their employees was not ‘wasted’ and we had the growth of ‘bullshit jobs’, tasks that were given to people just to make sure they were not idling, and this resulted in a very different attitude towards time, and consequently towards work.

The idea that workers have a moral obligation to allow their working time to be dictated has become so normalized that members of the public feel indignant if they see, say, transit workers lounging on the job. Thus busywork was invented: to ameliorate the supposed problem of workers not having enough to do to fill an eight-hour day. Take the experience of a woman named Wendy, who sent me a long history of pointless jobs she had worked:

“As a receptionist for a small trade magazine, I was often given tasks to perform while waiting for the phone to ring. Once, one of the ad- sales people dumped thousands of paper clips on my desk and asked me to sort them by color. She then used them interchangeably.

“Another example: my grandmother lived independently in an apartment in New York City into her early nineties, but she did need some help. We hired a very nice woman to live with her, help her do shopping and laundry, and keep an eye out in case she fell or needed help. So, if all went well, there was nothing for this woman to do. This drove my grandmother crazy. ‘She’s just sitting there!’ she would complain. Ultimately, the woman quit.”

The idea that every minute of one’s workday belongs to the boss is a running gag in many cartoon strips, like Blondie.

Graeber argues that this attitude that every minute of one’s workday must be spent in the service of the employer is hugely damaging.

A bullshit job-where one is treated as if one were usefully employed and forced to play along with the pretense-is inherently demoralizing because it is a game of make–believe not of one’s own making. Of course the soul cries out. It is an assault on the very foundations of self. A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist.

I have been extremely fortunate in having worked my entire life in jobs that I enjoyed, that I thought were extremely meaningful, and where I was almost entirely unsupervised. As long as I was productive on a long time scale, I was left alone. I soon discovered that in academic life it was impossible to maintain a high level of intellectual engagement all day. My brain became exhausted and I needed to periodically recuperate. At most I could do about four hours of intellectually demanding work per day. So what to do with the rest of the time? Part of the time I could spend on administrative and bureaucratic tasks that were mindless. But there was only so much of that at hand. After that, what? Since I was unsupervised, I could do anything and I would often surf the web or watch a cricket Test match if one was being shown online. But in doing so, I never escaped the feeling that I was somehow goofing off and even cheating when doing so, although I knew that I was productive. I had subtly absorbed the mindset that spending every minute in ostensible service to the institution was more important than the quality of the final output.

People in offices who gather around the water cooler to discuss sports and TV and films and gossip are filling in their down time but since they are supervised they have less opportunity to do so and can face censure.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Not only is there make-work, it is sometimes necessary to “look” busy even if you are working hard.

    A co-worker was working on a rather interesting theoretical problem (his solution hopefully would keep us out of labour tribunals and courts). He was sitting at his desk with his feet on the desk reading a book on the issue. Our director, nice guy but not used to our work, noticed, grabbed the manager and suggested that my colleague needed something to do. He was reading a book!

    I had subtly absorbed the mindset that spending every minute in ostensible service to the institution was more important than the quality of the final output.

    The interesting thing is that often management seems to have live this. Face time is often rewarded more than performance. This can escalate to the current mad work we sometimes see where some people, especially it seems, work 50 or even 80 hours a week. This, is despite about 125 years of research and evidence that excessive hours can be contra-productive. Anything over roughly 40 hours per week seems unproductive for manual or factory types of work[1]. This is reputedly the major reason for Henry Ford introducing the 40 hour work week in his factories.

    Your four hours a day seems reasonable for creative and/or highly intellectually demanding work. As Kahneman has stated, thinking slow is hard work.

    There are probably many jobs that, assuming they are worth doing that can be done in less than a standard 8-hour day or equivalent but are spun out to fill in the time or filled with meaningless busy work to fill in the “required” hours.

    [1] Short bursts of long hours seem doable but cumulative fatigue builds up rapidly and dangerously.

  2. TGAP_ Dad says

    I have experienced this effect personally, when I was kept on my team, but given no meaningful work due to a change in supervisors. And this just after my employer has put me and another coworker through 7 months of intensive training for the newer software platform I was not permitted to support. This went on for just under two years, and was utterly and completely demoralizing and soul-crushing.

  3. says

    I think it was Lewis Black who said, “somehow, a few million people have figured out how to get the rest of the planet to work for them.”

  4. jrkrideau says

    @ 1 Tabby Lavalamp
    If you’ve got time to lean you’ve got time to clean.
    Generally attributed to Apicius the author (?) of De re coquinaria in 1st C AD Rome but probably much older.

    Having worked in industrial kitchens, I tend to be somewhat sympathetic to the idea though it can be carried to ridiculous extremes.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 Marcus
    Yes, I would be more appreciative of the “Dignity of Labour” argument if I saw plutocrats on the garbage truck or on the end of a shovel on a construction site.

    I grew up an a farm and never, ever, saw anything worthwhile about “work for work’s sake”. In fact, busy work would have been considered a form of insanity.

  6. Chris J says

    I have a big issue with that Bullshit Jobs rant. The author asks why we haven’t reduced ourselves to 15 hour work weeks, and complains that surely companies wouldn’t pay for work they saw as extraneous.

    Well, we live in a capitalistic society. Pursuing your passions costs money. Where does one get money? From working. Are companies willing to pay people full salaries for 15 hour work weeks? Of course not.

    That seems to be the most straightforward answer for why we don’t live in utopia. Companies are trying as hard as they can not to pay workers at all. Failing that, they’re gonna at least delude themselves into thinking that the money they do spend on their employees is necessary.

    I just don’t understand how a 15 hour work week is supposed to be expected under capitalism. Am I missing something here?

  7. jrkrideau says

    I just don’t understand how a 15 hour work week is supposed to be expected under capitalism. Am I missing something here?

    Probably not, though the 15 hour a week comes from Keynes who, as far as I know, did not advocate the complete overthrow of capitalism. I don’t know if he had particular attachment to capitalism, either

    I think he was making the prediction based on productivity gains that had come through the industrial revolution and farming revolutions and not casting it in a capitalist mode per se. Also, he was saying this in, I think the 1920’s before the rise of the totally rogue capitalism we see now and when organized labour was a significant political force, particularly in the U.K.

    I have read about three versions of Graeber’s rant or summaries of it so I am not sure but you might want to consider that “surely companies wouldn’t pay for work they saw as extraneous” is being sarcastic. I cannot remember the context well enough to know.

  8. says

    Chris J

    I just don’t understand how a 15 hour work week is supposed to be expected under capitalism. Am I missing something here?

    Yes. Dismantle capitalism. It’s a failed system.

  9. jrkrideau says

    @ Mano
    I was just in the grocery store and walked by the cold breakfast cereals. I forgot to count how many different kinds were there but there were a LOT> I struck me that producing one of those many, slightly differing, products could make one’s job seem a bit meaningless. Then I thought, how soul-destroying it must be to be on the marketing team dedicated to “proving” that the cereal with the tiger is better the cereal with the groundhog, or gimmick is popular today.

    I think I begin to see Graeber’s point.

    I’d argue that a Guaranteed Annual income would eliminate a lot of welfare admin jobs that only exist because of our unfortunate Calvinistic heritage. Or medical insurance jobs in the USA. How many jobs in insurance companies, hospitals and doctors offices are meaningless in the context of a single payer system?

  10. says

    If you produce enough in 15 hours a week to keep yourself financially stable why should you work more? Though I’d prefer to work 5 or 6 months a year. Only problem is to have a skill or tools that allows that.

  11. says

    The company had enough work to keep me on longer, the only problem was getting money from corporate. Usual problem with contracting.

  12. says

    @Robertbaden No. 14

    The key is to assume a minimalist life style. I’m very happy working 20-hour weeks with summers off.

    My bills are minimal (I only need about $1,000/month) and before I make a major purchase, I always ask: “do I want to do the extra work necessary to pay for this?” The answer is seldom “yes.”

    In general I highly recommend Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 book: The End of Work.

  13. robert79 says

    It gets even more weird when all the work you do has to be billable for clients. A previous job I had, every hour in my eight hour day had to be logged towards some project. Often when I needed a little mental break I’d browse the web (news, but also often blogs and wiki loosely related to my work.) Question is, under which project would I log this half hour?

  14. kenbakermn says

    Kurt Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” is starting to seem like a pretty reasonable prediction.

  15. agender says

    I envy the members of the caste(s?) where there are still wellpaying jobs available.
    I come from folks who got by barely if the male in the house did not waste the pay for alcohol, and for more than a generation had no chance any more, even if male and educated.
    For LGBTQA and women without a family (on purpose or not) there was no chance since the witchpurges in the 1400s.
    I am European, so there is some social and health system left, despite costcuttings -“too much to starve but too little to live” is a saying, translated literally -- but in the caste I could not escape despite of trying hard there is no choice to work less or what paying job one gets.
    Therefore I am a big fan of the universal basic income -- the group in Germany is proposing a sum that is double the Hartz sum:

  16. machintelligence says

    There is also the problem of equating time with effort. My father in law used to pay a neighbor to take care of his lawn, which took about two and a half hours per week. It was some time ago, so I believe he was paid $25. He later hired a lawn service to do the same job for the same money, but felt he was being cheated because the new fellow only took one hour.
    OTOH I recall many times when I have been told “Nice job. What took you so long?”
    Speed — quality — price. Pick two. (Actually you are lucky to get more than one…)

  17. lanir says

    I think one key to understanding how management thinks about these topics is yo remember they’re busy playing the hero in their own stories. They keep looking for metrics and charts and reports that tell them what’s going on to measure what they do. Because they have nothing to show for their own efforts.

    In fact, management is the least productive part of any business. It requires those props and the authority they cling to with a death grip to keep from the otherwise obvious realization that they aren’t all that necessary. At least, not by the metrics they impose on everyone else. Those are just one big circus to distract them.

    I’m sure this might be less true in some organizations but it’s been true to a surprising degree in the places I’ve worked at. The twitchier they are, the more they want you to spend time reassuring them that you’re doing your job instead of actually doing it, the more applicable this seems to be.

  18. lanir says

    Blah. Phone ate mybitalics terminator tag. Supposed to only be one italicized word. Sorry!

    [I corrected it -- MS]

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