I’ve been meaning to write about David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs for a while now. A huge success, it came out in 2018, but I only discovered it last year. Still, this brilliant book (and theory) is not nearly well known enough. I urge everyone to read it; it comes with my highest recommendation.
The basic premise is that millions of people wordwide (possibly as much as 37%) are employed in jobs that they themselves feel are useless, unnecessary, and contribute nothing to the world. Many of these people feel— usually correctly— that they could stop doing their job and neither the world, nor the company they work for, nor the people they work with or for, would suffer in any way. Some of these people actually do just that: come to work, fuck around, do nothing, leave. Day after day. And while that may sound like fun, people with bullshit jobs are universally unhappy.
After collecting hundreds of first-hand accounts of people’s bullshit jobs, Graeber classifies them into 5 main categories: Flunkies are those that exist only to make someone else (or a company) look more important (self-reported examples include doormen, some receptionists, store greeters, many administrators and assistants etc.); Box-tickers are those whose work involves interrupting other people’s work with unnecessary administrative tasks, and/or to claim that a company or entity is doing something it probably isn’t doing (e.g. collecting data, questionnaires, or surveys about things that are never acted upon; sitting on committees or fact-finding missions about irresponsible, inefficient, or illegal behavior, and writing reports, as well as those who edit those reports and file them; investigating and creating greenwashing reports; creating, updating, and collecting ever-multiplying forms for people to fill out); Task-masters are unnecessary superiors (managers, art directors, supervisors, strategizers, policy-makers, etc.), who usually have Flunkies working under them, or spend their time interrupting people who are actually working with unnecessary “management”; Goons are those who have some aggressive element to the job, and who are sometimes only employed because some other company or entity has some (Graeber received many messages from corporate lawyers self-reporting their jobs as bullshit— see also: rent-a-cops, security guards, “efficiency” reporters, etc.); Duct-tapers are people who fix, cover up, or apologize for other people’s (or computers’, or systems’) mistakes, and this includes people employed to soothe or calm other people down who have become over-stressed. Imagine: a computer programmer who is under pressure from a Task-master, and continually interrupted by a Box-ticker, makes mistakes that then have to be documented by another Box-ticker, and explained by another Task-master to a Duct-taper for fixing, as well as apologized for by another Duct-taper, while the programmer goes for wellness sessions with yet another Duct-taper, because s/he’s being breathed over by a Flunkie Goon at the request of a Task-master…
In some of these instances, Graeber includes jobs that the employee feels are bullshit because they primarily subtract from the good of the world— such as people whose job is to make poor people’s lives more difficult and miserable (gatekeepers to benefits etc.), and those employed in fakery: PR agents, telemarketers, photo retouchers, food stylists, and many people in the advertising industry. Were he still alive (sadly, he died at age 59 in Sept. 2020), I would suggest a sixth category: Liars.
The first part of Bullshit Jobs is an entertaining read, as we hear various people’s accounts of their own bullshit jobs, and we recognize the characteristics of jobs we’ve had or observed. If you start the book as a skeptic, you leave it thoroughly convinced that these jobs are rampant in both the public and private sector.
I’ve had bullshit jobs myself: at my very first job, I was employed in a stationery store with three other girls. It’s not that selling stationery was bullshit— it was that only one or two of us was needed. Most of the time was spent cleaning things that were already clean and pretending to “organize” or tidy things. I eventually discovered that no one wanted to work in the basement where the art and drafting supplies were, so I volunteered— and spent my days doing nothing, except for the once or twice someone came in needing some graph paper or a T-square. Later, I hated being a waitress, but it wasn’t bullshit— I was doing something semi-necessary, and was often quite busy. Eventually, when I had my own business, I was a perpetrator of bullshit work: in an attempt to get on top of my employees’ time management, I built many forms for time-keeping, task-details, equipment ordering, communications, etc. Eventually all of that was built into a custom business database. I myself found that most often I winged it— filling forms in at the end of the week with guesses as to what I’d spent my time on, doing what, and for whom.
For the past 30 years or more, I’ve been in the enviable position of doing something I largely enjoy for a living, though I’ve had my moments of realizing the work I was doing was total bullshit. People’s fucking brochures that they need immediately, or by x-date or-someone-will-die, except-then-not when a higher-up (Task Master) makes last-minute decisions that delay or cancel the whole project; fucking arguments and quibbles over this or that possible interpretation of a logo, or the goddamn colors of things; plus the ever-increasing feeling that everything we made was near-immediate landfill. In fact, I think that my final disillusionment over my role as a graphic designer was the realization that it was, in fact, BULLSHIT, and that I could stop doing it. So I did.
I stopped keeping track of my time when I went out on my own in 2004. I stayed in the general business of design and advertising, but by focusing on the “art” aspect, I fulfilled my own sense of doing something worthwhile with my time. But also the sense that exposing the masses to “something different,” even when embedded in bullshit, was worthwhile. Your mileage on this may vary, but this was part of what I was trying to say in my 2010 TED talk: that art, disseminated widely, can serve as inspiration for all sorts of things. I still, even with moments of doubt, think that’s true. And I’ve been beyond fortunate that I’ve actually heard from countless people that my work has affected them in some positive way.
Meanwhile, I now teach a single class for Art Center in Pasadena, and that is certainly the least bullshit job I’ve ever had—especially as I’m basically autonomous, with my own tiny satellite course, and can ignore all of the 20-or-so administrative emails that arrive every day.
Of course, I still sometimes find myself in bullshit meetings, both in person and online, attended by a bewildering array of Art Directors, Design Directors, Creative Directors, Art Buyers, Account Managers, Project Managers, and Designers. This usually consists of someone reads through every single page of a PDF I’ve received and read in advance, and then one person begs me to ask a question, and one other person emphasizes something already said, and the rest say nothing, or look at their phones. And I really do wonder…
But lest ye think I’m casting aspersions on other people’s work, be assured that I am not, and according to David Graeber, cannot. This is the beauty of his theory of bullshit jobs: it is almost necessarily self-defined. Yes, there are those who perhaps don’t recognize the bullshitness of their job, because they really enjoy filling out forms— I certainly enjoyed making them! But the vast majority of people do recognize it, and suffer accordingly.
I’m not finished talking about this book, so stay tuned…