On the Nature of Bullshit Jobs

Many moons ago, I went on a camping trip in Russia. I could write an essay on why camping in Russia was not wise in 1988, but I’ll save that for some other time. The point is that Russia was then boasting of 0% unemployment. No unemployment! Wow! I’d been a student in Perth when part time jobs were not easy to find. Full time jobs for many graduates – ditto.

And then we noticed the Russian workers sitting in small watchtowers at intersections, monitoring the traffic. They were called intersection guards. We noticed in the famous GUM store in Red Square, that there were about four people involved in the purchase of any item and that buying anything involved getting tickets stamped rather pointlessly. And we could not help but notice that we were collecting Intourist guides who did their little spiel at some famous venue, and then joined our bus tour for days, because (a) they mistakenly thought we had some access to food and (b) they had nothing else in their diary. I can only suppose they made their way home from the border where many people stood about and went through all our things.

There were, it became increasingly clear, quite a few bullshit jobs.

David Graeber has just published Bullshit Jobs: A Theory and defines such work as a form of paid employment that is so completely 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 this is not the case.

Graeber asked the question back in 2013; how is it that developed economies in thrall to the ideals of efficiency and high productivity generate so many jobs that even the people who do them regard them as pointless?

Was Graeber exaggerating? Apparently not, since 37% of British workers in a recent YouGov poll regarded their jobs as meaningless.

My Russian experience aside, I am struggling to find too many totally meaningless jobs. It is far too easy to say, “I don’t understand what you do, therefore you are pointless.” I can certainly think of jobs I do not wish to do, i.e, manicurist. I can think of jobs that indicate we are a rather spoiled society, i.e, storage facility attendants, dog groomers, personal stylists and personal trainers and again, manicurists. I can think of jobs that require one to live in an atmosphere of bullshit and my thoughts immediately go to political aides that stand behind politicians and nod their heads when the camera is on. I do not know where they learn this skill. I can only assume they study those toys that sit on car dashboards, but they don’t wholly qualify as bullshit jobs either. This is not the only activity they perform all day. (Well, let’s hope not!)

The history of work has produced jobs that are not terribly satisfying and many that are absolutely humiliating and even dangerous, but as Dickens once wrote, ‘no-one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.’ The manicurist is providing a treat to someone. We are very grateful to the people who groom our dog. And while the people who used to bag up the groceries and take them to the car have disappeared, there are days when I would love some help to get a large shop into the car. I appreciated the people who filled my car with petrol when I had very small children in the car sleeping and hated to leave them in order to pay.  

And so, this post is a call for some thoughts from blog readers. What are some absolutely bullshit jobs that you consider to be totally meaningless? A friend has already pointed out that the people who hand you a towel in elegant hotel bathrooms, are surplus to requirements. There must be others. I would love to compile a list. Your thoughts?

6 thoughts on “On the Nature of Bullshit Jobs”

  1. Hmm . Providing a treat is ok. And being handed the towel is a treat for those egos in need of a stroke. Why else stay in an establishment with towel handers? And keeping your job, even if it involves deploying hundreds of BS workers, is real work and a treat for you. Anyway wasnt it the Russians who defined socialism in one country as “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” ? And don’t forget the BS jobs the hundreds of Centrelink serfs apply for every week and don’t get. There’s a source of dark economic energy.

  2. My lawyer when asked to give me a copy of a legal document says he doesn’t use word format… it’s typed out new each time……jobs for the boys… if only they could copy the correct spelling of names….. welcome to indiaaaaa

  3. I had an idea but it evaporated when I read the term “Centrelink serf” in the previous comment. My job today is to adjust my image of a modern society in which the term “Centrelink serf” (new to me) is the ‘go’. Is it an attempt at wit, smart-arsery, or just plain arrogance? Whichever, it makes me feel sad for us all.

  4. Bullshit jobs:
    How about multiple radio announcers – a single voice is great but who needs that redundant (and often annoying) second or third character on a show to provide more pointless banter.
    Or sales staff inside those exclusive, over-priced jewellery stores inside a 5 star hotel lobby. Who ever buys stuff from them?

  5. If you visit Mount Vesuvius you will park in a chaotic scruffy area and, if you avoid being crushed by a reversing coach, can enter the track to walk to the top – which starts at a garden shed. Inside the shed is a desk where a man sits on the left and takes your 10 Euros – next to him on the right another man checks your ticket. The whole operation involves you holding the ticket for no more than a second.

    No-one controls the parking or seems to care much about the state of the Portaloos but there is no shortage of visitors of course.

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