Bullshitting about bullshit jobs


[Written as part of Notebook Blog Month.]

Today’s topic is bullshit jobs. I’ve done no preparation for this beyond a reread of David Graeber’s essay, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant. This piece was enormously popular when it came out in 2013, so presumably there’s a large secondary literature of commentaries and follow-ups. I haven’t read any of it, this is me just bullshitting from first principles. So I’m probably repeating a lot of obvious talking points.

Rereading the article, a couple of things jumped out straight away:

  • A lot of the specifics of his argument are not particularly convincing (I’ll get to this in a minute).
  • It rings deeply true anyway, because we all know deep in our hearts and viscera that so many jobs are full of useless bullshit. It’s not surprising that it was so popular.

So, I’ll briefly go over his thesis. Advances in productivity and automation should have freed up lots of time by now, and we should have got the 15 hour working week that John Maynard Keynes expected. But clearly we haven’t. Graeber rules out the consumer treadmill as an explanation:

The standard line today is that he didn’t figure in the massive increase in consumerism. Given the choice between less hours and more toys and pleasures, we’ve collectively chosen the latter. This presents a nice morality tale, but even a moment’s reflection shows it can’t really be true. Yes, we have witnessed the creation of an endless variety of new jobs and industries since the ’20s, but very few have anything to do with the production and distribution of sushi, iPhones, or fancy sneakers.

Instead, he points the finger at what he describes as whole new classes of jobs:

… rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’.

It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.

So, in this view there are a bunch of jobs that are bullshit. Here’s another sample list further down:

A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble, and even one without science fiction writers or ska musicians would clearly be a lesser place. It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.

It’s not very satisfying to me to leave this at the level of a big binary list of jobs that are bullshit (telemarketers, corporate law) and jobs that are not (teachers, tube drivers). To my mind the bullshit is much more fractally distributed throughout the whole economy. It’s definitely true that some jobs are much more prone to gathering bullshit than others. But most of the ‘bullshit’ jobs Graeber lists serve some useful functions. I’m not sure what he’s got against actuaries – insurance seems like a reasonable thing to me, and somebody needs to work out how much it should cost. And some level of financial and legal work needs to go on. (Some of these I do find hard to defend at all. I think telemarketing might actually be pure bullshit given a narrow enough definition? Does anyone need to bother other people by phone any more? I mean I really hate phones so I could be biased here, but that does sound like bullshit to me.)

At the other end of the scale, a lot of his ‘non-bullshit’ jobs get mixed up with bullshit too. Teachers are always having to grapple with the latest bullshit government initiative, for example. The bullshit is mixed right through everything.

I want to probe a bit deeper into what factors are upstream of jobs becoming bullshit. There definitely seem to be warning signs for bullshit. For a start, jobs are particularly likely to contain a lot of bullshit if they contain a lot of abstraction layers. For example:

  • selling abstract things (financial derivatives) rather than concrete things (potatoes)
  • managing people who do things, rather than doing things directly
  • contracting out work to a second company, rather than doing it yourself.
  • producing hard-to-measure output (potato marketing board) rather than obvious results (potato farmer)

These aren’t bad things intrinsically, they need to happen to some extent or we’d all be stuck individually bartering potatoes all day. But they provide places for the bullshit to get in.

For the rest of this post I’m going to play with one potential taxonomy of bullshit jobs. This isn’t supposed to be a Grand Unified Theory of Bullshit Jobs, it’s just me playing around. I don’t have time to try multiple taxonomies in a notebook post like this, so if this one turns out to not be very insightful then I just have to deal with that I suppose. Anyway, it’s inspired by Frankfurt’s characterisation of bullshit in his classic On Bullshit:

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

The main feature of bullshit, as Frankfurt explains it, is that it is indifferent to the truth, rather than outright false. It’s produced as a side effect of some other self-serving process.

This already ties in quite well with the idea of bullshit seeping through abstraction layers. Abstraction layers tend to be places where caring breaks down – it’s just easier to care about potatoes than financial derivatives. In my taxonomy I’m going to explore three kinds of not caring:

  1. Nobody cares about the problem
  2. Nobody cares whether the solution could possibly fix the problem
  3. The incentives push against caring anyway

I’ll go through the eight options. First there’s the Platonic ideal of a non-bullshit job:

  • Care about problem, care about solution, good incentives. Honest artisan hand crafts a beautiful table to sell directly etc etc.

Then we get into the region of somewhat bullshit jobs:

  • Care about problem, care about solution, bad incentives. This is where teaching often ends up, for example (good teachers, I mean). Loves their subject, wants to teach it well, but also has to tick the boxes for ‘learning outcomes’ or w/e.
  • Care about problem, don’t care about solution, good incentives. Caring about the problem but not whether the solution could possibly fix it is a funny one, but something like it happens quite often once a bit of self-deception gets involved, and some bad incentives. Doing it with good incentives is harder. Maybe a widget factory boss gets infatuated with some kind of trendy-but-useless management methodology. They genuinely want to sell more widgets, the market for widgets functions well, but there’s a layer of cargo-cult stupidity in the middle. That’s the best I can do, maybe somebody else can come up with a better example.
  • Don’t care about problem, care about solution, good incentives. This is somebody putting in a solid day of work at a a job they don’t particular care for intrinsically, but with decent working conditions and high standards for what counts as a good job done.

None of these seem like the canonical bullshit job to me, but they are definitely likely to contain bullshit elements. Then we get towards the real bullshit:

  • Care about the problem, don’t care about the solution, bad incentives. This is the self-delusion thing again. Maybe this is a charity employee who genuinely cares about the cause but has some motivated reasoning going on about whether the thing they’re doing could possibly help. If the charity is able to fundraise whether the work is useful or not, you get this situation.
  • Don’t care about the problem, care about the solution, bad incentives. This is the typical academic with a very specific pet hammer, churning out papers that use it in dubious ways.
  • Don’t care about the problem, don’t care about the solution, good incentives. This is just working a job you don’t care about again, but this time without being held back by any kind of standards of professionalism or craftsmanship. Working conditions are still good.

Then finally we get to:

  • Don’t care about the problem, don’t care about the solution, incentives are terrible anyway. You can get here quite easily by switching the remaining yes to a no in the examples above: the academic doesn’t even care about whether the technique is carried out right, the charity employee is completely indifferent to the cause rather than well-meaning but self-deluded, the apathetic worker also has a horrible boss and isn’t paid well. Then you just have pure bullshit.

I’ll try it on one real example, that job I did where I walked around hospitals measuring things:

There were two hospitals being merged together on a new site, and the project management office needed to collect data on how much storage space the new hospital would need for medical supplies. I’m not sure what the best way of doing this would be, but maybe it would involve, I don’t know, some Fermi estimates based on their current storage requirements, plus some efficiencies for the single site. What they actually did was make a giant spreadsheet of every sort of item ordered by the hospital (bandages, prosthetics, tiny orthopaedic screws) and then employ EIGHT OF US to go round the hospitals with tape measures FOR WEEKS tracking down and measuring every individual item on the list, including the tiny orthopaedic screws.

If that doesn’t score highly on the bullshitometer then something is really up.

So… the original problem, ‘how much storage space do we need’, is a good one, and presumably somebody somewhere really cared about the answer. Once this had been filtered through a couple of management layers and subcontractors most of the caring had been lost. I’ll give it a generous half a point.

Definitely nobody cared whether the solution could possibly fix the problem. Zero points.

Incentives were also awful. The work had been contracted out through a couple of layers, and the people who had to find the answer had no particular reason to care beyond coming up with a number that kept the layer above happy. Zero points again.

So I make that 0.5/3. Definitely a bullshit job. So it passes this basic sanity check. (Not a great one, as I’d have had exactly this example at the back of my mind when I came up with the criteria!)

So… was that particulary taxonomy any good? Not particularly, but it did get my thinking through the space of possibilities. I do think that the general strategy of looking for places where not-caring gets in is a good one for spotting bullshit.

3 thoughts on “Bullshitting about bullshit jobs

  1. charliepwarren June 29, 2020 / 9:51 am

    I like this taxonomy, and the idea of ‘fractally distributed’ bullshit! Graeber actually span the whole thing into a book, mostly based on a highly self-selected survey he ran after the original article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lucy Keer June 29, 2020 / 4:01 pm

      Thanks, I didn’t even realise there was a book, which gives you an idea of the level of research I did for this post. Just looked at the Wikipedia page and his classification of ‘flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters’ sounds fun. As do the testimonials of meaningless jobs.


  2. heckle my elk June 30, 2020 / 9:48 pm

    I like this taxonomy.

    I’m trying to think of something to improve/fine-tune the 3-factor list. Probably “bad incentives” should be split up, because there’s bad, and then there’s bad. I guess “disjoint incentives” versus “malign incentives” or something like that. Picture an x-y coordinate axis, and call the direction of the positive x axis as “optimal incentives–craft for craft’s sake.” Disjoint incentives are incentives that point up or down along the Y axis, whereas a purely malign incentive is a vector along the negative x axis. Of course many real world jobs have lots of incentives; do the vector addition and you know what your incentives are.

    Here’s my example: a teacher who cares about the problem, and cares about the solution, usually faces some disjoint incentives, since their pay is disjoint from their work, and is somewhat contingent on their doing e.g. make-work or teaching to a test or what not. Overall vector might point at point (1,1).

    Contrast with a used-car dealer in an area of town with a lot of desperate folks and no other dealers in walking distance, who aggressively marks up crappy cars and relies on salesmanship and tricky contracts with nasty interest rates/penalties for late payments/etc. Overall, this dealer’s incentive to do anything that would count as helping with the problem of people in the neighborhood being financially trapped is… mixed, at best. If the dealer is a well-intentioned person struggling to hold a business together, and giving decent deals when he can afford it and the person is particularly needy or particularly likely to take that modest leg up and use it to escape poverty, maybe on balance it’s better than there being no dealership at all in the neighborhood–but the job will definitely include a whole lot of ‘bullshit’.


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