On Bullsh*t Jobs | David Graeber | RSA Replay

On Bullsh*t Jobs | David Graeber | RSA Replay

In 2013 David Graeber, professor of anthropology at LSE, wrote an excoriating essay on modern work for Strike! magazine. “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” was read over a million times and the essay translated in seventeen different languages within weeks. Graeber visits the RSA to expand on this phenomenon, and will explore how the proliferation of meaningless jobs – more associated with the 20th-century Soviet Union than latter-day capitalism – has impacted modern society. In doing so, he looks at how we value work, and how, rather than being productive, work has become an end in itself; the way such work maintains the current broken system of finance capital; and, finally, how we can get out of it.

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109 thoughts on “On Bullsh*t Jobs | David Graeber | RSA Replay

  1. As a young PhD student at a European university, I can relate. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe research is valuable, it’s just that I see so much waste of talent, time and resources around here. First of all, the most competent researchers don’t really have time to do any research, because they spend most of their time trying to secure funding. This includes keeping up with the often complicated application processes for research grants, writing applications for research grants, and reviewing the applications of other researchers. A lot of time also goes to building cooperation with businesses, as required by many funding agencies. Time is also spent on doing scattered favors for said businesses to maintain the cooperation, while trying to explain to them why finding ad hoc solutions to their immediate issues through trial and error does not generate knowledge that will help them in the future. Our performance as researchers and research institution is measured by the number of peer-reviewed publications we spit out. In response, time is wasted writing a larger number of papers with less substance and lower quality, which researchers are then spending their time peer-reviewing or reading in order to stay updated. The irony is that the motivation behind all of this is to make research more effective. Without reading even one of our publications, our overseers look at the quantitative measures of our performance and conclude that our research is indeed more efficient.

    1. ​@J S I assess quality of others regularly, because I have personal interest in what they have done and that I can trust it. If the quality of their work is good and is important to me, I will probably use it in one way or another. If I make a mistake in my quality assessment, I may be lead astray and do a lot of tedious work in vain.
      I mean, if you’re going to build a house and live in it too, you will probably assess more than once the quality of the ground and material you use.

    2. So the theory is basically that you can run faster if you cut off both your legs, because you’ll weigh less.

      Gotta love when logic is utterly misused by academia. Irony at its’ sweetest.

    3. @Aaron Webb I’m not sure I see what you’re saying, but it seems you believe the current state of academia is their own making. Please know that this is a result of deliberate policy aiming to squeeze universities to work more efficiently and align with political agenda.

  2. We need access to land that we can use to live freely upon and grow food. Without that we are indeed wage slaves.

    1. Society needs BSJs, the elitists will not do them for that is beyond their pedigree and education so too are those who have education but no pedigree. You know of which I speak. The American Caste System, the Founding Fathers created it. Slaves are necessary for the advancement of Capitalism, the GNP is constructed for consumption, not for saving. The obedient sheep of America, my people suffer from a lack of knowledge. The wonder of political masochism!

  3. I manage rainwater catchment tanks in the CA central coast where water is very scarce. I can barely afford a studio apartment. Meanwhile, all of the bankers, golfers, investors and folks that simply move money around have very large estates and don’t seem to lift a finger. It’s not only that the BS jobs are ubiquitous but that there is an direct relationship between the BS’ness of your job in relation to your wage earned. e.g. Higher level of BS = Higher Wage. Low level of BS = Low wage.
    we need to remove invisible layers of ‘policy violence’ to flip this equation upside down, so that bankers are scraping by for selling us all out and, for example, people like hotel maids can live comfortably, because they actually provide a real service.

    1. @Joru Nobu I think sports players do train a lot considering their job is often very physically demanding and they are expected to be much more “professional” than say in the days of James Hunt and George best, but I think when considering recruitment for bankers and sports players at the lowest level, it’s about who is most likely to succeed. For bankers its determined by educational standing, work ethic, networking, success in the capitalist youth system effectively, for a sports player it’s only really aptitude in that particular sport. The money involved allows either profession to recruit the cream of the crop, but they are selecting for different things and against different pressures of incentive in the labour market. The similarity is that they are both high incentive and therefore highly selective as a consequence of the high pay rather than the high pay being a consequence of the level of training involved.

    2. @Nahastu they do not have to do any of that garbage- they are hyperactive vultures who feel empty and guilty! it is ridiculous to say that people who are recompensed at the highest level “work” hard!! unsupportable assertion!!

  4. As an engineer who mostly automated machines and instruments, I felt my job was useful because I was helping to eliminate bullshit jobs. The currently accelerating trend to automate, Iv’e thought for years, is creating a new paradigm that cultures are not accommodating. Even my own work is being automated with CAD, CAE and Artificial Intelligence. My son continues this legacy as a robot engineer who’s very interested in AI, and he acquired an education background with a PhD to achieve such advanced automation, so his cultural experience regarding the social consequences of more potential leisure time will be more intense as he effects and experiences the future. We should be asking questions about the consequences; what will people do if work weeks are cut down, how do we prevent oligarchs from getting even more power to create a neofeudal society, how do we provide meaningful activities for people with much more leisure time? These questions are totally new to society.
    We humans are physical & mental captives of our evolution that has not prepared us for our advancing social structure’s inevitable result. We’re hardly different from our hunter-gatherer ancestors from at least 200,000 years ago! Can we emulate our natural needs and tendencies with any system that doesn’t seem artificial and meaningless? Can we adapt to a society that’s much more scientific without institutionalizing our flights-of-fancy & escape practices that potentially destroy progress? Can we remain healthy? These are philosophical question that should challenge us to provide peaceful answers.

    1. to be honest it will probably depend on where you live. there will be different communities that choose different paths, and we’ll see what happens, bar extinction from something like rapid climate change. for me the million dollar question is how to convince a regime to implement UBI?

    2. “Can we emulate our natural needs and tendencies with any system that doesn’t seem artificial and meaningless?”

      Right. Quality of life is great – but we don’t want soma. We could start with Universal Basic Income and end with a Universal Existential Crisis.

  5. School is just detaining the kids till they’re old enough to do the shite jobs no one wants to do without the threat of homelessness

    1. @Random It’s my one reason I don’t want reincarnation ,the thought of being bullied in school again by the many desperado psychopaths and that’s just the teachers.

    2. @Ian Clarke Home schooling is the solution but we are time slaves- 1 hour to work, 1 hour to drive home, 9 hours work. Funny I just thought about the reincarnation what if after death we go back to this hell, like in Matrix movies architect was rebuilding system when it becomes corrupt. But not the human animals system but what if life itself comes back to earth after cells stop replicating. Creepy to even think about this. No Idea how to check it too.

    3. Right! Colleges do the capitalistic training of corporations. Easier training is possible these days and housing is at an abundance with short term rentals.

    4. Bingo. I’m proud of my GED because passing the GED is more rigorous than most US high schools (I could not afford to finish high school).

  6. a large portion of IT is b.s. We say new software and hardware are upgrades but they usually are not…its just a way for people to keep their jobs. I did this for 15 years and had the identity crisis Graeber talks about, got tired of building new programs when there was nothing wrong with the existing program.

    1. @an other IP is the most anti-innovation concept ever created. In our desire to hoard knowledge and wealth, instead of spreading them and their fruits, we’ve created so many inefficiencies and lost so much potential. I don’t blame a single innovator trying to protect themselves in our economic system, because they fewer poverty, but imagine if they didn’t have to fear poverty at all and were well compensated for their ideas and for their work without having to fear that some company is going to steal it and leave them hungry in the dust? The other big problem with IP in our system is it has become a tool for huge companies, and IP trolls, to stifle competition and real innovation, by blocking all other attempts to go to market with similar ideas and sitting on their innovations in order to squeeze every cent out of old technologies. Often they’ll buy smaller competitors just to kill their innovations. It’s horrible.

    2. @Bernie2k20 it’s the same as it always has been, the have and have nots, you get it in communism too. The only solution as an individual is to try and be one of the winners. As best you can within the confines of the system

    3. @Bernie2k20 >I know an IT administrator who works 2-4 hours a week at his full time job and makes about 75k lol

      Sure, but they’re not paid for the 2-4 hours only. They are paid so the company has a person on-call that can solve the problem whatever it may be. His week of sitting-doing-nothing pays off if he later returns server functionality back to normal in a few hours instead of a few days.

      Besides, a huge number of jobs don’t just pay for the bare hours you work, they pay you for spending years getting the qualifications.

    4. Yeah and in the past few years we’re seeing certain software and sites getting objectively worse with each update. Take Adobe reader and the Office suite: used to be slick appearance, now the header bar or side bars are so thick you barely see something of your pdf or word doc. Then in word you have to click a thousand times to get a complete view of all the options which you have in Office 2003.
      Website designs getting worse too. Take youtube.

  7. I was thinking about this last week. I literally work/produce 25 hrs of real work in a 40 hr week. I’d rather just be honest with my employer and work 8-12 daily and go home but I’m salary. It’s depressing and a waste.

    1. Putting out fires all the time makes them continuously employed, solving the root issue puts people out of their jobs after they solve the problem. Conflicts of interest.

    2. We had people who would cause problems just so they could fix them. Some people just want to look busy since a perception of value is what they settle for.

  8. I Loved this talk. I was first turned on to David Graeber and read his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years while pretending to work at a bullshit job. The company I worked for was bought by another company who didn’t seem to do a proper accounting of all of its employees. As a result, I had almost nothing to do for six months. During this time, I read books, Wikipedia, and watched countless hours of Youtube. It was a bit nerve racking knowing that I couldn’t tell my coworkers or bosses, becauseI knew the immediate response would either be “Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” or “You’re fired.” After this experience, I became a teacher at a charter school. I worked nearly 80 hours a week even though teaching my classes only accounted for 15 of those hours because my school required each teacher make entirely new lesson plans every year. Keep in mind I taught Algebra, a subject that is still taught the same way it was in the early 1900s. I could have used Algebra lessons from 1901 and called it a day. At this school, there was an attitude that if you didn’t give every waking moment of you life to the job you were short changing your students’ futures. There was no discussion by anyone on how to become more efficient with our time or make the job more sustainable in the long-term because no one wanted that. Instead the admin and many of the teachers wanted to feel like martyrs in service to “urban education” or “the community.” The whole experience had a “secular hairshirt” feel to it as Greaber says.

    1. And they don’t care what the math students do.I bet! The main focus is you, the teacher, doing useless paperwork on how your lessons will look like, forgetting that, if the student does nothing, no matter how amazing your lessons are, the student will not learn. Is happening everywhere today.

    2. As a teacher, I sympathise with you 100% on the nonsense that goes on in schools. In addition to filing endless amounts of paperwork and repetitive planning, there is the fact that everything revolves around a system designed to produce students who are compliant enough to feed into more “bullshit jobs” in the future.

    1. @January’s Son Who said they’re in a management job? And no I didn’t. I’m in a menial service job. I deliver fast food to people. Delivering the flesh of animals who live horrendous lives solely for the purpose of feeding greedy humans cheap flesh who go on YouTube and fool themselves into believing they’re nice, good people…

    2. @David Kinsella furthermore, the meat industry is kinda not even necessary, going back to the bullshit jobs thing: with our current farming infrastructure the world produces abt 4 times enough plants to feed the world. People still starve. They feed a lot of this food to the animals which they have factory farmed. Like half of those farming jobs shouldn’t exist and neither should the animal abuse ones.

    3. @Daniel Nielsen A lot of the plants that are fed to animals are not fed to humans either because they’re not digestible by humans or because of how they taste.

  9. “We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”

    -Buckminster Fuller

    He said this in the 1970s

    1. @Nunneryer Business lol- if you say so. I’m not alone in discrediting academia- karl marx was a brilliant academic and his theories led to millions of deaths or abject poverty wherever they were tried. But surprisingly, academia still loves Marxism. If you want to work 10hrs a week – go for it, far be it from me to stop you… but in my limited experience with my tiny brain I just don’t see how that will work. But good for you that you and your generation have figured out what no one else has over the millenia… that work is pretend and we don’t need to do it.

    2. @Joru Nobu lol- my point is – the idea that you can enjoy anything that you enjoy without someone, at some point “toiling” to make it possible is an illusion made possible by the great wealth we have come to enjoy. The people who embrace this idea are not “enlightened” they are “insulated” from reality. Like mary Antoinette famously was credited as saying to the question of all the starving citizens- “let them eat cake”. She didn’t have a higher understanding of reality than the commoners, she was insulated from reality because of her wealth. If you think your vanilla bean latte can arrive in your hand by automation good for you… one question….who will build, deliver and maintain all the automation? Will that not just be the new bullsht job?

    3. Pretty sure you wouldn’t want to fly in a plane that wasn’t inspected. Pretty sure you are relieved to know the inspectors are kept in check by “inspectors of inspectors” pretty sure you value the safety these bullsht jobs provide while you sit back in your little abstract bubble criticizing these very jobs that make your life possible

    4. @thalia helweg sure- and those unprecedented technological advancements have made our lives more complicated and our workload greater. If all you needed to do every day was eat you would only have one job- go out and pick a fruit off the vine. Pretty easy. If you need shelter now you have added to the complexity… now you have more demand on your time and resources. Add the need for clothes, travel, medicine, education, government, police, prisons, hospitals, toys, cellphones etc… and you just created more work, not less.

    5. @MAVEN FELICIANO ya – under a rock. Do you think all this technology has made life simpler and created less work? The more you complicate something the more work it creates… take travel for instance. If you had a horse it would cost little time and resources but your travel would be very limited. If you trade up to something as basic as a Model A Ford the travel capabilities are increased by a factor of maybe 4 but the work to make that possible is exponential. Now you need miners, engineers, fabricators, mechanics, natural resource, an energy industry, gas stations and on and on. That one little advancement created how much work? Multiply that by every single thing that makes up your life today and you will see that it is not a “conspiracy” to make you work it is the exact opposite. We wouldn’t have to work so hard or so much if we lived simpler lives. Technology isn’t the answer it is the cause….

    1. We should make alternate accounts and start commenting back. Give them hell. Anyone interested in organizing can email me at legalfictionnaturalfact at gmail

    1. The ideas explained by David Graeber are so simple, but let tons of more or less sophisticated old conceptions appear obsolete. I hope a lot of people will pick up and develop his research and thinking.

    2. I too mourn David Graeber, author of both Debt and Bullshit!
      I have several topics worth studies for a sequel to Bullshit, that I eagerly seek collaborations for a section of the website and curriculum of my California based 501C3 nonprofit organization, Dandelion Labs (eagerly seeking directors, partners, and members)!
      Please email me at Matt dot Erbst at gmail dot com!

  10. I think we all just learned about the true value of bs jobs vs “essential workers” and what is actually possible in terms of working from home or not. It’s just a giant mind-f we’ve all been socialized into. The Puritanical work ethic still is the basic tool for self worth and your value to society. Now it’s clear how broken and toxic that concept is.

    1. so how do we accelerate it’s demise? educate people about how Arbeit macht frei is still a part of our modern workplace?

    2. Puritanical work ethic is a great concept which doesn’t apply to modern society. You can have that kind of ethic as a hands-on specialist that understands the problem he is solving and works semi-independent on it. Then your works makes sense to you and putting your heart into it is very rewarding. Anyone that has worked towards any concrete goal knows how liberating it is.

      Or you’re a cog and you’re trying to put your heart into sth you nor anyone really understands and it just gets lost somewhere in the big machine. Then it becomes toxic.

    1. @Anogoya Dagaati No, to demand and expect is to value yourself as a human being. Society exists because we work for it and the overwhelming majority of people are just wage workers. You can’t have a system built only of entrepreneurs, just like you can’t have a company of only managers. If you’re serious about your world view it has to work for EVERYBODY: from the guy that innovates constantly, through the specialists that design the implementation, to the worker that carries out that implementation in the field.

      And I want to live in a society where the average worker can enjoy a reasonable amount of comfort from putting an reasonable amount of work. All this technology and innovation is worthless if you spend your life constantly working long hours and in constant fear of losing your job. It’s not the world owing anything to me, it me making a conscious decision of how I want the society, which I am part of, to be run.

      None of that is feudalism or the gulag, in fact this is the very idea of freedom as conceptualised by generations of libertarian thinkers. In fact, they have correctly identified wage-slavery as just a rebranded version those two.

    2. Test your value, get another job offer. Mobility is worth a 10% increase.
      Is your job a bargain for you ? And your employer.
      Capitalism is a failure, you are labor.

    1. @Robert Jones apparently internal bleeding caused by necrotic pancreatitis? “they” silenced him too trying to really help humanity is dangerous,dangerous,a hazard to your health.

  11. I worked in fish factory where we did really job for 4 hours and rest 4 hour hiding from bosses and doing really nothing. Honestly this hiding time was doubble energy demanding than working time.

    1. @Helen Leary That`s all well and good if you can afford the astronomical price of college in the usa and have the attention span/intellect to do well in the academia world and get that masters degree. But what if, as is the case for most people, those two things are literally impossible? They just deserve to get paid an unlivable wage and suffer a miserable life? The idea that, that is an morally acceptable point of view is abhorrent me.

    2. @mr85grimYou make a very good point… how do we move away from a meritocracy? Even if wages were on a level playing field there would always be some who work 90hrs a week, while others barely manage 25hrs a week and cant get out of bed before 10am. Should everyone get paid the same, despite the desire of some to go above and beyond???

    3. @Helen Leary Not get paid the same but a universal basic income that is a livable amount of money. People that have the aptitude like you to work smarter and harder can get paid more but we don’t need billionaires walking around and pretty soon trillionares. I say a ubi and a maximum wage of around 5-10million and all money past that goes to the rest of society for a ubi. The idea that we just need jobs is really becoming more and more a moot point anyway. With automation about to make most labor and service jobs obsolete, why do we need people to do these jobs they hate that don’t pay enough anyways? We have 600,000 homeless people and 17 million vacant homes so resources are clearly not the issue in the usa.

    4. @Helen Leary You also should keep in mind if everyone had a masters degree and played the game as well as you did, then those jobs would start to pay less and less as more people acquired them or prices would go up. This is how capitalist economies work. The people at the top are never going to willingly give up more of their pie.

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