Calling Bullshit on 'Bullshit Jobs'

New research suggests that David Graeber's arguments were deeply flawed.

A group of researchers decided to fact check the late David Graeber’s theory of bullshit jobs, jobs that even those who do them consider useless. It turns out that while he didn’t do such research himself — relying mostly on anecdotes and supposed trends — there is ample data to assess how well — or badly — his pronouncements track reality.

Craig Brierley reported on the research:

To test Graeber’s propositions, the researchers turned to the 2005–2015 European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS), examining reasons that led to respondents answering ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ to the statement: ‘I have the feeling of doing useful work’. The surveys – taken in 2005, 2010 and 2015 – gather measures on the usefulness of the job, workers’ wellbeing and objective data on the quality of work. The number of respondents grew from over 21,000 in 2005 to almost 30,000 in 2015.


Share


Graebers made a number of claims that the researchers attempted to corroborate:

  1. Between 20% and 50% of the workforce are working in bullshit jobs. No, only 4.8% of EU workers said they were doing meaningless work.

  2. The number of bullshit jobs has been ‘increasing rapidly in recent years’. Nope. Actually, the percentage of bullshit jobs fell from 7.8% to 4.8% in 2015.

  3. Graeber argued bullshit jobs clustered in certain occupations, like finance, law, administration, and marketing. The researchers found no evidence that those occupations had more people feeling like their work was meaningless.

The researcher applauded Graeber’s attention to the link between bad jobs and wellbeing which is supported by the data. But his entire construction about ‘managerial feudalism leading to widespread and growing levels of bullshit jobs seems fanciful.


Share work futures


The researchers’ findings regarding the causes that lead people to feel their job are useless are perhaps the most important takeaways.

The popular acclaim that Graeber’s work on BS jobs has received strongly suggests that the sense of doing something useful is of fundamental importance to people’s working life – very much in line with eudaimonic accounts of wellbeing (Ryan and Deci, 2001). Indeed, our findings above highlight that Graeber was correct to highlight the damaging effects of doing work that one feels to be useless. Therefore, simply refuting Graeber’s explanation is insufficient and it is necessary to also suggest alternative explanations that are potentially more satisfactory. As highlighted in our literature review, the far older concept of alienation might yield an alternative way of understanding why some workers feel that their job is useless. This concept focuses our attention on the social relations under which paid work is undertaken. 

[…]

The strongest correlation was with the extent to which the employee felt respected by management (rho = .324) and there were also moderate correlations with other aspects of management style and quality (i.e. feeling encouraged and supported by management, thinking that management was successful at getting people to work together, providing useful feedback and being helpful). At the other end of the spectrum, when employees experience management that is disrespectful, inefficient and poor at giving feedback, it is more difficult to perceive the usefulness of the work.

[…]

The second strongest correlation (.319) was with an item about ability to use one’s own ideas at work – an important element for feeling that your job provides you with the ability to realise your human capacities. Moreover, there was a clear relationship between the extent to which people felt that they had enough time to do their job well and their rating of the usefulness of their job, suggesting that one source of feeling a job to be useless is the pace at which one is working, affecting the ability to realise one’s potential and capabilities. There were two measures of social support: one concerning colleagues and one concerning managers giving ‘help and support’. Both were correlated with the feeling of doing useful work. Finally, there were three items that measured participation at work (in influencing important decisions, in improving work organisation, and in being consulted about objectives), all of which predict feelings of usefulness.

These findings point to the fact that feelings of usefulness at work are not a direct indication of the social value of that work but are tied to the degree to which the social relations under which that job is undertaken enable individuals to realise their human potential. In particular, if managers are respectful, supportive and listen to workers, and if workers have the opportunities for participation, to use their own ideas and have time to do a good job, they are less likely to feel that their work is useless. Our findings, therefore, suggest that workers feeling that their job is not useful, is not due to the job itself being ‘bullshit’ and the result of managerial feudalism but rather is a symptom of bad management and toxic workplace cultures leading to alienation.

Those who are most likely to feel their work is useless are those with the worse managers. Specifically, managers who express disrespect, are ‘poor and inefficient at giving feedback’, and block workers’ natural desire for greater autonomy and agency at work.

Thankfully, Graeber was wrong about the various trends he believed in — the percentage of bullshit jobs and their increase — but he was right about the capacity of bad managers to turn a perfectly good job into bullshit.