David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of the new book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. The following is an ‘opinion’ piece published in THE GLOBE AND MAIL
There are many people who complain that their jobs make no difference in the world. By this I mean not simply that their work has no profound effect on transforming society, which, after all, very few jobs actually do, but rather that they make no difference of any kind of all – if their position, or even the division or branch of the company where they work were to vanish, no one would notice. Their jobs literally do nothing.
In Britain, where I live, surveys reveal that almost 40 percent of all workers feel their jobs make no meaningful contribution to the world. It seems to me there is every reason to believe such people are right. The implications are profound. If you include those who are doing work in support of these jobs – say, the cleaners or receptionists or security staff in buildings inhabited entirely by publicists, lobbyists, financial consultants or corporate lawyers whose sole responsibility is to arrange elaborate tax scams – plus the hours of pointless meetings and paperwork inflicted on those with useful jobs, which are in large part to justify the existence of the useless ones, it’s quite possible that as much as half the work we’re doing could be eliminated without negative consequences, and with dramatic positive effects on everything from health to climate change
Here, I’m not so much interested in how we wound up in this situation as much as the moral and psychological effects this situation has on workers. It’s come to the point where millions of people wake up every morning and head off to perform tasks they secretly believe to be unnecessary, or even counterproductive.Over the past year, I’ve collected hundreds of testimonies from those languishing in these pointless positions. Take Dan, who worked for a large insurance firm based in Toronto. He technically provided graphics for an online data depository no one ever consulted, but most days, he did nothing at all. “It’s honestly hard,” he told me, “to describe how mad and useless I felt. There were easily twice as many managers as actual employees in the building. How ridiculous is that?” His office housed six managers, who were all arranged around one large desk in such a way that the others would notice if any one of them stopped pretending to work. “It all felt like some Kafkaesque dream sequence that only I had the misfortune of realizing, but deep down inside, I felt we must have all known how stupid what we were doing was!”