Wednesday, 28 August 2013


Have you read David Graeber's blog on the phenomenon of  'bullshit jobs'?

I received a link to this the other day, not from a socialist, but from a dyed-in-the-wool libertarian friend. He and I briefly shared a job once that was not far from a bullshit job. We both left out of sheer tedium and disgust - and both of us took a pay cut to get out of there. His email included simply the link to the blog and the title 'That sinking feeling.' I suggest you read it before you continue reading my commentary.

While you're at it, read also the 'Attack of the Kling-ons' - the same critique, really, from the perspective of a technology journalist, and with an opinionated comment section below. Or maybe this brief self-interested discussion about whether travel agents should still exist. Then to top it all off, you can visit a Bullshit Job Generator here or take the test here.

The Economist, perhaps sensing that a critique of whatever it calls capitalism was about to go viral, was quick to respond to Graeber with a much less interesting take on the whole thing - most jobs have always been unsatisfying, new 'bullshit' jobs are mostly down to technology, and the jobs can't really be without value, otherwise profit-driven businesses wouldn't pay anyone to do them. Ever confident, the Economist writer(s) dismissed the original article as an 'amusing essay.'

I think the Economist did all of us who believe in the free market a disservice. A far more useful response is to concede that Graeber has a point on the existence of such jobs (if you've been in a bullshit job, you don't need proof), but probably a little wrong on which jobs they are and why, what 'value' they create, and for whom. To do that, it helps to have worked in a large organisation, and it helps to have existed, at least for a while, at the edge between market and non-market as my former colleague and I have.

You see, Graeber offered the following two tests of a bullshit job.

First, the owner of a bullshit job will feel that the job is ultimately meaningless, regardless of how well they perform it or how well it pays. Yet passing this first hurdle of a bullshit job depends on your capacity for self-deception, confirmation bias and unearthing anecdotes. All humans are capable of twisting their outlook on the world until the hand that feeds them doesn't deserve biting. At my first job, some colleagues genuinely believed our work was helping some of the most disadvantaged young people in Britain earn valuable vocational qualifications. They could point to the success stories. Objectively, the qualifications were a government mandate, proven by repeated studies to yield negative returns - partly because they branded people as idiots until employers wouldn't touch them with a bargepole.

Second, if the owner of a bullshit job stopped performing it, no-one (apart from their colleagues and other people doing more or less the same job) would notice. This question is in reality an aggressive fantasy: union enthusiasts dreaming of industrial action that brings the world to a halt, fundamentalist Christians looking forward to the Rapture, libertarians reading about entrepreneurs leaving the world behind in Atlas Shrugged, unpopular kids fantasising about their own funerals, abusive husbands telling their wives no one else would want them. But it also comes with a kernel of truth - bullshit jobs don't deliver value to the people who pay for them - but to someone else entirely.

Passing the second hurdle of a bullshit job is almost too easy. As successive recessions have shown, there are few limits to how much 'stuff' we can do without - even in the so-called 'core economy'. And since many of our 'needs' are not 'core,' what people would notice on day 1 is not what they would notice on day 30. Millions of kids would notice (for a day) if Justin Bieber's PA's PA stopped tweeting for him - yet that MUST be a bullshit job if ever there was one. The real test is not 'who would notice' but whether, a few months later and with no other coercion involved, people would get over the loss and substitute the missing service with something else.

Of course, consistent with his audience, Graeber is trying a neat little reversal with this comment - by hinting that the meaningfulness of a job should be assessed based on the prospective impact of temporary industrial action. But he should instead consider the impact of permanent industrial action. Before long, another group will work around the gap unless the law is twisted to ban them from doing so (think Greek refuse collectors and their private sector counterparts).

What the data have to say

I cannot directly test Graeber's hypothesis. However, I do have weighted, nationally representative EVS data from over 30,000 interviews across the EU in 2008, detailing employees' job satisfaction and perceived level of autonomy by detailed occupation (both on a scale of 1-10) as well as the share of respondents who mentioned either achievement or public service as a characteristic of a 'good job'. To make double sure, I've also looked at what share of mentions these two characteristics took of each group's 'definition' of a good job. The only other possible options denoting 'meaning' would be mentions of responsibility at work. I chose, however, to leave this one out as it could confuse vanity and the desire for social status with the pursuit of meaning.

You can find the detailed findings by occupation group here. But more important, to me, is the chart below, which shows the correlation between a need for meaning at work and job satisfaction, at least for the bulk of jobs out there. The area of each bubble corresponds to the number of people working in each occupation in Europe, back in 2008. What is quite remarkable is that people who emphasise meaning in their choice of occupation also tend to be happier employees, and the vast majority of European employees rate their job satisfaction over 5/10. This cannot be the same world that Graeber is discussing.

The people suffering the most from Graeber's 'bullshit job' angst (i.e people who want a decent amount of meaning at work but are deeply unhappy at work) are most likely to be, not office workers with made-up jobs, but farm hands and machine operators - the traditional workers whose loss Graeber laments. Sure, customer services also emerge as a massive graveyard of hopes and dreams but the real rump of the market are these guys, plus maybe textile workers and miners. In short, the usual suspects since the industrial revolution. The biggest occupational group with far more longing for meaning than their job can accommodate are, in fact, high school teachers; but they're not nearly unhappy enough.

Another approach is to classify Europe's workers into clusters based on these two characteristics - desire for meaning at work and job satisfaction. The result is a system of seven 'satisfaction' groups, and by looking how many workers in each occupational group belong to each 'satisfaction' group we can perhaps infer the prevalence of bullshit jobs. My idea is that we should be on the lookout for people with medium levels of desire for meaning and low or very low job satisfaction. I've ranked the bigger occupation groups according to their propensity to produce such people here.

Again, Graeber strikes the opposite of gold. Turn the test around and search for occupations with the fewest people reporting high desire for meaning and extremely high levels of satisfaction - the same. His favourite occupations turn up more depressed, bullshit workers than the ones he rejects as meaningless.

You can also find a very detailed decision tree explaining the determinants of job satisfaction here. Hint - autonomy at work is by far the strongest determinant.

The reality of bullshit jobs

Still, as I said, I believe Graeber is right in asserting that bullshit jobs exist. I have my own set of tests for Bullshit Jobs, though:

Test one: Every bullshit job supports a rentier or group of rentiers.
Test one-and-a half: Progression in bullshit jobs is asymptotic: it forever approaches but never reaches a rentier position
Test two: Similar bullshit jobs across organisations cross-subsidise each other and each other's rentier masters, instead of competing with each other
Test two-and-a-half: Bullshit jobs give rise to greater network effects, thus creating more bullshit work, the better one performs them 
Test three: The content and output of bullshit jobs is opaque to the people that ultimately fund them, i.e. it is hard to know what one is getting for one's money
Rule three-and-a-half: Bullshit jobs provide ultimate value to internal stakeholders, but are paid for by external stakeholders who receive little or none of it.
Test four: Because bullshit jobs aren't about doing anything, they rely on bullshit skills and bullshitting skills far more than on real ones
Test four and a half: Any job in which a candidate's eventual performance can be predicted accurately by interviews is a bullshit job, although the inverse is not necessarily true.

The Pain of Bullshit Jobs 

Owners of bullshit jobs feel, among other things, shamed or guilty by association. Close contact with the rent-seeker they serve creates the sense of being soiled. How, precisely, the feeling is experienced is crucial. When it is experienced as guilt, it should not lead to the feelings of aggression towards holders of real jobs, as Graeber predicts. When it is interpreted as shame, it could, as long as the blame can be externalised. Whether the 'soiled' feeling will turn to shame or guilt can be shaped by the organisation itself, because feelings of shame and guilt are essentially mixtures of a simple affective element (a raw feeling) and a cognitive process (a 'knowing', I guess).

The categories of Bullshit Jobs

Bullshit jobs, in my view, come in the following flavours (the list continues to grow):

1. Template populators: A template is an abstract structure or order into which relatively simple information or actions can be inserted in order to produce complex but standardised outputs, meeting the template designer's specifications. When you prepare statutory financial reports or regulatory returns, write contract tenders (or invitations to tender, for that matter) for the private or public sectors, if you manage a standardised 'evaluation', 'impact assessment', or 'consultation' process, if you're a UK solicitor involved in conveyancing, a health & safety inspector, or an HR employee taking applicants through a structured behavioural interview, then you are a template populator.

Templates allow complex processes to be standardised and parcelled out, so that individual populators can be allocated tasks they are able to perform, even if they are incapable of efficiently carrying out the whole process. The entire task can thus be performed with the lowest possible level of skilled labour input while meeting the given specification - not what the client wanted necessarily, but what they can be proven to have asked for.

Templates create and protect elites in two ways. First, by making the work of the skilled individuals who design templates scalable. The designer of the template creates a saving by substituting more skilled (designer) labour with less skilled (user) labour and reducing (user) distraction - thus making unskilled (user) labour more productive and releasing skilled (designer) labour to more productive uses. The more they can effectively 'own' the template, the more the designers of the template can capture at least some of this saving as rents.

Second, a template allows the extraction of rents by insulating both its designer and their immediate reports (middle management) from risk, at the expense of pretty much everyone else. After all, a template approved by the principal is almost incapable of producing an outcome the agent can get into trouble over. Which is why, for instance, audit firms rarely get into trouble every time a business they audit fails spectacularly.

When designers aren't effectively able to keep users from replicating their valuable templates elsewhere, it is still possible to restrict usage of the templates, by law or convention, to a relatively small number of users. These user-designers are known as professionals, and they are forced to share the collective rents extracted through templates fairly equally.

2. Junior Lobbyists: a Senior lobbyist in the wider sense is a person who creates 'value' for a constituency by bending the coercive powers of the state in their favour - delivering legislation or, even better, institutions, that allow them to either capture rents, or avoid conceding them to other parties. A corporate lobbyist is only the most obvious example. But the sprawling 'policy' industries of the Anglo-saxon world, the corporatist institutions of Europe, and the well-connected mega-corporates of Asia and Africa, are the preserve of senior lobbyists as well.

Now, a junior lobbyist does none of these things. Junior lobbyists create 'value' by supplying the senior lobbyist with legitimate means of getting close to the people they need to influence, and overcoming initial resistance. They create audiences, venues and props that enable the senior lobbyist to do their job.

Through their work, the constituency cross-subsidises other constituencies' senior lobbyists in return  - especially once one considers that government ministers are themselves senior lobbyists to some extent, and their department staff are themselves junior lobbyists.

Finally, the existence of junior lobbyists provides reassurance to their constituents, who typically cannot observe the senior lobbyists at work, that their money is being spent in their best interests.

3. Outsourced compliance clerks, and their handlers: People usually speak of 'compliance' if they are in a regulated environment, and a specialist department has been given the role of checking that the business can be demonstrated to toe the line or better yet, stay off the regulator's radar altogether. I'm not too worried about them because they are essentially Template populators as per no. 1 above.

But compliance in practice can be more about internal policies than external regulations. Ever worked in a company that employs frequent travellers? I have. Our travel was ostensibly booked by a departmental PA, but in reality the poor lady was merely the first point of contact - she was required, by company policy, to forward our travel requests to a travel agent, who then came back with a quote. In all my years working for the company I was never able to get a quote from them that I couldn't beat with a simple search. They were costing, rather than saving, money. So the company, and our customers were getting negative value.

Why did this job exist? Because back in the day someone decided (correctly) that our department was spending too much on travel, with no one checking whether the travel was actually value-for-money and that people weren't treating themselves to the odd cheeky upgrade. The tough way to fix this would have been to speak to line managers and tell them it's their responsibility to keep travel costs down. Even better - give them a team budget each and end the tragedy of the commons. The easy way was to write up our policies, forward them to a contractor and say 'don't book anything that isn't compliant.' The travel agent isn't saving us money, or even making us waste less money. They simply ensure that we waste only within the boundaries of what is approved; and they skim a little bit of value out of this.

Our departmental PA (otherwise a highly competent person) wisely moved on to a better job. She didn't mention the word 'bullshit' but I think it was mostly out of courtesy.

4. Organisational Placebo Buttons

A placebo button is a button (e.g. on an elevator or a train door) that isn't actually wired to do anything, but exists in order to create an illusion of control. Placebo buttons exist because automation has advanced faster than the users it seeks to serve - and its purpose is to keep the latter content.

Organisational placebo buttons are created when senior decisionmaking bodies in organisations are stripped of their power or are forced to capitulate to an executive office. Alternatively they may be needed when decisionmaking bodies are ultimately powerless but their memberships aren't ready to admit this. This doesn't usually happen in purely commercial organisations, but it is very likely to happen in any kind of membership organisation, where the tension between management and membership needs to be management. The 'placebo button' is a person whose job it is to liaise with the fallen ex-decisionmakers for the sole purpose of assuring them they still matter.  The purpose of all this is to allow management to run the organisation according to its own interests and yet appear to be paying close attention to the membership, for whom the organisation supposedly exists.

The placebo button job holder serves management of course, but, as long as they are junior enough, will tend to be flattered by the opportunity to rub shoulders with the senior 'stakeholders' they are meant to reassure and soak in their wisdom. Once again, the progression is asymptotic - the placebo man or woman will almost certainly never become one of the stakeholders, or one of the senior manager rentiers they are covering for.

5. Scar tissue

Ursula LeGuin's The Disposessed  offers an interesting thought on how anarchist societies might fail; in LeGuin's world, crises, in her case natural but I guess also man-made ones, can have a lasting effect on even an ideal anarchist society. They do this by building a 'scar tissue' of control around the affected area, in order to resolve the crisis quickly and prevent it from arising again. The scar tissue never fades completly, and successive crises only add new, differently shaped layers to it. Commercial businesses, public sector bodies and non-profits act in much the same way.

When a product fails to click with its intended audience, you know a new layer of market research will e required before any further products get approved. When a newsletter or report prompts an angry response from important people, you know future editions will tend to require additional senior sign-off. When colleagues complain about being excluded from meetings, you know the organiser's response will be to copy them pre-emptively into everything remotely of interest in future.

Everyone's job incorporates scar tissue over time - eating away at the essence of their jobs even if they show no obvious signs of being bullshit jobs. The more 'stakeholders' and 'internal clients', the greater the potential for crises, and the faster the buildup of scar tissue. The scar tissue protects senior management by helping the organisations draw less of its stakeholders' attention - which is essential if they are to continue to believe they call the shots.

Some of these jobs are set up in order to artificially create an 'owner' for a diffuse risk, or an owner for the metrics of said risk. Suppose you hire somebody, a third of whose job it is to 'co-ordinate' action on hospital waiting hours. They will collate, analyse and present figures on hospital waiting hours; they will 'liaise' (that word again) with people who actually can make a difference to the situation. But when responsibility is diffuse, these people are likely to be too senior, too remote, or too culturally silo-ed to reach. The 'waiting hours' person will know within a month that their job is not to improve the waiting hours metric, but to own the metric, so that it can be somebody junior's fault when it's out of line.  


  1. Interesting analysis, but leaves out what surely are the majority of BS jobs IE sales, marketing, advertisting, (consumer-targeted) PR etc. In a nutshell "persuading people to buy stuff, rather than leaving people to make up their own mind about what they want".

    Also IMO many jobs exist primarily in order to make the people directly above that job feel important eg PAs. Similarly when a middle / senior manager is attempting to make their next move up the ladder, what looks much better than simply having managed a large number of people, is having managed multiple TIERS of people - this leads to the proliferation of multiple levels of admins and managers. (Also reducing the possibility of actually defining accountability).

    1. This is what I was thinking too. The world would almost certainly be much better off if all the advertising were to stop (or at least went no-frills), maybe people would lose a bit of weight, drink/smoke less and kids would play outside more. The only downside would be that we would have to find another way to fund the (ever decreasing) creative content it currently supports (that and Google) although maybe crowd-sourcing could be the solution.

      The other pillars of bullshit jobs for me would have to be those the financial services and corporate lawyers as Graeber pointed out. It could be a little tricky to weed out the few that are actually required the market's distribution of goods and services function properly, but this is where I would put my money for where most of the slack lies. Since the system is set up to maximise the profits for the shareholders with benefits to the general public as an unintended side-benefit, it is in hindsight not surprising that many people now work at jobs that primarily function to funnel money to their customers/shareholders without producing anything of value (eg. patent trolling law firms, tax consultants, Long-Term Capital Management).

  2. Thanks for a great post, I found these thoughts to be very interesting.


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