Book of the week
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory
(Simon & Schuster, $27)
David Graeber’s latest provocation is “probably the best nonfiction book you’ll read all year,” said J.P. O’Malley in Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Just don’t tell your boss about it.” Graeber’s central argument at first seems counterintuitive—that, despite the pressure employers are under to contain costs, a large share of workers today are engaged in performing pointless tasks. Recent surveys of British and Dutch workers found that 37 to 40 percent believed their labor made no meaningful contribution to society, and Graeber suspects they’re right. The London School of Economics anthropologist argues that middle managers, consultants, marketers, and administrators of all kinds spend most of their time in make-work, pretending to be useful. “Incrementally and with striking clarity,” he builds to a larger point: that purposeless jobs persist because they keep the masses busy and subdued.
It’s not news that middle-class work can feel futile, said The Economist. Comedies on the theme have been with us for decades, and the idea that “work expands to fill the time available” was coined back in 1955. Graeber also has no strong data to back his anecdotes, so he might be merely amplifying a problem with how people perceive the work done in a service economy: “In a factory, you can count the widgets made each day; in a service business, it is harder to monitor output.” But put aside the economics, said John Schneider in the Los Angeles Review of Books. “What makes Bullshit Jobs so refreshing” is that it exposes the myths that sustain pointless work. We think of work as a test of character. As Graeber writes, “Anyone who is not slaving away harder than he’d like at something he doesn’t especially enjoy is a bad person.” And people who think that way stick with jobs that make them cynical and unhappy.
Graeber has devised an amusing taxonomy of bullshit jobs, said Nathan Heller in NewYorker.com. To him, a “box-ticker” is a paper pusher, a “flunky” is anyone whose role is merely to make a higher-up feel important, and a “duct-taper” patches flaws in systems that cry for actual repair. He also argues that such make-work winds up benefiting the wealthy and impoverishing everyone else’s life. But does it? Though he doesn’t say so, “bullshit employment has come to serve as a disguised, half-baked version of the dole”—especially for the credentialed middle class. Not every college grad finds fulfillment, but plenty secure salaries, plus time to shop online. “It’s not, perhaps, a life well lived. But it’s not the terror of penury, either.”