'Bullsh*t Jobs' is the One Book Every Millennial and Generation Z New Graduate Should Read
When I graduated college in the late ’90s, I carried forth into the cold wage-paying world the career wisdom of Lloyd Dobler on how to avoid losing my soul to undesirable work. Big-hearted slacker Lloyd (John Cusack), the hero of Cameron Crowe’s 1989 romantic comedy “Say Anything,” is asked by the father (the late, great John Mahoney) of his date, valedictorian Diane Court (Ione Skye, in a once-in-a-generation role), what he wants to do now that they have graduated from high school.
We already know Diane is going on to big things, and it is understood that Lloyd is, well, not.
“You mean like a career?” Lloyd asks earnestly. “Um, I don’t know. I’ve thought about this quite a bit, sir. And I would have to say, considering what’s waiting out there for me, I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed. Or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. So as a career, I don’t want to do any of that.”
Not buying anything sold or processed — or the inverse — seemed like good advice to my inexperienced ears at the time. After four years of university newspaper editing I had decided not to pursue a journalism career — too stressful, I decided — and slid into a nonprofit communications gig instead. Fast-forward through graduate school and getting a book published, then a few heartbreaking cycles of academic job applications just as the bottom fell out of that market seemingly for good, and I ended up back in journalism in the end, which was even more stressful than I had imagined at 21. But at least I wasn’t buying anything sold or processed, I told myself.
In other words, in the framework I had for it at the time — based solely on the half-baked wisdom of a fictional teenage kickboxing aficionado and hopeless romantic — at least I didn’t have to show up to a bullshit job every day.
What most of us don’t know at 21 about actual bullshit jobs, before we’ve had time to sample their baffling ills, could fill a volume at least as extensive as anthropologist David Graeber’s perspicacious new book-length study titled, elegantly and simply, “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” (Simon & Schuster, out now). No disrespect meant to the classic send-off, Dr. Seuss’s ebullient “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!,” but after reading Graeber, I am convinced this book should be the new go-to gift for graduates.
The book is based on research sparked by the response Graeber received from his 2013 essay that went viral, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” in which he set about examining why, if technology was supposed to free us from needing to work 40 hours a week, so many people were working even longer hours at the beginning of this century than the last:
In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.
Graeber shoots down the easy answer to why — increased consumerism as an extension of more money and time — by pointing out that simple jobs involving the buying, selling and processing of stuff aren’t necessarily the biggest problem now. (We've seen things you wouldn't believe, Lloyd, attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion…) True bullshit jobs are the ones that, as Graeber points out in his essay, would cause a rational person to suspect new jobs are being invented solely for the purpose of keeping us all busy for 50+ hours per week:
. . . up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
The response to Graeber’s essay was enormous, and the book that emerged from the exhaustive research he conducted on the evolving nature of employment is nothing short of essential reading for anyone embarking on a career search in 2018. In “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory,” Graeber lays out in accessible terms a working definition of the bullshit job, a taxonomy of bullshit jobs, root causes of the proliferation of bullshit jobs and even entire bullshit job sectors, portraits of bullshit job-holders and their confessions of discontent, and at the end, a possible solution to shift our cultural priorities back to work that is creative and caring instead.
The first half of the book is devoted to building a clear understanding of what is and isn’t a bullshit job, why it matters, and what the nature of the “genuine scar across our collective soul” that they cause is. According to Graeber, a bullshit job is different from a “shit job,” though both are oppressive, he writes, in different ways. A shit job tends to be blue-collar and hourly, as opposed to many bullshit white-collar salaried jobs. Shit jobs are frequently disrespected, but most are actually crucial to a functioning society. The indignity comes not from the job itself but from cultural attitudes toward those who perform it.
The bullshit job, on the other hand, is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.” Bullshit jobs can and often are prestigious, or at least aspirational. It's just that if they ceased to exist tomorrow, the world around us could go on in much the same way as it did before.
On one hand, and quite understandably so, when facing compounding student loan interest and a brutal housing market, any job is going to sound like the opposite of bullshit. The idea might even sound appealing — Get paid to do nothing useful, as long as you play along? Sign me up! But the reality, according to Graeber’s research, is that such jobs can make the bullshit-employed miserable without relief: “the need to play a game of make-believe not of one’s own making; a game that exists only as a form of power imposed on you, is inherently demoralizing.” Graeber categorizes this as a kind of spiritual violence.
Graeber writes with academic rigor and yet refreshingly accessible prose about the paradoxes and pitfalls of the bullshit job. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are when he plays confessor for bullshit job-holders from around the globe eager to process how and why the charade of meaningless pretend-work has affected their mental and emotional health. One example, from a Steve: "I just graduated, and my new 'job' basically consists of my boss forwarding emails to me with the message 'Steve refer to the below,' and I reply that the email is inconsequential or straight-up spam."
You might be thinking right about now that an office job that uses only a fraction of your intellect and abilities and only asks that you play along would be the perfect cover for pursuing your side hustle or creative projects. Graeber explores that option, and it turns out not to be as easy as it sounds.
“[P]roper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk,” he writes. “In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing, what one can say about what one is and isn’t doing, who one can ask and what one can ask them, how much and within what parameters one is expected to pretend to be working, and what sorts of things it is or is not permissible to do instead.” Doing so much of nothing can be more taxing, then, on the creative spirit and intellect than devoting considerable energy toward meaningful work.
The second half of the book is focused on the economic, philosophical and political forces that have fostered the proliferation of bullshit jobs, and what can be done about them. This might sound an awful lot like homework, and indeed enjoyment of some sections might rely on your interest in subjects like the labor theory of value.
But enough real-world applications ground Graeber's research; a particularly illuminating quote from then-President Barack Obama about why single-payer health care wouldn’t work — millions of jobs at health insurance companies would vanish, he said, ostensibly because they would no longer be needed — makes the case that some kinds of bullshit jobs aren’t accidents but direct outcomes of, and even in some cases protected by, policy.
And of particular interest to those not inherently sympathetic to the plight of the white-collar bullshit job-holder should be his insights on emotional labor as foundational to working-class jobs, and his breakdown of the roots of resentments between types of workers, particularly an illuminating distinction he draws around the politically polarizing, so-called "elite" professions.
After reading this book, I came to suspect the much-trumpeted phenomenon of "millennial workplace entitlement" could also be understood as an ad hoc, generation-wide rebellion against the bullshit job. The next person tempted to sneer at a young adult for daring to want meaningful work to occupy their one wild and precious life should stop and read this book instead.
It's quite possible to have a job in one of the sectors Graeber paints with a broad brush that is not bullshit, of course; one person's bullshit is quite likely another's joy. And few of us slide directly from school into a job or career that we love right away, but that's OK. You might not have a lot of options in this economy, and any job, even a bullshit job, can be better than none. This book isn't a talisman to ward off bullshit jobs, but knowledge is power; the faster you can spot a bullshit job, the sooner you can start making your exit plan before it wears you down — hopefully to more meaningful pursuits.
Most importantly, knowing that you are not alone in feeling the effects of the spiritual wear and tear from such jobs can save you from having a nervous breakdown or doing something drastic, like googling "graduate programs with full funding packages" or following your girlfriend to London with no ideas other than keeping her happy as long as she'll let you. Although when you consider the alternatives, it's possible Lloyd Dobler — who valued creative and caring work, and who was looking for nothing less than a "dare to be great situation" — didn't have such a bad plan after all.