How To Avoid The ‘Bullshit Job’ Trap

A recent article published in Work, Employment and Society delves into the concept of “bullshit jobs,” inspired by anthropologist David Graeber’s bestselling work Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. These jobs, as described by Graeber, are paid roles that serve no real purpose in society and often require employees to lean on pretend-productivity to maintain relevance. The current study not only dissects this concept but also explores its prevalence in the United States, particularly in fields like finance, sales, marketing, and management.

“Bullshit jobs are a form of paid employment, which excludes self-employment and illegal activities. These jobs are useless to society, either contributing nothing of value or actively harming society. Employees often feel compelled to feign productivity due to fear of job loss or societal pressure,” explains Simon Walo, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich and the lead author of the study.

According to Graeber, these include jobs where individuals are expected to prioritize their employer’s profits even if they do not contribute to larger societal interests at all. Roles in sales, marketing, and finance, which may manipulate consumers, manufacture redundant needs and extract value from the economy rather than creating it, all fall under this category of employment.

Similarly, another group of socially useless jobs includes those created solely to boost someone’s importance, such as doormen, elevator operators and administrative assistants. While this list is not exhaustive, it provides a clear picture of what a socially useless job entails.

On the other hand, socially valuable jobs encompass all roles outside the socially useless category and can be found in numerous fields. Jobs in healthcare, education and construction serve as prime examples of occupations with unquestionable social value.

Walo highlights that Graeber’s book relied heavily on anecdotal evidence, and left the empirical part of the question largely unaddressed. Another study preceding Walo’s attempted to confirm whether people in the occupations highlighted by Graeber were more likely to view their jobs as socially useless. Surprisingly, the study found this wasn’t the case. The researchers therefore rejected Graeber’s theory, suggesting that people perceive their jobs as socially useless not because they lack value but because they struggle to recognize their contributions.

“My article combines these perspectives, using U.S. survey data. The analysis shows that Graeber’s specified occupations are strongly associated with perceptions of social uselessness when considering factors like working conditions. This supports Graeber’s notion that some jobs truly lack value to society,” says Walo.

These findings matter in two ways:

First, people suffer when they believe their jobs are socially useless, necessitating a search for more meaningful work.
Second, given the potential waste of time and resources in such jobs, we should consider strategies to eliminate them.

The author also addresses differences in support for Graeber’s theory between Europeans and Americans. He suggests that factors like financialization, high levels of inequality, and cultural differences may contribute to varying perceptions of job usefulness in these regions, although further research is needed to confirm these hypotheses.

When asked how individuals, especially those in the early stages of their careers, can make informed choices to avoid or minimize the likelihood of ending up in roles that are socially invaluable, redundant or destructive, Walo offers the following advice:

Raise awareness. Make people aware that the concept of socially useless jobs is important and should be considered when applying for a job.
Consider different jobs. Encourage individuals to think about the usefulness of different positions and organizations within the larger societal structure. Walo recommends working for a non-profit or purpose-driven company.
Address doubts in interviews. If you are unsure about a job’s social value, inquire about it during job interviews.
Improve working conditions. If one perceives their job as socially useless due to poor working conditions, they should consider negotiating for improvements such as asking for more autonomy or opportunities for increased social interaction.
Seek alternatives. If the job is genuinely socially useless, explore alternative employment options. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s important not to dismiss the issue as purely subjective; take it seriously and actively seek solutions.

While these the creation and perpetuation of such jobs is primarily a structural problem at the societal level, linked to high inequality and the pressure to maximize profits within the economic system, organizations interested in creating socially useful jobs can do their bit by:

Promoting open dialogue with employees and reacting positively to feedback.
Considering adopting a steward-ownership model to legally commit to prioritizing long-term social purpose over short-term profits.

“In my study, I find that various factors affect people’s perceptions. Thus, people are more likely to perceive their jobs as socially useless if they do routine work, if they have little autonomy, if they suffer from bad management or if they have little social interaction at work. These are all issues that could be addressed by employers,” concludes Walo.

A full interview with researcher Simon Walo discussing his research can be found here: Are you working a bullshit job? Research helps you find out

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