According to David Graeber, nearly half of all jobs are completely pointless. He has written a book on how to identify such bullshit positions in order to do something more useful.
First book story: when Jeff Bezos from Albuquerque, New Mexico, had the idea for an online business that would sell books, he decided its name should begin with "A". Why? Because in the days before Google, people found things on the internet with the help of indexes and alphabetized lists, and anything beginning with "A" had a better chance of being seen first. Bezos called his company Amazon, and it sold its first book in 1995.
Second book story: in 1995, Jim Grant lost his job in the British television industry. At 40, he couldn't afford to retire, so he decided to write books for a living. While preparing for his new career, he noticed that authors were usually listed alphabetically in bookshops, so Jim Grant became Lee Child, which placed him near such famous fiction writers as Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie. More than 100 million copies of Lee Child's first 22 novels have been sold in 42 languages.
The alphabet is still very important for those in the writing business, but authors like Xuē Xīnran or Carlos Ruiz Zafon haven't had to change their names to be found in the world's biggest bookshop, which begins with "A". And don't worry if you have difficulty spelling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Haruki Murakami or Celeste Ng – Amazon's algorithms will autosuggest the correct form of these writers' names as you type.
Technology has made life easier for book writers and book buyers, but it's a serious challenge for the book publishing industry, which must compete with both Netflix for free time and Jeff Bezos for profit margins. Still, any business that's been around since the time of Johannes Gutenberg knows a trick or two, and booksellers are not shy when it comes to using sensationalism to get attention. If a writer's name doesn't guarantee sales, a controversial title can help. That's why we get books such as Eating People Is Wrong and How to Live with a Huge Penis.
But what was shocking yesterday is not so shocking today, so publishers keep experimenting with taboo words in their titles. Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, is an example. Sure, we know a lot of taboo words and many of us use some of them regularly, but there's still something startling about Bullshit Jobs when you hold the book in your hands and then talk to your children or parents or colleagues about it. Seeing that word spelled out and then using it can make some people feel uncomfortable.
David Graeber must have been asked thousands of times, "What's a bullshit job?" but he always answers the question politely and patiently with a variation on the definition in the first chapter of the book: "A bullshit job is paid work that's so completely pointless and unnecessary that those who have these jobs can't justify them even though they have to pretend that this isn't the case."
What, then, is the difference between bullshit jobs and shit jobs?
"That's easy: shit jobs are simply bad jobs," says Graeber. "You'd never want to have a shit job. The work is underpaid, unappreciated, often back-breaking and the people who do them are not treated with respect. For the most part, shit jobs aren't bullshit jobs," he continues. "They usually involve doing something that needs to be done: building, driving, taking care of people, cleaning up after people. Bullshit jobs, on the other hand, are mostly well paid, the people doing them are treated like they're important and doing something that needs to be done – but in fact, they're not. Bullshit jobs and shit jobs are opposites, actually."
David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He believes that free-market policies have made life even harder for badly paid people and that they have also produced lots of well-paid managers, bureaucrats, public relations executives, consultants, political apparatchiks, lawyers and lobbyists who do nothing useful all day.
Is your job meaningless? Do you feel that, if it were eliminated tomorrow, life would go on? Perhaps you think the world might even be better if your job didn't exist. If your answer is yes, it's OK. You are not alone. Almost half the jobs that people do every day could be considered pointless, according to Graeber.
So, is it possible to tell from the title of a job if it's a bullshit job? "Well, if the word ‘creative' is in the title, it's probably a bullshit job. You're either creative or not," Graeber says.
A quick search at the Monster.com job board shows companies looking for a "Creative Strategist & Storyteller", a "Creative Technologist" and a "Creative Services Coordinator". The work sounds interesting. Just as interesting as the job of writing books with titles such as Bullshit Jobs, maybe. Is that a bullshit job, too?
Before Graeber answers, he opens a water bottle and places 11 capsules and tablets on the hotel room table. "Two are for blood pressure," he says. The rest are vitamin supplements.
Whatever one thinks of academics and authors, it cannot be said that Graeber doesn't work hard at both occupations. His books so far include Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar; Debt: The First 5,000 Years and The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement. He's currently working on a new one, about cities.
Challenges of automation
Anthropologists, academics and authors are interesting topics, David Graeber says, but what he wants to talk about is a different "A" word: automation. "Robots really are leading to significant gains in productivity in manufacturing, meaning that workers are downsized," he comments. "But there's the same tendency to add useless levels of managers between the boss and the venture capitalists and the workers."
He's critical of "surveillance capitalism", which centres on data collected by monitoring people's activities online and in the real world. "We see companies creating more bullshit jobs to manage and watch workers, thereby making their jobs shittier," he says. "But you could argue that the surveillance jobs aren't really bullshit, because they are doing something, even if it's something not very nice," he adds.
His real passion, however, is reserved for what he calls "the caring sector" – health, education and social services. "The creation of meaningless administrative jobs and the related bullshitization of real work that forces nurses, doctors and teachers to fill out endless forms all day is lowering productivity massively and making work and life shittier," he says.
Is there a solution? Graeber is a fan of the "basic income" – the idea that governments should give us all cash every month, no questions asked. Most people, Graeber says, would be better off living on "free" money instead of doing soulless jobs. The basic income would pay people for those essential "invisible" forms of work, such as caring for sick relatives, visiting the lonely or doing housework, and it would also support underpaid workers. Right now, the idea of paying people for being alive is the kind of thing only a radical professor can take seriously because economies and societies would have to be reordered dramatically for a world based on paid leisure rather than paid labour.
David Graeber disagrees. He's convinced that our economic system is irrational because the idea of eliminating meaningless work is considered to be the problem, not the solution.
Third book story: in 1923, F. Scott Fitzgerald decided to write "something new – something extraordinary and beautiful and simple". When he finished the book, he suggested that it should be called Under the Red, White, and Blue. His editor, Maxwell Perkins, gave it a shorter title: The Great Gatsby. In 2013, David Graeber wrote a magazine article titled "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs" and, five years later, it became a book: Bullshit Jobs. A short book title is better than a long one, and a good book title is best of all.