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Education Bookcast

Jul 12, 2021

"It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working. And here, precisely, lies the mystery."

The above text is from David Graeber's super-viral article On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. His basic, audacious thesis is that there is a large and increasing number of "bullshit" hours worked in the economy, through a combination of some outright "bullshit jobs", and previously normal jobs that have become increasingly "bullshitised".

Graeber's intention with the word "bullshit" is completely unnecessary work that is useful to nobody, and a "bullshit job" typically contains much pretending to work while actually browsing social media, as well as carrying out a number of tasks that really don't need doing, but not being able to face up to the Kafkaesque reality head-on as there appears to be a taboo about letting people know that you aren't doing anything, or that your job is pointless. Ironically, such soul-destroying employment is often considered to be quite prestigious and sought-after by outsiders (who can't see what your day-to-day looks like), which only intensifies the confusion and feeling of being lost that holders of such jobs experience.

It must be noted that jobs which are merely unpleasant, "shit jobs", are not in the same category. Being a cleaner at a university, for example, might lead to you being badly paid and looked down upon, but your job really counts. This is evidenced by the fact that if you strike, there will be problems. Compare this with the case in the 1970's when there was a strike of Irish banks for many months, and yet there appeared to be no problem, and the economy trundled along without a hitch.

Graeber's article unleashed a reaction that he couldn't have possibly predicted. Not only did the article become so viral that, in the weeks after it was published, the site hosting it repeatedly crashed from the number of visitors (it was apparently particularly popular in finance circles), and anonymous donors paid for adverts quoting the original article to be placed on the London Underground; Graeber also received so much press and mail that he ended up able to conduct a book-length study on the subject on the basis of the qualitative data that he managed to gather.

Bullshit jobs are a real conundrum, as they are theoretically impossible in an idealised capitalist system. Graeber rises to the challenge of at least trying to explain their existence. After proposing a taxonomy of bullshit jobs (flunkies, goons, duct-tapers, box-tickers, and taskmasters), the author leads us to compare the current situation with feudalism, pointing out that the idea of an economic sphere separate from politics only arose in the Enlightenment because that's the only point when it started to make sense - prior to that, economics and politics were too tightly intertwined for such an idea to even have been considered. On that basis, we can see how an economic system that is heavily geared towards redistribution rather than production (like feudalism), together with a historically unusual ideology of work and time, could lead us to the present situation.

This book is certainly a mind-expanding and wild intellectual ride, but it appears that the study of bullshit employment is only in its infancy. Nevertheless, I certainly believe the question to be relevant to education. If education is supposed to prepare people to enter the workforce, and the workforce is significantly, or even predominantly, engaged in bullshit, what does that say about what we should be preparing young people for?

Enjoy the episode.