Are You Working A ‘Bullshit Job?’ Research Helps You Find Out

Researcher Simon Walo deep dives into job purpose and why meaningful work and a healthy professional environment makes us happy.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 30, 2023

A recent article published in Work, Employment and Society, discusses the concept of "bullshit jobs" from anthropologist David Graeber's bestselling work. These jobs are paid, socially useless, and often require employees to feign productivity.

I recently spoke to Simon Walo, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich and lead author of the study, to discuss how his study addresses job dissatisfaction and societal resource waste, combining perspectives, supporting Graeber's theory in the US, particularly in finance, sales, marketing, and management roles. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Could you please elaborate on the concept of "bullshit jobs"? What are the defining characteristics of such jobs, and how do they differ from jobs that are considered socially valuable?

The concept of bullshit jobs was originally introduced by the famous anthropologist David Graeber. In his influential work, he defined these jobs through three distinct criteria:

  • First, bullshit jobs are a form of paid employment. This excludes, for example, self-employed work and illegal activities.
  • Second, bullshit jobs are useless to society. These can be jobs that either simply do not contribute anything of value to society or that are in fact actively harmful to society.
  • Third, employees typically feel obliged to pretend that they are actually doing something useful even if they don't. This can be the case because they are afraid of losing their jobs if they speak up, or because it is not a socially acceptable topic.

Today, however, most research only focuses on the second criteria and speaks of socially useless jobs rather than bullshit jobs. The central question therefore is why certain jobs can be considered socially useless. Different answers are given for different types of jobs. One famous example are jobs where people are expected to maximize profits for their employer but work against society's interests in doing so.

These can be people working in sales and marketing, whose goal it is to manipulate people into buying things they don't really need, or people working in the finance sector, which is more about extracting value from the real economy rather than creating it (according to Graeber).

Another group of jobs that are often considered socially useless are jobs that only exist to make someone else look or feel important. Typical examples are doormen, elevator operators, and often also administrative assistants in regular offices. This list can be expanded, of course, but it should give a good first impression of what we are talking about when we talk about socially useless jobs.

Socially valuable jobs, on the other hand, are simply all jobs that do not belong to the category of "socially useless jobs". These can be found everywhere. However, jobs in healthcare, education and construction are often mentioned as examples for jobs with indisputable social value.

What is the relevance of this study? Could you briefly describe the methodology of your study? What were your findings?

The problem with Graeber's book was that it only provides anecdotal evidence. Another study has therefore tested his theory by checking whether people actually consider their jobs socially useless more often if they work in occupations pointed out by Graeber. If this was the case, Graeber's claim that these jobs are in fact socially useless would be supported. However, they found that this was not the case, and that other occupations are more often perceived as socially useless. They therefore reject Graeber's theory and argue that people perceive their jobs as socially useless not because they actually are but because they simply cannot recognize their contribution.

My article now combines these two perspectives. Using survey data from the USA, I show that Graeber's occupations are in fact most strongly associated with being perceived as socially useless if other factors are controlled for (e.g. working conditions). This supports Graeber's idea that some jobs are truly useless to society.

These results are relevant in two different ways. On the one hand, we know that people suffer if they think they have a socially useless job. We should therefore try to find ways to give these people more meaningful work.

On the other hand, it would be a great waste of people's time and natural resources if these jobs are truly useless to society. Especially in the light of the current climate crisis, such a waste seems hard to justify. We should therefore start thinking about how we want to get rid of these jobs.

Your research highlights the discrepancy in the level of support for Graeber's theory between European and American contexts. What factors might contribute to this difference? Are there cultural, economic, or social variables that could explain the varying perceptions of job usefulness in these regions?

The existing literature on the topic often argues that the US are more heavily financialized than most European countries. Companies in the US are therefore under more pressure to maximize profits even when this goes against society's interests. This may cause higher levels of socially harmful jobs in the US than in Europe. At the same time, inequality in the US is higher than in Europe. This may allow more rich people to hire someone "just to look or feel important", which creates more socially useless jobs.

However, we cannot rule out the possibility that cultural factors also play a role here. For example, one could imagine that workers in the US actually have the same socially useless jobs as workers in Europe, but they are more aware of it. Alternatively, differences in working culture may also explain why workers in the US think more negatively of their jobs. More research is needed to examine this.

Your findings suggest robust support for Graeber's theory of bullshit jobs in the United States. What were some of the key industries or occupations where such jobs were more prevalent? Did you observe any patterns in terms of the characteristics of individuals who held these jobs?

When talking about occupations, we need to distinguish between the raw data and the statistical model that controls for different factors. In the raw data, people working in "transportation and material moving" or in production occupations consider their jobs socially useless most often. In fact, more than 30% of respondents in these occupations feel this way. In the full model, however, we can see that this is mainly because of bad working conditions. If these are accounted for, Graeber's occupations are most strongly associated with being perceived as socially useless. These are jobs in the finance sector, in sales and marketing, or in management positions, for example.

As I was mostly interested in a structural perspective, I did not examine individual characteristics in detail. However, I found that people tend to consider their jobs more socially useful with older age. This could be explained by different factors. For example, older people might actually have more useful jobs because they had more time to find them. Alternatively, older people might not care as much about having a socially useful job as younger people, and therefore assess their own jobs more generously.

How can individuals, especially those who are early in their careers, make informed choices to avoid or minimize the likelihood of ending up in roles that align with the characteristics of bullshit jobs? Alternatively, how might individuals who currently hold jobs they perceive as socially useless navigate these feelings and potentially find more meaningful work?

It would be great, of course, if everyone read my study! It not only shows that people in certain occupations are more likely to work in socially useless jobs, but also talks about other factors that affect how people think about their jobs. For example, working in the public or in the nonprofit sector seems a good option for people who care about the usefulness of their work.

More realistically, though, people may think about the usefulness of different jobs themselves. I think a lot can be done just by raising awareness that this is an important issue that should be considered when applying to a job. If there are any doubts, this could also be addressed in job interviews.

For individuals who already have a job that they perceive as socially useless, there are two options in my view.

On the one hand, they might only feel this way because of bad working conditions. They could therefore try to improve these, for example by asking for more autonomy or more social interaction at work.

If they really have a socially useless job, however, then the only option is to start looking for alternatives. In any case, my advice is to take this problem seriously and not to write it off as a purely subjective issue.

For organizations that may inadvertently have roles that align with the characteristics of bullshit jobs, what strategies would you recommend to address this issue and enhance job satisfaction among employees?

This is hard to answer for me because I think of bullshit jobs mostly as a structural problem at the societal level, and not as something that individual organizations can control. Therefore, I would argue that high levels of inequality and the explicit obligation to maximize profits in our economic system are the root of the problem – and not organizations' decisions.

However, if an organization is really interested in creating more socially useful jobs, it may certainly promote a culture of open dialogue with its employees and react to negative feedback in meaningful ways. In addition, organizations may legally commit to prioritize long-term social purpose over short-term profits by adopting a steward-ownership model.

Given the role of alienation in contributing to perceptions of job uselessness, what advice would you offer to employers to foster a sense of connection, purpose, and engagement among their workforce?

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.