For a few years during the mid-2010s, a friend of mine worked as an office temp. Her agency would send her to work short shifts for different companies around London, normally as temporary cover or during a particularly busy period. Except that it was never clear how much work really needed to be done. At a loss for how to spend her days, she would film herself engaged in a variety of office tasks: spinning on her desk chair, shredding blank pieces of paper by hand, neatening stacks of desks in the storage room, pretending to answer a phone that never rang, creating elaborate artwork out of the piles of mints at reception. After twelve months of this hard graft, her agency named her the official “Temp of the Year.”
There is a dark humor to be found in this pointless corporate existence, in stories of people desperately trying to look busy while struggling to find out what they’re meant to be busy doing; of people being paid to fill space, look smart, check boxes; of jobs being done deliberately badly so that someone else has to come in and clean up the mess.
These studies in time-wasting provide the basis for an enormously influential theory of contemporary capitalism and the pointless work it produces: that presented in David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs.1 Graeber’s focus was on the spiritual and psychic damage caused by those jobs, but what made the book a sensation was the idea that “a large proportion of our workforce” — Graeber estimated somewhere between 20 and 50 percent — “find themselves labouring at tasks that they themselves consider pointless.”2
Graeber’s pessimism about the state of our working lives was turned into a theory with the help of two specific empirical claims: first, that the number of bullshit jobs is increasing rapidly; and second, that those jobs are particularly abundant in the neoliberal corporate sector. However, as I show below, neither of these claims seems to be true. Instead, statistical evidence from a range of advanced economies reveals that what Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” are actually concentrated in low-paid, insecure, manual employment, and that they seem to have become less common over the past few decades.
But rather than celebrate the fact that so many of us seem to love our jobs, I think we can salvage Graeber’s central insight that there is a profound disconnect between the jobs many of us do and the common good. Doing justice to that idea means abandoning Graeber’s subjective definition of “bullshit jobs.” Instead, I start with a properly materialist analysis of the way our jobs have been transformed by contemporary capitalism. Our working lives are full of bullshit. They are consumed by bureaucracy, by our bosses’ obsession with control, and directed to ends that no one would freely choose to pursue. Understanding how this came about means moving far beyond Graeber’s theory. But it also allows us to realize the full potential of his animating question: Why do we spend so much energy working jobs that do not contribute to the wider social good?