Bullshit Jobs: Robots Are Replacing Human Workers, So Why Are Americans Still Working So Hard?

For at least six years, up until 2010, a Spanish civil servant named Joaquin Garcia collected a salary for a job he didn't do.

Garcia had worked at a local water board in Cadiz since 1996, but when new management came in, the engineer found himself sidelined. Disillusioned and depressed, Garcia plotted an escape. He told one set of officials he was being supervised by another set, and the other set the opposite, and then stayed at home studying the philosophical works of Baruch Spinoza. His ruse was only uncovered when the town's deputy mayor sought to award Garcia a medal for long service—to find that no one in his office knew who he was.

What was most remarkable about Garcia's story—which went viral when he was taken to court in 2016—was not so much what he got away with (the €27,000, or $31,000, fine notwithstanding)—as what it suggested about the modern day world of work: Jobs are supposed to have a purpose, to fulfil a necessary function in society. But here was a job where, left ignored, nothing changed and no one noticed.

In his new book, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Simon and Schuster), David Graeber argues that far from being an anomaly, such jobs are now a common feature of modern life. As economies evolve and technology becomes more sophisticated, people should really be working less. But instead: "Economies have become vast engines for producing nonsense," Graeber writes. People find themselves working more and more with increasingly less to do.

The result, Graeber says, is a proliferation of pointless work: what he calls "bullshit jobs." These are not the same as "shit jobs," which might be badly paid, stigmatized or stressful, but are ultimately essential to society (such as bin collection or, for different reasons, social care). "Bullshit jobs" are often well-paid and well-respected, located in smart offices from Harvard to Hollywood, but nonetheless adding absolutely nothing to society. "If one disappeared," Graeber writes, "society would carry on seamlessly."

“Economies have become vast engines for producing nonsense,” Graeber writes. Getty Images

A professor of anthropology currently at the London School of Economics, Graeber rose to public prominence during the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and is widely credited with the movement's famous "We are the 99%" slogan. His new book expands on an essay he wrote in 2013, "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs," which proved so popular that it crashed the host website and was translated into over a dozen languages. In response, Graeber received hundreds of firsthand accounts of futile jobs—funny and infuriating dispatches from this brave, new bullshit world—and he includes many of them here.

Clearly, a lot of people could relate. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans say they aren't engaged at work. In Japan, it's a staggering 94 percent. On the rare occasions when meaningful work can be found, it often comes at a cost. "As a general rule," Graeber writes, citing several studies, "the more obviously one's work benefits other people, the less one is likely to be paid for it." (Another general rule, which Graeber fails to mention, is equally perverse: The less one's job benefits other people, the longer one is likely to work.)

It was never meant to be this way. In earlier eras, economists and philosophers reasonably assumed that, as machines replaced workers, the working day would shorten and people could pursue their own meaningful pursuits. John Maynard Keynes, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, famously imagined that by 2030, technology would have delivered us into a "destination of economic bliss" with "three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week." The only challenge, he said, would be finding new ways for humans to spend their time.

Fast-forward almost a century and machines arguably have us working harder and feeling more stressed, now under the threat of constant surveillance and with constant connectivity.

For all the incredible digital innovation, society's working hours remain etched in stone, and America's more than most. The average U.S. worker puts in more hours than in any of the other advanced industrialized economies, even notoriously hardworking Japan, according to the latest Employment Outlook report, published in 2017. If U.S. working hours were reduced to German levels—from 1,783 hours per year to 1,363 hours—U.S. employees would see a fall in their working time equivalent to two months of additional vacation each year.

In this sense, our Spanish civil servant Garcia's deception was only a response to another ruse—that unquestionable tenet that everyone must work a full-time, five-day week for oneself and society to survive. Rather than think of new ways for people to live in a world of less work, Graeber says, we would rather put people to work just for the sake of it. "We have become a civilization based on work," he writes—"not even 'productive' work but work as an end and meaning in itself."

If everyone was happy in their work, perhaps this wouldn't be a problem. But this is evidently not the case. Longitudinal studies show that levels of mental health problems like depression, stress and anxiety are at historic highs among the American public. While the causes of these trends are complex, and in sections of the book Graeber is possibly too ready to pin the blame on our work lives, it would be surprising if work was not a factor.

According to a 2017 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans say they aren’t engaged at work. Getty Images

There is a cruel contradiction at the heart of the working world. At the same time as society encourages people to ground their sense of dignity and self-worth in their work, it also creates a context in which vast sections of the population hate their work. "The fact that so many of us labor under the secret belief that our jobs lack social utility or social value," Graeber writes, will have profound "psychological, social, and political effects"—it is a "scar on our collective soul." But because being overworked begets more workers—a secondary workforce, from psychiatrists to food-delivery staff, to cater for a stressed and time-pressed primary one—the absurd cycle keeps spinning.

Graeber's radical reputation undoubtedly precedes him, which could deter some readers. Others will likely be put off by a slightly slapdash methodology, and more statistical analysis could certainly have been cited to convince the unconcerned.

But the problem he presents is arguably nonpartisan: It's about the lives we lead, individually and collectively, and the world we have created. Graeber eschews solutions to focus on this fact: There is a problem in the world of work, and it is all the more pressing for the silent acceptance that surrounds it.

Graeber is clear on what is not a solution: automation, or technological innovation more broadly. Such technological advances have been happening for centuries. Perhaps the current speed at which machines replace workers says more about the mindless, robotic rhythms of the modern workplace than any genius for computer engineering. In this sense, the latest wave of automation only reflects what humans have been reduced to—not what imaginative heights can be achieved. What's really needed, Graeber says, is creative thinking about a world without work, and in Bullshit Jobs, he successfully sets the terms for this discussion. "There is something very wrong with what we have made ourselves," he writes. Unfortunately, it will take a lot of work to fix.