Jun 04 2021

How Common Are BS Jobs?

Douglas Adams had a talent for irony. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide series he told the tale of a civilization that tried to improve itself by tricking everyone with a useless job into taking a rocket trip to another world (actually to nowhere). For example, one of the discarded people’s jobs was to clean phones. That’s it – they were a phone cleaner. That civilization later collapsed due to a pandemic started by a phone virus.

Part of Adams’ humor was taking reality and then pushing it to the absurd, but that core of reality gave his humor more heft. We may not have phone cleaners, but it does seem that certain jobs are less useful than others. Of course there is a certain amount of subjectivity and value judgements here, but there are some jobs that even the people in them judge to be without purpose. The concept of “bullshit jobs” was proposed by anthropologist David Graeber. In his book Bullshit Jobs, he claims that 20-50% of people are in BS jobs, that this number is increasing over time, that BS jobs are concentrated in certain professions, and that such jobs are psychologically unhealthy. New research finds that he was correct in one out of four of these claims.

While Graeber was bringing attention to a real issue, the psychological effects of being in a job that you yourself feel is of no value, when it came to the magnitude of this issue he did not have hard data. He was largely making inferences. This did lead to mixed reviews of his work at the time, with some reviewers finding his arguments often labored. The new research is an extensive survey of workers in Europe between 2005-2015, with over 30,000 responses. Since by his own definition, a BS job is one that even the person in it feels is worthless, the survey relied upon self-report of whether one’s job had value. Those who responded “rarely or never” to the question, “I have the feeling of doing useful work,” were deemed to have a BS job. The total percentage of people in this category was 4.8%. That’s still about one in 20 people, but a far cry from the as high as 50% Graeber claimed.

What about the second claim that the number is increasing? Since the survey covered 10 years there was enough data to track a trend. That claim is false as well – the figure dropped from 7.8% with 2005 data to 4.8% with all the data up to 2015. His third claim, about which professions tend to house most of the BS jobs, also did not align with the hard data. There are difference among professions, but not as big as Graeber predicted and not the ones he predicted:

For example, legal professionals and administration professionals are all low on this ranking, and jobs that Graeber rates as being examples of essential non-BS jobs, such as refuse collectors (9.7%) and cleaners and helpers (8.1%), are high on this scale.

But still the authors of this new data are careful not to dismiss Graeber’s work entirely, giving him credit for the part he got correct – that those who view their job as worthless tend to be less happy and fulfilled. The current research extends this, exploring what features of a job correlate with feeling that it is worthless. One critical factor was whether or not your own ideas or creativity could be used in your job. Another important factor was feeling support from managers and colleagues, and getting constructive feedback from higher-ups.

What this suggests is that the subjective feeling that a job is worthless is not entirely a function of the job itself. It is also influenced by how the job is managed. A worker can be made to feel useful if they are allowed to have real influence  on how the job is managed and executed, and they feel their role is valued and supported. The job itself does, of course, matter, with some professions (like teachers or nursing) having extremely low percentage of those who feel their job is worthless.

While much of this may seem obvious or intuitive, the results do emphasize the importance of hard data. While Graeber correctly identified the phenomenon, his intuitions about the patterns and scope were completely off. This is perhaps the greatest lesson from this research, and obviously one I frequently emphasize here. There is no substitute for data.

When it comes to jobs, individuals should seriously consider how emotionally fulfilling their job is, and that includes not just the work itself but the environment. I know people have to put food on the table, and you may not have many options. You have to survive. But if you are just surviving in a soul-crushing job, perhaps don’t assume it has to be that way forever. Looking or creating opportunities to get a job that you feel is worthwhile is important too.

On a perhaps positive note, another way to categorize jobs is this – which ones are most amenable to being taken over by robots or automation? Graeber himself discussed this question. Hopefully there will be a lot of overlap between “worthless” jobs and ones that can be eliminated through automation. That is, until the robots themselves feel the weight of “circuit-crushing” jobs and revolt.

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