I have been fascinated with anthropologist David Graeber’s concept of bullshit jobs for a while. I have written a bullshit job poem and a bullshit job rap. In this video, Graeber mentions an informal poll he conducted on Twitter to classify bullshit jobs. He arrives at five categories:
- Flunkies.. the people sitting around doing nothing, often simply to enhance the prestige of their bosses
- Goons.. the people who do things that serve no rational need in society, such as telemarketers or indeed the army
- Duct tapers.. the people who fix a problem that doesn’t need to exist in the first place
- Box tickers.. the people who create illusions around the work, for example by ‘collecting data’ that serves no other purpose than to keep them busy
- Task masters.. the middle management supervising the workers where in fact, no supervision is needed
I like this list. From my vantage point as a freelance bullshit jobber, I would like to add a footnote. For Graeber, the bullshit factor is about the how of the job, not the what. More precisely, it is about how a company uses labor to achieve its goal, not about the nature of that goal itself. The category of the goons comes close to a critique of that goal, but it still presupposes some potentially meaningful product of service that the company provides and wishes to force upon consumers.
The happiness factor
I admit it: I’d like to jack up the number of bullshit jobs so it gets a more revolutionary ring to it. What is left out are all the jobs creating the consumerist demand needed to keep the system going, the manipulation of people into enthusiastic consumers who require purchasing goods or services for their satisfaction. This is not about cold call telemarketing to customers who are not interested, but about average consumers. When we look into happiness research, we find that beyond $60k their surplus happiness flattens. This means that beyond that threshold, more material possessions doesn’t make people happier. Hence, it is not a rational need of society to produce an abundance of goods and services when they demonstrably cost more (I am referring to the externalized cost for society and the environment here) than they will benefit.
The freelance factor
Graeber’s analysis is limited to the realm of salaried labor and full time employment. In the world of freelancers, ‘laborers’ intentionally work on bullshit tasks to pay your bills. They are confronted with the fact that perform bullshit jobs ‘just for the money’ every time they respond and ‘apply’ for them on an online job platform.
Online freelancers typically do the work of goons, duct tapers and box tickers, because the other two require physical presence. My bullshit tasks are usually in the goon category (eg. translating manuals that nobody reads about a product that makes nobody happier). But freelancers have the advantage that they can, occasionally, if they are lucky enough to stumble upon it, do meaningful work. For example, I might write some critical essay about our work culture and get paid for it, or do anything that has the net effect of making some people a little happier.
Because freelance bullshit jobbing adds the extra dimension of the explicit confrontation with the bullshit, it can corrupt our will. For the sake of our identity, we might imagine a meaning, simply because it is too painful to deal with the implicit nihilism that bullshit jobbing is on a daily basis.
If we add in the freelance activities by independent contractors who hate what they do and the jobs that can be shown to decrease our overall happiness, I think the amount of bullshit jobs has already crossed a critical threshold. A serious economic crisis in the coming years could turn into a real revolution.