Bullshit Jobs Review: A Look at a Malfunctioning Economy

By Alon Küster

In Bullshit Jobs, David Graeber looks at the increase of jobs that do not contribute anything meaningful society. He reasons that the role of bureaucracies and perverse incentives are to blame for the rise of this phenomena. The book reviewed here is an expansion of an essay on the same topic. Throughout the book he presents anecdotal evidence from a large number of people about this phenomena.  In his book, he provides a suitable framework to analyse the issue of bullshit jobs. He blames perverse incentives that lead to companies and individuals making choices that harm society as a whole. I view this as an example of an economy which is malfunctioning. He argues that a universal basic income would change incentives that would lead to less bullshit jobs.

Bullshit jobs have existed for a long time, jobs that didn’t do anything for society are inevitably going to be somewhere in history. The author initially starts saying that bullshit jobs are “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee can justify its existence”. He develops his definition throughout the book. He further divides the reason for bullshit jobs into various types: jobs as badges of prestige, jobs due to the social characteristics of people (like legal firms), those that are hired to deal with a problem, low-skilled unpopular jobs (like a receptionist) or middle management. Throughout his book, David discusses the negative impacts of bullshit jobs on the individual and on society. Eventually he reaches the conclusion that to tackle this problem states should adapt universal basic income (UBI) which would give workers more power at renegotiating aspect of their jobs.

The framework and anecdotal evidence about bullshit jobs is very effective. He builds up his arguments well by providing a thorough discussion of bullshit jobs before exploring the reason and implications of their proliferation. Furthermore, he backs up his observations with personal accounts which effectively brings his many points across. He merges both individual aspects and societal aspects in his analysis, which emphasises the multi-layeredness of the issue. 

However, he does overgeneralise some political reasons arguing that parties wanted more jobs to strengthen their campaign. I would argue that parties present a reflection to what a group of voters want, therefore both parties and the voter are to blame. You could even argue that society as a whole is to blame. Furthermore, the author used data highlighting the dissatisfaction of individuals about their jobs. I find that dissatisfaction does not necessarily mean they have a bullshit job. It is quite a specific understanding of a very broad problem. Dissatisfaction could mean a job with unresponsive management or lack of meaningful value, it could also mean that individuals made poor life choices and had no other option. I do not think that these flaws significantly hold back the book.

I found bullshit jobs very interesting since it presented a system which was malfunctioning. The market is not allocating jobs efficiently or as society desires. Jobs have become less ‘pure’. For example a researcher doesn’t only research nor do writers only write, most jobs have many bureaucratic aspects to them to ensure that people do their job.  Though it is rather concerning how this issue is increasing and what implications it could have if it continues to proliferate. The implications discussion about UBI while interesting does not go in depth. Though it is an interesting solution that would require further reading or knowledge about the topic. I recommend this book to those that are interested in the individuals perception of jobs and what they think they are contributing to society.  

Edited by Jacco van der Veen

Artwork by Chira Tudoran