5 min read

Why the bullshit-jobs thesis may not be bullshit after all

Research out of the University of Zurich finds new support for the late David Graeber’s hypothesis that some corporate jobs are inherently useless. In other words, bullshit.

Dr. Simon Walo recently published a paper using survey data gathered from 1,811 respondents in the United States working in 21 different corporate jobs who were asked if their work gave them a “feeling of making a positive impact on community and society.”

While controlling for other factors, Walo found that working in one of the occupations highlighted in Graeber’s original study significantly increases the probability that workers perceive their jobs as socially useless (i.e., bullshit).

Walo’s findings contradict a follow-up study to Graeber’s research by three academics that disproved Graeber’s original thesis.

Instead of analyzing these studies to determine why they continue to yield inconsistent findings, I’d like to offer up some additional thinking about why you may feel like your job is bullshit.

The goal of this exercise is to unpack why some of our jobs feel so pointless and briefly discuss some strategies for how to deal with this challenging reality.

Your work never gets meaningfully used

Remember when you joined the corporate world after spending several years in university learning to research, analyze, and communicate challenging problems?

You may have developed a love for this kind of work because it felt like you were developing new ideas to improve the world around you.

And when you’re first starting in your career, knowledge work feels essential, even elite. Often, professors and executives support this thinking, too.

I remember one of my professors stating in a lecture, “You’re sitting in this classroom because you want to make a difference in the world; you don’t care about the soap opera going on out there,” he said smugly, pointing to the open window.

When we enter the corporate world, the newly minted graduate student may think to themselves:

“Wow, they’re paying me six figures to muse on corporate strategy to inform where the company goes next. I don’t care who builds it; I’m part of the brain trust behind the organization.”

The work feels vital for a while and makes us feel intelligent and valuable.

However, as the years pass, we learn that much of the intelligence we produce never sees the light of day or gets implemented in any meaningful way.

I remember stumbling across organizational analysis reports developed by an internal team for an organization I worked for a few years ago — they were published in the mid-1990s.

After reading the abstracts and conclusions of the reports, I realized that many years later, the organization had failed to implement the advice and was still dealing with the same systematic issues.

It’s not uncommon for senior directors and their teams to develop detailed studies and analyses, taking weeks and months of labor, only for the work to be trashed and replaced by an idea that was scribbled on the back of a napkin by some jackass at the 11th hour.

If you experience this cycle over and over, the feeling that your job is bullshit may creep in. Naturally, people grow tired of watching their ideas and evidence-based work discarded or retired to the corporate bookshelf to collect dust.

Of course, some people are OK with this. And sometimes, good ideas and intelligence do get used, and it makes a real difference. However, this is dependent on the type of organization you work for.

If working like this bothers you, the solution is to leverage your skills (or develop new ones, if you can) into another role in the organization where you can link your work to a tangible outcome.

It sounds easy, but in reality, these jobs are challenging to find and often pay less. Moreover, going from the strategic, 10,000-foot level to the mid or on-the-ground level may require a significant shift in thinking.

The conversation you need to have with yourself is whether you’ll be happier doing productive, creative work or if splicing hairs in the ivory tower is more your speed.

Your job is purely discourse-based

In the corporate world, many of us are now engaged in very discourse-heavy roles.

This means you spend most of your time giving presentations, attending meetings, and getting “buy-in” from internal (and sometimes external) stakeholders to agree to a proposed organizational direction.

These folks travel around the organization talking to other managers, presenting at meetings, and acting as the mouthpiece for the CEO or c-suite, typically adding little value along the way.

And you may realize or feel like your job is bullshit if you spend the majority of your time convincing others to do something they should already support.

These individuals may fall under Graeber’s category of bullshit jobs called taskmasters (basically project managers).

They’re the buffer between teams and divisions doing the communications work that the real managers and directors don’t have time to do.

After performing this job function for a while, you may question what you’re adding beyond spreading the good word and hitting the key messages.

For the record, I don’t think these jobs are bullshit and often require strong public speaking and communications skills, but they’re usually redundant.

What makes this role worse, and feel more bullshitty, is that the folks who fill these roles can’t speak to the technical details or underpinnings of the solutions that they’re proposing or talking about.

And when you can’t speak to the details because someone else has done the work, you’ll feel fake simply repeating corporate buzzwords and jargon — you’ll feel like a bullshitter, and you are one.

Your team has no mandate

If you feel like your job is bullshit, check to see if your team has a mandate.

And remember, it’s possible to have a mandate, but if the executive doesn’t fund it or champion it, then you don’t.

In this scenario, you’re collecting a paycheque and not producing impactful work. And if you’re producing work that’s not being used (see above), you’ll likely feel like your job could be more helpful.

Moreover, these feelings will worsen when you realize the organization is better off without the deadweight of your role and team.

It can be challenging to leave these gigs because you can often focus on other tasks and side projects to keep you busy. And this might be great for a while, but before you know it, you’ve been in the same role for three years, and your skills are eroding.

What’s worse, when it comes time to recite to a future employer or partner about what you’ve been up to, you’ll have little to work with unless you lie.

Why do bullshit jobs exist?

See the Graeber and follow-up studies for theory on this, but here’s some additional thinking.

There’s so much competition and new firms entering the marketplace each day that firms must slowly grind down their competitors by being slightly better than them in some strategic area.

This requires them to hire many different specialists to gain an edge, even a very minor one, to try to steal market share. Many of the made-up, bullshit jobs are born out of this reality, I think. These specialists are only needed sometimes, so they often aren’t busy. Additionally, as more specialists and educated people get onboarded into the organization, workloads naturally expand to keep them busy — this phenomenon is known as Parkinson’s Law.

Moreover, as businesses reach a specific size, various cultures emerge, and power becomes decentralized. People are hired to navigate and influence these cultures and power structures because senior management and other experts don’t want to take the time (see above, on discourse).

What to do if you have a bullshit job?

The main question to ask yourself is if this is how you want to spend your life. If you can find meaning in the bullshit, and it is possible, then maybe you’re OK where you are.

For example, some people identify so strongly with the corporate mission and vision that they’re cool accepting a bullshit job because, in some way, they’re contributing to the overall picture.

For those who are creative and want to build things that matter, when you realize you have a bullshit job, you need to work towards identifying where the real work is being done. Head there.

Life’s too short for bullshit.