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[dupe] Bullshit Jobs (wikipedia.org)
58 points by phantom_oracle on Feb 6, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments

I would disagree with at least the first three as being bullshit.

1. If your receptionist or assistant is only making you feel important, you are wasting their salary. One example: In my job we have to maintain professional licenses in many different states. Assistants help with this paperwork, which is different for every state and requires hours of reading and making phone calls to decipher. Yes, the engineer who bills their time at $150/hr could be doing this, but it's more efficient to pay an assistant. That is one small example of many, many vital tasks.

2. "Goon" is maybe the second oldest profession. Usually we call it "soldier". At some point you may be in conflict with an adversary. It's helpful to have someone on your side who is good at whatever type of conflict that is. I don't know why "telemarketer" is in there, it's not like the others. That's sales, which is pretty vital to any business. Now, the entire business and the product that a particular business is selling might be bullshit, but the job of selling certainly isn't.

3. I think the author vastly overestimates how preventable problems are. Maybe someday we'll invent an airline system that is 100% perfect and never loses anyone's bag. That's not the reality right now, though. Shit happens. Having someone who is paid to deal with it is better than not having them.

The "Goon" argument isn't so much that they are necessary in real life, but that their existence as a whole does not provide a net positive for society. Goons exist because other people have Goons; they don't create wealth for the species as a whole.

The arguments in general are written from the perspective that the "perfect" society is one where everyone cooperates to build new technologies, create art, go to space, et cetera, and every job that does not contribute to that utopian ideal is considered a "bullshit job".

Not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, but that's the argument's perspective as I see it. IMO its not surprising he is an academic, this view has a very ivory tower feel to it.

Agreed. Graeber brings up some valid points about how market systems which should make economies more efficient sometimes fail to do so due to elite's/manager's self-image enhancement practices. On the other hand, I think that Graeber is heavily biased due to the fact that he is an academic who probably has not had a job that required operational excellence

> Assistants help with this paperwork, which is different for every state and requires hours of reading and making phone calls to decipher.

Regardless of this, this still sounds like a market inefficiency. I have not read the book (but I certainly will now), but I'm going to guess the author's response would be that while the assistant's job is necessary for the engineer to remain productive, it is still a bullshit job. What's needed instead is an automated service that handles this for the engineer at far less of a cost or less bullshit paperwork from government.

I agree, these things are needed, but they don't exist. There have been great strides made in that area, but professional licensing predates the office computer. So, it's a legacy process that takes time to adapt.

There's also the issue of the quasi-sovereignty of states in the US. They are not going to want to give up power to manage their own affairs.

The author seems to think about things this Pollyanna, blue-sky way where we could just change everything magically to be more efficient, but back in the real world there are entrenched interests and institutional inertia that result in things happening a certain way. They don't change overnight. It's not bullshit to pay people to deal with the world as it is. It's really the only option you have if you want to get something done now, instead of in some hypothetical future where we've automated away every inefficiency.

Is there a better way to talk about jobs that only exist due to inefficiency? It seems important to know that they could be automated away.

If someone is convinced that it would be so easy to automate away X annoying job that someone has to do, I would encourage them not to talk about it, but to get busy doing the automation.

Best case, they were right and the task gets automated away, now we don't need to talk about it at all. More likely, they might find that it's actually not as easy to automate away as they initially thought.

Seconded. This "soldier" group is a little sensitive because they aren't primary producers in the sense of they redistribute or safeguard distribution of existing resources rather than create anything. That is a perfectly acceptable form of value add; clearly helping make and execute decisions around distribution is important.

The sensitivity is that if there are not enough resources then there is little to be gained by redistributing them (if there is not enough food, someone will starve even with the best executed and fairest system). That isn't an arguments against having the jobs, that is an argument that their ability to add value is context sensitive and they don't emerge until there is a bit of a surplus to play with.

I was coming to make these points, but you covered it very well.

I can think of offices that would implode without the receptionist/assistant/office manager that performs the "glue" functions and allows others to focus on their roles.

I would say telemarketer is not standard sales, its high pressure unwelcome sales tactics that are stressful and harmful to both sides in my opinion, but I wouldn't classify that as "Goon" but as "negative sales techniques"

He seems to vastly misunderstand the actual function and roles hes criticizing.

David Graeber, the author of the book Bullshit Jobs, walked out of the room twice when Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant confronted him with pitfalls in his reasoning.


Yep, people don't realize that Grarber is just a refresh of the fashionable nonsense trend, particularly in economics.

From the article:

""Those two British and Dutch polls were the only ones I knew when I wrote the book. Since then, there has been a poll that came out at 10 percent. But I'm a bit skeptical about that, because the other two polls matched. It depends very much on what questions you ask people. In any case, I think that more detailed work is needed. '"

The part I highlighted in Italic seals the deal: the guy is either blissfully ignorant, or wildly dishonest.

Interesting, and really disappointing— I loved Graeber's book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. This makes me wonder if he also avoided criticism when writing it.

When I read the original essay, my impression was the author generally misunderstood what a business actually is. The purpose of a manager (a flunky/goon bullshit job) is to abstract agents from principals to define that separation. Most bullshit jobs form the demarcation between these abstractions. It's delegation.

These people are essentially financial furniture who have engineered a kind of managerial capture of the principals capital, and in turn pay themselves exorbitantly. We talk about a tech bubble, but what have really seen is a 35 year management bubble.

Who are these principals, the owners of the capital? When you look at the largest capital pools they belong to pensioners, tax payers, trusts, depositors, saver/investors, insurance policy holders, and other collective owners. Interestingly, managing these pools is where all the bullshit jobs exist as well. These bullshit jobs with decadent pay differences are the effect of managerial capture of these mutual/collective capital bases.

I'd speculate it's possible that a lot of political views across the spectrum could be described in terms of a principals revolt against capture by their agents.

I'd be curious to hear, from someone who's actually read the book, what arguments it makes to show receptionist is a bullshit job?

To me it seems like a pretty useful job in a large organisation.

The book makes it explicit that it is talking about "receptionists and front-desk personnel at places that obviously don’t need them." The example provided is that of a Dutch publishing company at which the phone rang once a day, and the receptionist's task included keeping a "candy dish full of mints" (mints supplied by another person), winding a grandfather clock once a week, and "managing another receptionist's Avon sales."

It goes on to state that the receptionist at such a place is required as a "Badge of Seriousness" even if they have nothing else to do.

While the specific examples provided don't provide immediate value, one should not overlook the value of the "Badge of Seriousness". Perhaps the receptionist job at such a firm should be looked at as less of a receptionist job and more of a sales job. If they lose out on business because they are not perceived as a serious firm, then the receptionist job provides quite a lot of value to the company, just not in the "answering phones" sort of way.

I've read the book, there is a distinction between "office manager" type secretary and people who are paid to sit next to a phone which only rings twice a week.

The book isn't only about the job itself, but our constant need to "look busy", even though there isn't anything to do, and most importantly, how these structures develop. He coins the phrase "corporate feudalism" as an explanation, meaning (to oversimplify) that people at the top think that other people at the top look powerful when they have lots of people below them, so they need to create a lot of jobs just to have people to be the boss of.

A hundred years ago, we didn't have many of these jobs, but people managed to live. We've automated most of the actual production jobs, but instead of having more free time, we have telemarketers, and everyone still works 40 hrs/week minimum.

The core point of the book, that 40% of jobs are bullshit, is pure bullshit, and Graeber is a know bullshitter.


He based his assertion "on the basis of a YouGov survey among 843 Britons, in which 37 percent of the respondents said that their job 'did not make a meaningful contribution to the world', and one from HR and organizational consultant Schouten & Nelissen among 1,900 Dutch citizens, who 40 percent came out."

Both surveys are very low-quality, and are contradicted by other massive surveys, which he decides to ignore because "Since then, there has been a poll that came out at 10 percent. But I'm a bit skeptical about that, because the other two polls matched."

Ditto for goons. While goons may not be the most moral of creatures, I'm not sure it's fair to say their job is pointless and psychologically destructive.

Definitely. They tend to do the “small” things around the office, they do it in a manner people only notice when someone is not doing it.

So I don’t agree designating itt a bullshit job.

Curious why do you think it's useful. What do you imagine happens in large organizations without full-time receptionists?

Total chaos.

Even when we were 20 people in an office folks coming in for interviews or to fix the WiFi/Coffee machine/plumbing would either be totally lost, or the person sitting near the door would be significantly burdened with constant distraction and less able to perform their primary function.

Furthermore no one would set up those maintenance tasks because they’re focused on the product not on making sure the office is functioning properly.

>Furthermore no one would set up those maintenance tasks because they’re focused on the product not on making sure the office is functioning properly....


Not trying to get in between you guys arguing, but I'm just throwing this out there because I thought possibly it might help. Maybe you guys aren't really disagreeing so much as using different language for different positions? Just from my point of view, it SOUNDS like what you are describing is more of an Office Manager. So maybe in some organizations Office Manager is the same as Receptionist in terms of job title? (I do hope you were PAYING that person at the level of an Office Manager though, and not a simple receptionist. That's kind of shady if you weren't, because that person was doing a great deal of work.)

Imagine you work in a building of 5000+ people. What happens when dozens of interview candidates walks in? Or just dozens of visitors? Or when someone calls the company's contact phone? The actual tasks may vary depending on the company, and probably so will the job title or pay (for the very same tasks). But the job is very much real and someone will do it no matter what you call it.

Some tasks may be more BS than others. But how many jobs would be considered BS in the author's vision that either they can be done by someone else or not at all because they involve addressing activities that should have been done perfect from the beginning?

He's obviously aiming for controversy because controversy sells.

I've only worked in startup environments, but the office administrator just made life easier. She organized ordering catering, packages being sent and delivered, HR stuff, office errands. So not contributing to the product itself but ensuring people have the bandwidth to make the product.

If our experience is anything to go by - visitors hanging around in the lobby, desperate for someone to show them the way as the automagic visitor kiosk issuing passes and notifying whoever you were about to visit that you have arrived is broken. Again.

Thieves helping themselves to computers, video projectors and the like as entrance security is a joke and noone monitors the lobby anymore.

Calls doing the rounds from department to department as the corporate mega-switchboard does not know anything but employees' formal title and not what they actually do - unlike the receptionist, which also manned the local switchboard.

&c. You can solve most of this by throwing more money at it - but a good receptionist is IMHO money very well spent...

A BS job is one where the tasks being performed make 0 difference to the overall situation and not doing them is hardly visible. The tasks a receptionist does are actually needed and you'd know when they are not performed.

But I find other BS examples that the author used, like "airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don't arrive". There's no dedicated staff for this. They are simply staff who have to take the time to also do this. He sometimes mixes up "jobs" with "job tasks". Some tasks may be BS but the jobs definitely involve more than what he cherry picked as an example. Is "staff that asks you if you enjoyed the food at the restaurant" also on the list?

Would he rather have airline employees just not give a shit when he has a problem? Or does he actually think airlines pay for employees that are there just to provide consolation?

A "job" is the entire collection of tasks you get paid for or are expected of you by your employer. One BS portion does not make the job BS. In the same vein, is writing a list of BS jobs a BS job? He's definitely exaggerating with many examples for the purpose of making it a bit more controversial.

Wasting the time of people with other duties.

1. People resenting being sat near the door/doorbell, as they take the brunt of the interruptions.

2. Important deliveries being sent back to the parcel depot because the door wasn't answered

3. Parcels sometimes going missing, with the parcel company claiming they were delivered but no employees knowing where they are (with the resulting recriminations)

4. Guests being let in without the sign-in procedure being followed

5. Job applicants showing up saying they're here for an interview with 'Dave' and the person who lets them in not knowing who that is, where they sit, or how to contact them.

These things are done much better at organisations where it's someone's job to do them.

It seems like there's a lot of wiggle room for what is a bullshit job or not and the book takes a pretty expansive view of it.

So many of the jobs listed seem highly useful, but yeah bullshit at times, but the same job very much not bullshit at other times.

I get the concept, I don't think it is wrong that these exist. I do question if anyone could really accurately identify what jobs are bullshit and what aren't and that makes me wonder about the overall concept here.

I sort of agree with his philosophical conclusions, but still I'm not sure how it plays out exactly and not sure basic income and such really would change anything, at least as far as people's choices and such.

Granted I've only read a handful of articles and this wiki article about this so there may be a lot that I'm missing.

Haven't read the book, but have read the original article. I think Graeber noticed some important trends (the rise of administrative work, the underwhelming reduction in total work hours in the US) and then tried to pull them down two the individual, story telling level. Unfortunately, framing these as BS jobs is vitriolic, not useful, and frankly incorrect. A lot of these jobs and trends are not BS within the greater context in which we live, but are reflective our changed technologies and social demands.

For a very vivid example, take a soldier (admittedly, a "goon" in the authors parlance). In 1900, the most effective individual soldier was likely armed with a repeating rifle. In 1965, an individual soldier (or small team) could fire a nuclear armed rocket. The change in effectiveness was massive, but necessitated massive changes in the workforce structure from "productive (or destructive, for individual soldiers) to "administrative" roles. This was done not only to support the creation of the weapon but to ensure it a) was placed at the utmost position of effectiveness and b) ensure it was never used at all. I'm rather happy the jobs in b in particular existed.

The same could be imagined of a mining worker- where there once were hundreds of men with pickaxes and dynamite, there are now just a few driving very large machines to do the work, but with a substantially more people in the backend ensuring that these capital assets are used effectively, designed well, and are safe.

That's not to say there aren't some extremely suspicious trends (the massive growth in the health administration seems to me the most problematic), but for the most part describing individual "jobs" as BS is incorrect.

Previous related discussion (with links to many other previous discussions):


Filing under bullshit books.

I'm not so sure about the generality of "bullshit jobs". I mean, regardless of the perceived importance of selling some tchotchke, it's still a business.

But meetings. Some people just love to hear themselves talk. And some people need to hear something said N different ways, before they can take it in. So someone who spends most of their time in meetings, that's arguably bullshit.

And yes, I do appreciate that stuff needs coordinating. But damn ...

This boils down to "If you don't create something then you are more likely to hate your job", which is why he can claim that maintaining bad code is bullshit.

Companies are financially motivated to have these kinds of jobs, and if we only use that metric then we could say that almost no job is bullshit, but that doesn't mean people enjoy them.

That said I'm weary to extrapolate those ideas into any specific plans to change society

I get the impression he has never actually worked a day in his life or has a naive view of reality.

Admin assistants, for example are a linchpin of a successful office and an important and irreplaceable part of client interactions in small businesses.

Perhaps, the wikipedia article lacks context or nuance, at face value his entire concept seems laughably idiotic.

I have worked for MSPs for virtually my entire career. The vast majority of people are not doing anything at their job.

Put the pitchforks away, folks. I know the "ackshually" impulse is strong, but how likely is it that the one sentence wikipedia summary is a full, accurate representation of the authors complete thoughts on each job type?

Interesting premise and, like most things in life, further investigation is required.

I first heard about this book a month ago, when an essay [1] tried to connect some vacuous dissatisfaction with social networking with deep insights about the powerlessness of people who work, in a pivot I found odd and unconvincing [2].

It's tempting to be swayed by the anecdotes of actual people describing the absurdities of their jobs. It's almost like a satire of pointlessness and dysfunction, despite being very real. But it's colored by perspective of people who expect some amount of self-actualization because of the nature of their workplace, when such an expectation is a unilateral construct influenced by their observations of social class.

Despite the author's elaborate taxonomy of the types of bullshit work, they're all cases of delegating the least palatable, most mechanical, and least intellectual aspects of an actual decision maker's duties and tasks. It's fashionable to pick on middle management, but they form a translation between boots on the ground and high-level business goals, and serve as a containment layer for the inevitable political turf war. It's common to scoff at rubber stampers, but this serves as a way to tie an abstract policy to a human who can be blamed, when process of the organization is brought under scrutiny. These are standard features of bureaucracies since forever, and while they provide insight into human psychology, they don't speak for broad implications about labor relations and the human condition.

And secretaries? They're vital component to smooth operations and screen for potential distractions. The underutilized receptionist is more than just signalling: by definition, they're there for times of need, the same way a security guard is. A security guard isn't pointless just because they never have to intervene: their presence is an effective deterrence against behavior that would call them into visible action.

It's difficult for me to derive a meaningful lesson from this book, other than people are prone to be dissatisfied unless they feel like their efforts impart meaningful good in the world. But in my opinion, the privilege of wishing for self-actualization through one's labor is a recent phenomenon. Not too long ago, it was common knowledge that work was drudgery to earn to living, so we didn't expect more out of it beyond that.

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18800421 [2] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18802087

I haven't read the book but based on the summary it seems like the author does not have a firm grasp on the fact that advanced economies are transitioning to being service based.

In the long term capitalism and free markets should weed out any jobs which don't create shareholder value. At least that's the promise of the system and there's plenty of evidence which shows that this is what's happening. I'm curious which counterpoints the book offers.

That's a very naive view, for three reasons.

Firstly "quarterly profits" are not necessarily synonymous with "shareholder value" over the long term - although the entire financial industry operates on the basis that they are.

In reality it's perfectly possible to produce stellar quarterly returns while driving a solid, productive company into the ground and denying investors future returns.

Secondly, shareholders are proxied by senior management. Senior management has its own goals, which include status management as well as profit.

Profit is only a partial proxy for status, which is why senior management in some companies likes to play some standard management games like "reorg" and "rebrand" that do nothing at all for returns, except possibly waste them, but make managers feel like they're critically important wielders of corporate power.

The third reason is that if you concentrate enough wealth among shareholders, the rest of your economy - the part that does most of the consuming, as well as most of the actual work - atrophies and eventually implodes under a pile of debt and consequent violent social dislocation.

This is not a good thing. But it seems to be a lesson that generations of shareholders need to keep relearning.

> programmers repairing shoddy code

How is this pointless?

The article is pretty clear that the author thinks that the code should have been written correctly to begin with. It's the fact that management prevented this from happening that causes people to have to fix the code. The idea is that if the job was "done right the first time" then the total labor expenses would be much, much lower.

Code can never be written "correctly" whatever that means. Even if it was, library changes will break it.

And none of the other jobs mentioned are bullshit. They are all required in various degrees.

I call it bullshit book

Even when cleaning up preventable messes in code, those messes were often caused or made worse by trying to "do it right the first time" and tacking on a bunch of extra complexity in the process instead of just doing the simple thing that works for now.

Start small. Iterate. Do it wrong. Embrace the fact that we're imperfect, not oracles of the future. I'll gladly prefer fixing up some shoddy code over needing to tear down and re-architecture from scratch a larger, even well designed system, that solves the wrong problem.

Not all preventable problems are worth preventing. Preventing them causes other problems, if only the problem of wasting a lot of time fixing many non-problems that you mistakenly thought were potential problems in an attempt to do so.

Surely you'd agree that there is a spectrum of shoddiness (and hence required maintenance) of code?

The specific example of shoddy code given in the book is that of a programmer gradually replacing a completely ineffectual algorithm written by an incompetent academic who also happened to be his boss. The algorithm was designed to "mimic speech" (this part is not very clear in the book) and the programmer replaces it with Eliza-like heuristics.

You should read the book before judging it so harshly.

Another example is maintaining home-grown code that could be replaced by an off-the-shelf solution, but nobody is willing to pay the price for it or risk change.

Maybe it would be better stated as a "shoddy approach" to fixing business problems with technology.

Some examples might be:

- Overengineering. I worked for a startup that committed to a $20k/mo multi-az setup with mass redundancy for what was essentially a lightly trafficked static website.

- Not-Invented-Here syndrome. Different place spent months building out a custom shopping cart and checkout solution for sales b/c they didn't really like the built-in options. Full on high priced design team (not a person, a team), UX folks, front end devs, trying to get PCI compliance on their servers (a huge task), etc. or they could have done what Tesla did and just used Shopify - https://shop.tesla.com/us/en.html

In both those examples, there's no need/value to the work being done over similar solutions making it a "bullshit job".

These are creating shoddy code not fixing it.

How is it avoidable? I feel like this is just pretending that perfect code is possible.

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