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Is It Time to Quit Your Bullshit Job?

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Bullshit jobs have always been around and are on the rise. Should you consider quitting a job that doesn't produce any value?

Bullshit jobs have always been around and are on the rise. Should you consider quitting a job that doesn't produce any value?

Is Your Job Valuable?

Ever since David Graeber published his popular and polarizing book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory in 2015, the world of work—or at least the normies who occupy the capitalistic society we live in—has taken a hard look in the mirror. Are we now living in a world where so many jobs are created just for the sake of creating them to fill in the gaps of inefficiencies within organizations?

It's harsh to call someone out for working a "bullshit" job—a salaried position which, if one day was removed, would not make any difference in the world—but there comes a point in a person's career where indeed a very hard look in the mirror is needed.

Are you wasting your time, attention, and energy pursuing the goals of some fancy organization while your own output creates no value whatsoever in society?

Is it time for you to take a course correction in your career and re-evaluate what type of "work" means more to you and hence holds more value?

Let's examine below, drawing from David Graeber's perspective, what having and working a bullshit job really means.

Are You Working a "Bullshit" Job?

David Graeber had multiple definitions of a bullshit job before finally settling on a final working definition, articulating the term at every pass. On the first pass, he defined a bullshit job as "a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence."

But as Graeber went on to provide more examples, especially with workers from the private sector pretending to work at their desks, he added: "even the employee cannot justify its existence even though the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case."

Finally, Graeber set out the final working definition as follows:

A bullshit job is a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.

From the final definition, we can pluck out the essential elements of a bullshit job:

  1. Pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious;
  2. Worker thinks it shouldn't exist;
  3. Worker is obliged to pretend that it should exist;
  4. Worker is a paid, usually salaried employee.

Graeber did make the case that usually it's salaried jobs that fall into the realm of bullshit jobs because hourly-paid jobs, usually "shit" jobs actually end up being the ones useful to society (cleaners, dock workers, etc.). We'll not go into his discussion on why "shit" jobs aren't necessarily bullshit jobs—to read more on this, check his book out.

But at this point, you can perhaps already ask yourself whether or not you are working a job that would fall under Graeber's definition. Do you think your job is pointless or needless? Do you think there's a reason for a job like it to even exist in society? Is it at least implied in your company that you pretend that the job is useful or valuable?

It's an extremely painful dose of reality, especially when, early in your employment, you were built up to believe that your job was so important to the success of the organization that you were "irreplaceable."

Even essential workers themselves feel some insecurity—nurses, doctors, law enforcers—because they know that a steady supply of workers like them are in the queue, ready to take their place upon graduation and for a cheaper cost. So how much more insecurity for those people who believe that if their jobs vanished from society one day, no one would even notice?

Five Main Categories of Bullshit Jobs

We've already gone over Graeber's inclusive definition of a bullshit job, but to articulate his definition further and make more workers relate, bullshit jobs can be classified into five categories:

  1. Flunkies
  2. Goons
  3. Duct Tapers
  4. Box Tickers
  5. Taskmasters

He came up with these categories after going through 124 testimonies which were mainly responses to his original essay "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs," published in Strike! Magazine. So it's not that he was just making these classifications up—there were real-world examples behind them.

He also compiled from a second body of data—an email account for which there were 250 testimonies from people of almost every continent. Graeber eventually ended up with a database of 110,000 words.

1. Flunkies: jobs that exist mainly for making someone else look or feel important.

Notable quotes from the book:

  • "You cannot be magnificent without an entourage."
  • "No one would take a company seriously if it had no one at all sitting at the front desk."
  • "Being a broker with your own cold caller was a status symbol . . . in such a hyper-masculine, hypercompetitive environment."

Examples in the book:

  • Doormen
  • Concierge
  • Elevator operators
  • Cold caller
  • Portfolio coordinator that turns out to be a P.A. job
  • HR assistant to a lazy HR specialist

2. Goons: jobs that have an aggressive element but exist only because other people employ them.

Notable quotes from the book:

  • "Goons are clearly doing something to further the interests of those who employ them, even if the overall effect of their profession's existence might be considered detrimental to humanity as a whole."
  • "It's not just a lack of positive contribution, but you're making an active negative contribution to people's day."

Examples in the book:

  • Lobbyists
  • PR specialists
  • Telemarketers
  • Corporate lawyers
  • Ad agency "enhancers"
  • Call center employees

3. Duct tapers: jobs that exist only because of a glitch or fault in the organization; people who are there to solve a problem that shouldn't exist in the first place.

Notable quotes from the book:

  • "The architect may come up with a plan that looks stunning on paper, but it's the builder who has to . . . use real duct tape to hold things together . . . "
  • "When the system is so stupidly designed that it will fail in completely predictable ways, but rather than fix the problem, the organization prefers to hire full-time employees whose main or entire job is to deal with the damage."

Examples in the book:

  • "Testers" or proofreaders
  • Manual encoders
  • Photocopier person because the company didn't want to pay the cost of digitizing machines
  • Carpenter "apologist" for a school that couldn't afford to hire more than one carpenter

4. Box tickers: jobs that exist mainly to allow an organization to be able to claim it is doing something that, in fact, it is not doing.

Notable quotes from the book:

  • "Completion of the forms was by far the most important part of my job in the eyes of my boss, and I would catch hell if I got behind on them."
  • "Most of what I do… involves ticking boxes, pretending things are great to senior managers, and generally feeding the beast with meaningless numbers that give the illusion of control."

Examples in the book:

  • Leisure coordinator in a care home
  • Corporate compliance specialists
  • "Bullshit" report writer

5. Taskmasters: fall into two types; first is those whose role consists entirely of assigning work to others, and the second type is those who create bullshit tasks for others to do, supervise bullshit, or even create entirely new bullshit jobs.

Notable quotes from the book:

  • "Ten people work for me, but from what I can tell, they can all do the work without my oversight."
  • "The entire job of middle management is to ensure the lower-level people hit their productivity numbers."

Examples in the book:

  • Middle managers
  • Academic dean providing "strategic leadership"

The testimonies shared by Graeber held nothing back, and they reminded me of the job descriptions that online job boards boasted in outline form—hiding the true nature of the job, whether it was just a glorified flunky, goon, duct-taper, box-ticker, or taskmaster. There were also "multiform bullshit jobs," which, for now, form a topic for another day.

Should You Be Worried About Company Loyalty?

Knowing that bullshit jobs are everywhere and proliferate within organizations, should you still even be worried about company loyalty? The median worker tenure is at four years, which is surprisingly high considering that young employees consider two years an adequate time to spend at one place before considering heading out the door.

Company loyalty as it relates to bullshit jobs is a tangent to our main topic but is an important factor when considering quitting your bullshit job. It's important for the reason that company loyalty no longer exists.

Employers, especially during the last decade, have gone out of their way to make jobs more easily replaceable—making job titles and descriptions so vague and broad, at the same time intentionally overlapping the functions of one job to another.

This means that when one person suddenly leaves, there's another person who can "cover," albeit momentarily for the functions left un-worked, up until a replacement can be onboarded. Not that the vacated job was so important anyway.

Is Your Current Job Creating Any Value?

Especially if you don’t belong to the class of essential workers (who are often under-compensated)—healthcare workers, teachers, law enforcers, garbage collectors, retail workers—you will usually have difficulty answering the question, what value does my job actually create?

The latter question is an especially difficult question to answer for workers who fall under the Goons category because their work usually produces more negative than positive in society.

Take, for example, call center agents who, through deception and sweet talk, manipulate an elderly person into paying for a monthly subscription to a service that he could have gotten for free through a quick Google search. Selling things that people don’t really need or making it appear that these are indeed needed—what’s the value created in these types of jobs?

If it takes you too much time to articulate the value you actually produce in society (not the value you create within your organization, such as decluttering a superior’s inbox or converting a long written report into a fancy PowerPoint), then maybe you have a bullshit job that produces no net gain for society.

Labor Hoarding, an Interesting Parallel With the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union's policy of full employment created the consequence of having too many workers for too little work to go around. An example would be going into a supermarket to be entertained by three customer reps when you just needed to buy one piece of steak.

Labor hoarding happens for some companies who don't want to fire redundant employees during a recession to save on costs for when the time comes that these extra workers are needed. It's a tradeoff between retention costs and hiring costs, the latter being averted more by the employer.

While labor hoarding is not what is necessarily happening in our capitalist system, it is in some ways a parallel. Organizations hire workers who attain a "standard" of achievement—a college degree, a certification in some ISO bullshit, a license to do this and that.

Even employers admit that not everything in a person's resume is essential to the performance of the job—they simply write down a wish list inside a job posting so as to hoard talent, which makes moving things around or reorganizing easier.

Why Your Job Is Not a Worthy Idol

Lastly, an extremely important point worth mentioning when it comes to bullshit jobs is the idea that yours or anyone's job isn't a worthy idol. And by that, I mean that the job shouldn't define your way of life, nor should it steal away your finite resources of time, attention, and energy.

Not only does Graeber make it a point to define bullshit jobs and make examples thereby, he goes on to assert that the labor system we've created is destructive to our collective soul.

It was thought that by now, technology would have already advanced to a point so as to reduce the average working hours to 15 hours a week. Now, a fixed 40 hours feels like a luxury, especially in the age of hybrid work. I hope that by coming across this article, you would have at least asked yourself the question Is my job worth working at all, if not for the wages I receive?

We live in a world full of bullshit jobs, and we need to work on things that truly matter.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz