Book Summary & Highlights: Bullshit Jobs—A Theory

Knowledge Work
Related to Mental Model Dictionary By Category - Encyclopedia (Column)
Related to Mini Mental Model Encyclopedia (Documen)
May 15, 2018
Recommended By
Related to Dates (Resources)
Related to Timelines (Resource Source)
Resource Series

Amazon Description

From best-selling writer David Graeber, a powerful argument against the rise of meaningless, unfulfilling jobs and their consequences.

Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world? In the spring of 2013, David Graeber asked this question in a playful, provocative essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. It went viral. After a million online views in 17 different languages, people all over the world are still debating the answer.

There are millions of people - HR consultants, communication coordinators, telemarketing researchers, corporate lawyers - whose jobs are useless, and, tragically, they know it. These people are caught in bullshit jobs. Graeber explores one of society’s most vexing and deeply felt concerns, indicting among other villains a particular strain of finance capitalism that betrays ideals shared by thinkers ranging from Keynes to Lincoln.

Bullshit Jobs gives individuals, corporations, and societies permission to undergo a shift in values, placing creative and caring work at the center of our culture. This book is for everyone who wants to turn their vocation back into an avocation.


My Summary

  • He has hit on an idea that clearly has resonance with a lot of people.
  • I do like the fundamental questions he asks. 1) Why do so many people feel that their job is bullshit? 2) Why did no one intervene with this? I also appreciate that he looks at this from a systematic angle. However, I feel like he comes at the answer from a biased almost conspiratorial perspective where he proves what he already believed: “All I did in the essay was to pursue this insight: whenever you find someone doing something in the name of economic efficiency that seems completely economically irrational (like, say, paying people good money to do nothing all day), one had best start by asking, as the ancient Romans did, “Qui bono?”—“Who benefits?”—and how.” At the same time, asking who benefits is a fair question.
  • But his logic is shaky:
    • He argues that automation has made us more productive and then we filled that up with unproductive people. This assumes that there wasn’t unproductive people before.
    • He makes the case that the reason efficiency has been applied to manual work and not knowledge work is class-based. I think the reason is because knowledge work is newer and harder to systematize. It’s harder to track people’s work and measure it for example.
    • He only has 250 first-hand respondents that the book is based on that he is extrapolating very broadly.
    • He makes the case that private sector has tons of bullshit jobs based on an example of a government contractor.
    • He argues that the stalling in productivity is a result of free markets not working and that we need to fundamentally re-examine free markets. For example he says, “If a private company hired a consultant to come up with a business plan, and it resulted in a sharp decline in profits, that consultant would be fired. At the very least, he’d be asked to come up with a different plan. With free market reforms, this never seemed to happen. The more they failed, the more they were enacted.”
  • My counterarguments to him would be the opposite. Productivity isn’t the problem. It is the solution.
    • We actually need more productivity and more scientific management.

Graeber’s Thoughts On Scientific Management And Industrial Revolution

The promulgation of consumerism also coincided with the beginnings of the managerial revolution, which was, especially at first, largely an attack on popular knowledge. Where once hoopers and wainwrights and seamstresses saw themselves as heirs to a proud tradition, each with its secret knowledge, the new bureaucratically organized corporations and their “scientific management” sought as far as possible to literally turn workers into extensions of the machinery, their every move predetermined by someone else.
The initial instinct of most early factory owners was not to employ men in the mills at all, but women and children: the latter were, after all, considered more tractable, and women especially, more inured to monotonous, repetitive work. The results were often brutal and horrific. The situation also left traditional male craftsmen in a particularly distressing situation; not only were they thrown out of work by the new factories, their wives and children, who used to work under their direction, were now the breadwinners. This was clearly a factor in the early wave of machine-breaking during the Napoleonic Wars that came to be known as Luddism, and a key element in allaying that rebellion seems to have been a tacit social compromise whereby it came to be understood that it would be primarily adult men who would be employed in factory work. This, and the fact that for the next century or so labor organizing tended to focus on factory workers (partly simply because they were the easiest to organize), led to the situation we have now, where simply invoking the term “working class” instantly draws up images of men in overalls toiling on production lines, and it’s common to hear otherwise intelligent middle-class intellectuals suggest that, with the decline of factory work, the working class in, say, Britain or America no longer exists—as if it were actually ingeniously constructed androids that were driving their buses, trimming their hedges, installing their cables, or changing their grandparents’ bedpans.
In fact, there was never a time most workers worked in factories. Even in the days of Karl Marx, or Charles Dickens, working-class neighborhoods housed far more maids, bootblacks, dustmen, cooks, nurses, cabbies, schoolteachers, prostitutes, caretakers, and costermongers than employees in coal mines, textile mills, or iron foundries.
To think of labor as valuable primarily because it is “productive,” and productive labor as typified by the factory worker, effecting that magic transformation by which cars or teabags or pharmaceutical products are “produced” out of factories through the same painful but ultimately mysterious “labor” by which women are seen to produce babies, allows one to make all this disappear. It also makes it maximally easy for the factory owner to insist that no, actually, workers are really no different from the machines they operate. Clearly, the growth of what came to be called “scientific management” made this easier; but it would never have been possible had the paradigmatic example of “worker” in the popular imagination been a cook, a gardener, or a masseuse.

Graeber, David. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (pp. 237-238). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.


Author Interviews




Top Excerpts

Kindle Popular

Goodreads Popular