Why Do Bullshit Jobs Exist?

In a survey 37% of British workers acknowledge that their job wasn’t really needed. From personal observation and talking to people about their work, it is clear that many jobs either are not needed or that while the job is needed, it doesn’t really require many hours of real work per week.

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Anthropologists David Graeber, labeled this sort of jobs bullshit jobs. He even categorized them into various categories. I don’t think it is without reason we have much comedy today about tasks and works which is completely pointless. Dilbert is a good example. The comedy revolves around the mostly pointless and counterproductive activities the characters engage in. It is funny because so many of us who have actually ever had an office job recognize all to well what is going on.

In Norway we have a popular comic called Lunch, which is about an office worker, much like Dilbert. The creator had no initially decided what the company was actually doing. However as the series progressed the creator realized there was actually no need to ever define what the company was doing. It was unproblematic to create page after page of strategy meetings, advertisement campaigns, status meetings, inspirational workshops or whatever other activities almost all office companies engage in which are not really related to its core operation.

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Lunch Comic

One of my favorite comedies of all time, Office Space, is about a software company, Initech, and all the meaningless types of work the employees have to engage in and how soul crushing it is.

If you look around, it is pretty obvious what is going on. Until David Graeber highlighted it however it had never occurred to me that perhaps a bulk of our modern jobs and tasks today are pointless.

This of course begs the question, why on earth do all these jobs or tasks even exist then?

I want to address this as I don’t think Graeber addressed it successfully. He is an anarchist and this naturally colors his explanations even if there is a lot of truth to them.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma of Bullshit Jobs

In game theory we have the prisoner’s dilemma, where two prisoners are interrogated separately and have to decide whether to cooperate, by keeping their mouth shut or betray each other by snitching. Many situations in the market mimics this situation.

Already back in the time of Entry Ford, was it observed that workers in factories often had a lot of knowledge about how to make production more efficient, yet never chose to tell management. Why?

Because they had no incentive to do so. By telling management how to improve efficiency they risked reducing the need for workers and either getting fired themselves or see friends get fired. Secondly the worker’s insight allowed him to make his own job less taxing and stressful. By informing management the productivity expectations would increase without necessarily seeing any wage increase.

A more recent example of this was a company where lots of employees manually looked over excel spreadsheet to find discrepancies. It was a straightforward, boring and simple job. In fact it was so boring that management had devised a bonus scheme to make people keep up a certain level of productivity. One worker however realized the whole job could be automated with a few lines of code. That was enough to remove the need for any workers doing the job. So the guy didn’t want to make himself redundant. So he pretended to work but actually slacked off the whole week playing games, while the computer program checked the excel spreadsheets. A computer is of course much faster than a human at this so, the guy had something like 1000 times the productivity of everybody else and got all the bonus of his whole department. He kept at it for a long time before feeling bad about it, and told management. He got promptly fired. Proving that there is no incentive to suggest productivity improvements.

There are countless examples of this. On reddit there are many discussions of these sort of jobs. Several of the commentators remark on how they have to keep their automation of their work secret or simply chose to not automate a task to keep their job. Clearly a common problem even today, is that workers simply have no incentive to make their job more efficient or redundant.

You Can’t Avoid Bullshit Jobs in a Capitalist System

This is the problem with simply creating a competing company without bullshit jobs to outcompete companies with bullshit jobs. Management is never all seeing and informed of every little detail of the operation. Hence they depend on employees telling them if say their job is no longer needed or they only really have work to fill a couple of hours per week. But employees have no incentive to inform management of this.

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Consultants Bob Slydell and Bob Porter, who are brought in to help Initech downsize, interviewing employees about what they do at the company to determine whether they are needed.

It is probably not without reason, this is why the movie Office Space contains a scene where efficiency consultants interview every employee about what they do. They are trying to determine if the job is actually needed or not. Something like this would never have been needed if management actually knew whether a job was bullshit or not.

Perhaps the most ironic story of this mentioned by Graeber mention was about a guy who’s job was to make the company operations more efficient. He had been doing this for 15 years, and yet none of his suggestions had ever been implemented. Usually the suggestions got scrapped once it was realized it meant scrapping jobs which really only existed to make somebody in management look important. So in essence, this guy had spent 15 years doing nothing that had ever mattered to anybody.

The fundamental problem is as in the prisoners dilemma, that employees and employers don’t trust each other, so they can not agree to do the thing that would benefit both of them the most.

Japanese Life Time Employment

This is probably one of the reasons why the old Japanese system of life time employment was not as inefficient as text book economics would predict. With no threat of getting fired the orthodoxy suggests people would slack off and get unproductive. However that has never been the experience of Japanese manufacturing.

Instead there has existed a loyalty bond between employee and employers, where an employee would stay with the same company through their life despite possible better opportunities. The company in return would keep the employee and train him or her. In lean manufacturing employees are encouraged to suggest improvements to the manufacturing process, which they can do given that improving efficiency does not risk their job.

What Are the Solutions?

Mutual trust and loyalty are in other ways possible ways to circumvent the problem of bullshit jobs. However the fundamental problem is that in a free market capitalist system, there will never be a strong incentives to get rid of rubbish tasks and bullshit jobs among employees.

However this is not a unique problem to capitalism, as the Soviet Union produced similar problems but for different reasons. In the Soviet Union there was never any incentive to reduce the number of employees at a company, as companies were not profit driven. Since everybody was guaranteed and required to have a job, one simply invented a lot of useless jobs to keep everybody busy.

The Soviet Union had the same problem as our capitalist economies today, in that one did not really trust workers to do the right thing.

The public sector, which has much higher job security, also doesn’t really solve the problem. It is likely worse there. In the public sector it is perhaps not so much the employee, which lacks incentive but the organization itself. It is not in competition with anybody else and does not risk looking bad in comparison to a comparable organization. Reducing costs, risks reducing budgets. I remember from my time serving in the military that they would start having a lot of shooting exercises towards the end of the year to use up as much of their budget as possible. If not, they risked budget reductions next year.

A possible solution to the problem of bullshit jobs and low efficiency is a universal basic income scheme, where everybody gets a minimum income from the government whatever they do. This means unlike welfare today, there is no disincentive to get a poorly paid job, if you are unemployed because of risking losing welfare payments.

However such a system relies on trusting people to actually work when they don’t have to. Something even the socialist system of the Soviets didn’t. Hence they preferred inventing pointless jobs instead. Also it would not have helped in the Soviet Union since there was no opportunity to create a private company.

In a free market economy with universal basic income, people could in principle quit their job and found a company, do freelance or any number of things which could produce useful goods and services.

However it is not given that this is the solution, since a universal basic income cannot be too large unless risking taxing us to death. That means it does not present an opportunity to do away with high paid bullshit jobs. Some people might prefer lower pay and doing something useful, but others might still prefer getting paid a fat salary to do nothing of value.

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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