Don’t you just hate it when a good theory falls apart? The late anthropologist David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs had a great premise: that the modern economy has generated vast numbers of pointless jobs, and “the people doing these jobs are completely unhappy because they know their work is bullshit”.
Corporate lawyers, lobbyists, middle managers — they’re all useless and they know it.
It is five years since the book was published but people are still talking about it, especially in the context of today’s puzzle over why some people have left the workforce since the pandemic began. Did workers just get tired of the pretence that what they were doing all day actually mattered?
The problem is, the data doesn’t back up the “bullshit jobs” theory very much at all.
A few years ago, researchers Magdalena Soffia, Alex Wood and Brendan Burchell pored over a series of huge EU surveys of working conditions to see if it was true that a high and rising number of people thought their work was useless.
In fact, only about 5 per cent of workers in 2015 answered “rarely” or “never” to the statement “I have the feeling of doing useful work”. And that proportion had fallen from about 8 per cent in 2005.
Contrary to the idea that bullshit jobs are most commonly found in well-paid white-collar sectors, the survey found that bin collectors and cleaners were more likely to say they didn’t do useful work than legal and administrative professionals.
Of course, it’s possible that people are lying to themselves, or to those doing the survey. It’s also possible that people might see their work as “useful” in a narrow sense but still find it meaningless in a deeper way which is not drawn out by that question. Or perhaps the theory is just wrong.
Even if it is, I think Graeber put his finger on an important distinction that often gets lost: there is a difference between how a person might feel about their job and how they might feel about their actual work.
He was interested in the idea that someone could have a good job, in the sense that it was highly paid and respected by society, yet still hate their work. I am interested in the converse. More and more, I meet people who say they love their work but hate their jobs.
Take the social care workers who look after people at home or in residential facilities. In many countries, the vacancy rates are high in these jobs and the staff turnover is rapid. But it would be a mistake to conclude the work is grim.
Focus groups with UK care workers run by the Resolution Foundation think-tank found the opposite: people spoke about how much they valued the responsibility, the autonomy and the difference they made to people’s lives.
A recent analysis of UK wellbeing data shows that people in “caring” occupations have the highest levels of feeling that the things they do in life are worthwhile. The problem is rather that poor pay and staff shortages leave people too tired and stretched to deliver the quality of care they want to provide.
One senior care worker told me about a junior colleague who had to do 28 house calls in one shift and didn’t get home to her family until midnight. “She phoned me up and said: ‘I love my job but I feel like I’m forced to get something else’.”
The phenomenon is not unique to jobs at the bottom of the pay ladder. An NHS psychologist in the UK emailed me recently about how inadequate resources made it impossible to do her work well.
“I am wise enough to know that me working harder to plug those ever-growing gaps is unsustainable,” she wrote. “So even I, a truly committed NHS worker who loves her job, is good at it and has the best colleagues . . . am planning my exit route.”
She said this was a “common theme” in her profession. “We absolutely love what we do but have been broken by the lack of infrastructure, investment and decades of ‘do more with less’.”
Low pay and squeezed resources aren’t the only culprits. A terrible manager can turn a good job bad overnight.
Corporate bureaucracy can do it more slowly, by tangling people up in tasks that take them away from the work they want to do, like to do and were hired to do.
I’m sure some people are paid handsomely for jobs they don’t like and don’t think matter. But there is more reason to worry about people in the opposite situation. The good news is, that’s a more straightforward problem to fix.