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Tuesday, September 19, 2023

‘Bullshit’ After All? Why People Consider Their Jobs Socially Useless

Walo, S. (2023).
Employment and Society, 0(0).


Recent studies show that many workers consider their jobs socially useless. Thus, several explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed. David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs theory’, for example, claims that some jobs are in fact objectively useless, and that these are found more often in certain occupations than in others. Quantitative research on Europe, however, finds little support for Graeber’s theory and claims that alienation may be better suited to explain why people consider their jobs socially useless. This study extends previous analyses by drawing on a rich, under-utilized dataset and provides new evidence for the United States specifically. Contrary to previous studies, it thus finds robust support for Graeber’s theory on bullshit jobs. At the same time, it also confirms existing evidence on the effects of various other factors, including alienation. Work perceived as socially useless is therefore a multifaceted issue that must be addressed from different angles.

Discussion and conclusion

Using survey data from the US, this article tests Graeber’s (2018) argument that socially useless jobs are primarily found in specific occupations. Doing so, it finds that working in one of Graeber’s occupations significantly increases the probability that workers perceive their job as socially useless (compared with all others). This is true for administrative support occupations, sales occupations, business and finance occupations, and managers. Only legal occupations did not show a significant effect as predicted by Graeber’s theory. More detailed analyses even reveal that, of all 21 occupations, Graeber’s occupations are the ones that are most strongly associated with socially useless jobs when other factors are controlled for. This article is therefore the first to find quantitative evidence supporting Graeber’s argument. In addition, this article also confirms existing evidence on various other factors that can explain why people consider their jobs socially useless, including alienation, social interaction and public service motivation.

These findings may seem somewhat contradictory to the results of Soffia et al. (2022) who find that Graeber’s theory is not supported by their data. This can be explained by several differences between their study and this one. First, Soffia et al. ask people whether they ‘have the feeling of doing useful work’, while this study asks them whether they think they are making a ‘positive impact on [their] community and society’. These differently worded questions may elicit different responses. However, additional analyses show that results do not differ much between these questions (see online supplementary appendix C). Second, Soffia et al. examine data from Europe, while this study uses data from the US. This supports the notion that Graeber’s theory may only apply to heavily financialized Anglo-Saxon countries. Third, the results of Soffia et al. are based on raw distributions over occupations, while the findings presented here are mainly based on regression models that control for various other factors. If only raw distributions are analysed, however, this article also finds only limited support for Graeber’s theory.

My take for clinical psychologists:

Bullshit jobs are not just a problem for the people who do them. They also have a negative impact on society as a whole. For example, they can lead to a decline in productivity, a decrease in innovation, and an increase in inequality.

Bullshit jobs are often created by the powerful in society in order to maintain their own power and privilege. For example, managers may create bullshit jobs in order to justify their own positions or to make themselves look more important.

There is a growing awareness of the problem of bullshit jobs, and there are a number of initiatives underway to address it. For example, some organizations are now hiring "bullshit detectives" to identify and eliminate bullshit jobs.