Bullshit Jobs: A Theory

by David Graeber

Hardcover, 2018


Simon & Schuster (2018), 368 pages


"'Does your job make a meaningful contribution to the world?' David Graeber asked this question in a playful, provocative online essay titled On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. He defined a bullshit job as '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.' After a million views in seventeen different languages, people all over the world are still debating the answer. ... Graeber, in his singularly searing and illuminating style, identifies the five types of bullshit jobs and argues that when 1 percent of the population controls most of a society's wealth, they control what jobs are 'useful' and 'important.' ... Graeber illustrates how nurses, bus drivers, musicians, and landscape gardeners provide true value, and what it says about us as a society when we look down upon them. Using arguments from some of the most revered political thinkers, philosophers, and scientists of our time, Graeber articulates the societal and political consequences of these bullshit jobs. Depression, anxiety, and a warped sense of our values are all dire concerns. He provides a blueprint to undergo a shift in values, placing creative and caring work at the center of our culture, providing the meaning and satisfaction we all crave."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
Facebook Salvation for BS Jobholders

The astounding number of hours spent weekly by social media users is a direct result of bullshit jobs, says David Graeber, in his book of the same name. In this context, the average smartphone being consulted 221 times a day is no longer unbelievable. Graeber has
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uncovered a whole new field for research: jobs where nothing real happens.

We often think of neoliberalism as the era when companies are lean and mean, all the fat is excised and operations optimized. That however, only applies to low-level labor, such as factory workers, teachers, nurses and cleaners. Meanwhile, managers are busy bulking up, overstaffing and underworking. The people who actually produce the goods or care for patients, customers and students are continually punished. Much of the rest is BS, he says.

David Graeber is an anthropologist, unwilling celebrity of Occupy Wall Street, and bestselling author of Debt. His approach is always clear, clean, organized and direct, and Bullshit Jobs is no exception. It began in 2013 when Strike! magazine published his essay on bullshit jobs. It immediately went viral. He asked why Oxford needs a dozen PR specialists to promote the university as a top notch school and why TV production companies need armies of development vice-presidents. (Consider too that New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority has a marketing department of 400.) His essay told BS jobholders they were not alone. They reposted it, blogged about it, and talked it up. It led Graeber to ask questions over Twitter, and he distilled the mountain of response into categories and examples. Polling firms started asking those questions too. It is becoming clear, in country after country, that 37-40% of jobs are either bullshit, or bullshitized by the corporation.

There are five main categories of bullshit jobs:
-Flunkies (eg. assistants, receptionists, or secretaries who make others look important)
-Duct tapers (who bridge gaps and errors instead of fixing obvious flaws in systems)
-Goons (such as telemarketers whose work function is to annoy)
-Box tickers (report generators, form fillers and surveillance agents)
-Taskmasters (who assign useless jobs, or worse, cause harm to others: eg unemployment or welfare agents)
-Flak catchers, on the other hand, provide a real service, allowing customers and co-workers to vent at someone totally powerless to resolve their issue. They may think they have BS jobs, but they have a genuine purpose. Sorry people.

Being ”the cause” of something is the most rewarding part of work. If workers can’t see any effect of anything they do, there’s steady decline, both mental and physical. “A human being unable to have a meaningful impact on the world ceases to exist,” he says. They sit all day, surf the internet, become sullen and depressed, and long for human interaction and any sense of accomplishment.

Graeber says it all began in the Gilded Age, when labor lost its reputation as the means of production. Capital became the means, to the point where governments now fawn over capital to the detriment of everyone and everything else.

People can be resourceful, and seek fulfillment where they can. One hiring manager said she actually rewrote candidate résumés to show experience in an open BS position. Because her company’s HR software would not permit her to interview candidates without all the right boxes ticked, she had to give them the experience herself. But the receptionist whose only tasks are to answer the phone once a day and keep the mints bowl filled has no such opportunity.

There were those who wrote in saying they had written whole plays or learned a new language at work, but for the most part, neoliberalism has provided the BS jobholders with BS fillers like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Youtube to wile away the years. BS jobs are responsible for their rise. For those who want more, there is risk. One wrote that “Doing something worthwhile is subversive.” The perversity is striking.

The main driver seems to be siege mentality and aggrandizement of executives: the need for underlings to prove how important they are. We used to call this empire-building. Graeber calls it managerial feudalism. So even though neoliberalism frowns on inefficiencies, there are many who are more about their own careers than the profits of the company.

Graeber’s first example is both the best and the worst. He quotes a man who works at a subcontractor of a subcontractor of a contractor to the German army. When a soldier wanted to move to the empty office next door, the requisition filtered through all the companies to him. He arranged for security and movers to meet him at the office (several hours away), pack up the laptop and seal it securely, then unpack it again in the next office, while army security kept watch. Everybody signed off and filed their paperwork. This is a bullshit job. Or is it? What Graeber doesn’t see is the obvious reason for subcontractors to employ far too many people. They are not about efficiency, they are about billing the company above them. They mark up the employee’s salary 50-100%, so the more bureaucratic and process-oriented they are, the more profitable they will be. Those BS employees are pure profit. This is capitalism at its finest.

So the private sector is no different from the public sector. The market economy is not ruthlessly efficient, and far from rewarding to all but the top one percent. Graeber quotes President Obama, who created a healthcare plan that added to, rather than subtracted from the complex mess. He specifically cited the three million jobs that just process billing data, that might disappear had he proposed a single payer system. Instead, he institutionalized the BS jobs.

Graeber suggests we look at Universal Basic Income as an option, so that (among many other things) BS jobholders can quit and regain some purpose in life. In the meantime, there’s Facebook.

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member willszal
I've been following David Graeber's work now since not long after "Debt" came out. I always get excited when a new book comes out, and generally the wait is not very long (about once every two years).

In 2013 Graeber published an article in "Strike" called "On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs." It
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was widely read, and even led to some scientific research on the subject. Surveys found that 37% of people describe themselves as having a job that contributes nothing to society, and, if it were to disappear, no one would care or even notice.

In some ways, it's surprising that Graeber was able to pull this book off. It includes a lengthy (and somewhat dry) taxonomy of bullshit jobs created out of hundreds of interviews that Graeber did with willing respondents.

At the core of Graeber's inquiry is the thesis that there's something fundamentally wrong with a society where almost half of it's participants lead a life that is defined by work—work that is simultaneously meaningless. What is the psychological damage done by such an arrangement?

Much of the book is stories from people that reached out to Graeber. Some of them are funny, and some of them are sad. They're all familiar—the sort of thing you're likely familiar with from the TV show, "The Office." Bullshit jobs are predominantly white-collar jobs; people notice immediately when blue-collar workers go on strike, but the same can't be said for many white-collar jobs.

Graeber ends with a pitch for Unconditional Basic Income, with which I whole-heartedly agree. Not only is UBI financially feasible; it's humane, and doesn't require billions of people engaging in destructive behavior every day.

This book goes to the heart of the crisis within Western Culture today.
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LibraryThing member libraryhead
Highly engaging examination of the nature, causes, and consequences of bullshit work. So much here to chew on. Checked out from the library but I may have to buy a copy to read again and really dig in.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Only read about half--interesting but lost out in competition of other books to read. It is sad to contemplate the amount of wasted time recounted here while so much of worth and value goes undone because of perverse economics. The main types of bullshit jobs are: flunkies-who make someone else
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look or feel important; goons-whose jobs have an aggressive component but exist only because they are hired, i.e. a bill collector is a goon but an armed robber is not; duct tapers-who fix problems that ought not to exist, such as incompatibility between the two expensive custom software packages the company invested in; box tickers--exist to let organizations claim to do things they are not actually doing, for example taking surveys that are dutifully recorded but never acted upon; taskmasters who either assign and supervise work that would be done without them, or assign and supervise the other bullshit jobs.
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LibraryThing member ASKelmore
Best for:
People interested in labor issues and economic theory.

In a nutshell:
Some jobs don’t serve a purpose. They’re usually paid fairly well, but they don’t need to exist. Why do we as a society allow these jobs to exist, and what are they doing to the people who hold them?

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“We can probably conclude that at least half of all work being done in our society could be eliminated without making any real difference at all.”
“The underlying assumption is that if humans are offered the option to be parasites, of course they’ll take it. In face, almost every bit of available evidence indicates that this is not the case.”
“How does it come to seem morally wrong to the employer that workers are not working, even if there is nothing obvious for them to do?”

Why I chose it:
It looked kind of interesting. And it was! Kind of.

There is a lot going on in this book, and while the author tries to make it accessible and interesting, it sometimes falls a bit more into the academic text realm than I’d prefer. Additionally, despite the academic appearance, so much of the data supporting the theory is qualitative, which isn’t bad per se, but there isn’t enough quantitative support for the broad statements Graeber offers.

The book grows from an essay on the topic Graeber wrote a few years back for a labor magazine. The premise is that there are many jobs out there that don’t actually need to exist, but do, and at times even pay quite well. He’s interested in exploring not only what this does to the workers who hold these positions, but what it means for society that we all just allow these jobs to exist. Capitalism suggests that such positions will be eliminated as inefficient, but still they persist. Why is that?

Graeber takes us through a quick history of labor in exchange for money, spending a fair bit of time on the concept (relatively new, apparently) that our bosses / companies are paying us for our time as opposed to our work. The idea of not being able to do something personal when you finish your work but are still ‘on the clock’ would have been odd until fairly recently, according to the author. But now we see people having to create work that doesn’t exist to fill their time.

The author spends the first chapters of the book developing a definition of bullshit jobs, which I appreciate. These aren’t shitty jobs, as those ones so ofter serve a purpose. No, these are the jobs that perhaps are middle management, or ‘box tickers.’ He ultimately offers five different categories, and support for them using anecdotes from people who contacted him after his original essay was published.

I want to have gotten more out of this book. I definitely appreciated his argument, especially as it relates to the idea that we all could be working less but our values won’t allow it. But I didn’t finish it feeling as though I had much that I could do. I have to admit to skimming the last chapter where that information would be; at that point my eyes had started to glaze over. I don’t think the book is bad, but maybe it’d be better placed in a serious book club or a course on labor studies.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it
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LibraryThing member haraldgroven
Interesting, sometimes sad, sometimes even hilarious diagnosis of silliness of the labour market!
David Graeber classifies different reasons why maybe as much as 1/4 of all jobs in developed economies are actually not contributing to well being and welfare. Economists mostly evade any questions of
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the degree of usefulness of different occupations, because of the inherent subjectivity. As a social anthropologist, Graeber is not afraid of such a plain commonsensical question.

— "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."

The book's main strength is the collection of stories mailed to Greaber by people stuck in "bullshit jobs" after publishing an essay on this topic in 2013.

The author tries to explain the apparent paradox that as the economy as a whole become more efficient, more and more human labour is wasted on tasks that don't contribute to anything useful.
— "The results were not just some sort of recalibration or readjustment of existing forms of capitalism. In many ways, it marked a profound break with what had come before. If the existence of bullshit jobs seems to defy the logic of capitalism, one possible reason for their proliferation might be that the existing system isn’t capitalism— or at least, isn’t any sort of capitalism that would be recognizable from the works of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or, for that matter, Ludwig von Mises or Milton Friedman. It is increasingly a system of rent extraction where the internal logic— the system’s “laws of motion,” as the Marxists like to say— are profoundly different from capitalism, since economic and political imperatives have come to largely merge. In many ways, it resembles classic medieval feudalism, displaying the same tendency to create endless hierarchies of lords, vassals, and retainers. In other ways— notably in its managerialist ethos— it is profoundly different."

The diagnosis is funny, but the authors solutions are actually ..... bullshit!!!
Instead of proposing how to tax and regulate away pointless jobs (e.g. ban telemarketing, limit need for administration, remove unnecessary regulations) he propose a "Universal bullshit income". He is also suspicious of the kind of "protestant work ethic" which made societies affluent.
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LibraryThing member magonistarevolt
I finished this book in the context of a pandemic that bears out the theses of this book. Most people who have bullshit jobs have been sent to work from home (this does not mean everyone who is currently working from home has a bullshit job, to be clear). There is a wider conversation about
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essential industries and who is an essential worker and how we should compensate with hazard pay those whose work is considered essential. The government is planning to send out a universal stimulus check for lost wages due to pandemic conditions. There may never be a normal again to which we might return.

The first half of the book is very repetitive, the central argument having been laid out and then explained and re-explained and then given specific examples, interviews, etc. etc. etc. I dropped the book for over a year because the repetition left me feeling like I didn't need further explanation.

However, if you were going to do that, DON'T! You'd miss out on an amazing chapter, Chapter 8, on the origins of wage labor, the anthropology of work as a mixture between Northern European guild-era feudalism and the arrested development of the toiling class after the corporation became a fixture of the economy. If the book had lead with that chapter, it would have felt a little less folksy but would have given a frame to understand the changing course of labor, how much things have changed, and how we got to where we are. It's really brilliant and enlightening, it's a shame to have it tucked in towards the end.

There is also a compelling case for universal basic income in the final chapter, which is actually just a compelling case for universal benefits more than UBI.
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LibraryThing member dmturner
“Provisional Definition: a bullshit job is a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee can not justify its existence.”

There are five basic types: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickets, and taskmasters.

A funny, scathing,
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knowledgeable ramble about the proliferation of unnecessary jobs and the effect of working in such jobs on their holders.
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LibraryThing member TheCrow2
A thought-provoking book about the `bullshit` jobs, about their origin, why they`re around and proliferating and what we should do against them.
LibraryThing member KimMeyer
David Graeber is very smart, he knows it, and he wants you to know it too, but I'm totally okay with that because I am very persuaded by his arguments.
LibraryThing member antao
Another stupid book that does not say anything new…

Bullshit jobs? How about stupid people doing stupid things?

Is a window cleaner a bullshit job?? Graeber things it is. If a windows cleaner doesn’t do it we would really be up shit creek - I imagine there are millions in the same boat. Firstly,
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clean windows are always uplifting - letting light into the room and it's nice when your eyes don't have to rest on dirt. And you can see out into the world, the blue skies etc. And secondly, for some people, you will be a welcome point in their day - especially those who can't get out much anymore.

So I once dreamed of a society (that could be, if not close to perfect, at least better) where people who receive higher salaries are the ones who perform jobs nobody wants: cleaning latrines, harvesting vegetables from the fields, and so on. But then I discovered that somebody had had the same dream and wrote about it. The title of the book was Utopia, and the author Thomas More. But we live in a different world, where those who have a managing position do not earn less than the rest but more (the opposite would be a great idea, since it would weed out those who won't or can't do other type of job, and that would attract people who are really interested in and good at managing for managerial jobs). But we don't have that, and that is capitalism for you. The whole basic income/leisure society idea is pie in the sky, because humans are social hierarchical beings. We create power and wealth hierarchies even where they are totally unnecessary. We want to create distinctions between "them" and "us". If we were a rational and fair-minded species, nobody in the world would be starving today; we have all the necessary resources, but we don't have the will. If you give everyone their fundamental needs - and allow them to feel that this is sufficient - the entire system of late capitalism falls apart. Given the choice between doing what interests you, or doing a job that someone will pay you for, you will always opt for the former, so long as your basic needs are being met. This not being the case is the engine that makes capitalism tick. Well, that and the artificial sense of need created by advertising.

So many people are obsessed with proving that they are more intelligent than their boss/colleague/staff member. It wastes so much time when people can’t communicate as they’re only trying to say things that make them look powerful, big or clever. No one listens to anyone else. Just stop worrying about whether you look clever, what everyone thinks of you and - metaphorically - how big your dick is. Just work together to get the job done.

Senior Management dream up stupid projects to raise their profile, start dragging everyone else into their gravity shit field. Then when you contact them to say you've cracked it they've fucked off to some other department and their replacement couldn't give a shit because it never really needed doing in the first place.

Functional stupidity is rife in many organisations.

The problem is not bullshit jobs; the problem is bullshit people.
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LibraryThing member Paul_S
It's an easy concept to sell because it's so instinctively correct - everyone hates marketers. Backed by vague handwavy data and a bunch of anecdotes and letters. Those don't make any of this true. The letters seem to all come from people who had unrewarding jobs and then found Jesus and became
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hippies. Maybe there's some self-selection going on, don't you think?

There are inefficiencies in big companies (I experience it first hand) but the author's claims go too far and I'm surprised that labour theory of value is still alive and well in the 21st century. I'm also amused by the author's repeated claims that he is not a socialist but an anarchist. I think the lady does protest too much.
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LibraryThing member the.ken.petersen
This is a fascinating look at the world of work. I am old enough to remember back to the 1970's when we were seriously told that, by the millennium, we would be working 10 to 15 hours per week. This book puts a strong case that this could have been accomplished but, that other views prevailed and
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many of us now do jobs that, at least in part, are unnecessary.

The other interesting idea that the author puts into the book is that we are not living by true capitalism, but by a reformed version of feudalism. It is hard to argue the truth of this assertion.
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LibraryThing member jcvogan1
The analysis of different kinds of bullshit jobs should be required reading for everyone in a corporation.
LibraryThing member Gwendydd
This is a fascinating examination of jobs under our current capitalist system. Graeber argues that a very large percentage of jobs are essentially useless busywork, and he examines the system that makes this possible.

Graeber defines bullshit jobs as "a form of paid employment that is so completely
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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." These jobs are often well-paid, highly-respected jobs, yet the people who work these jobs are utterly miserable. Working a bullshit job essentially robs a person of their sense of agency: their work has no impact on the world, which makes them feel like they might as well not exist. To add insult to injury, they must pretend to be busy or else be berated by their bosses for robbing them of their time. However, our society perceives a useless job as better than no job at all: the Protestant work ethic teaches us that anyone who doesn't work is a parasite, and that one must work to be considered a decent person.

We are led to believe that free-market capitalism would not allow something like this to happen: that the free market values efficiency above all else, and therefore all work is useful. Graeber argues that we now have a form of feudalism, where jobs are more about social stature and political alliances than any actual work, and where people higher up the ladder have the power to allocate status to those below them.

Graeber examines the religious and cultural ideas (Protestant work ethic, the apprenticeship system) that ultimately led to the idea that the more social value your work has, the less you should be paid for it. For instance, teachers do some of the most valuable wok in our entire society, yet are notoriously underpaid for their work. Any work that adds value to society is seen as inherently rewarding, and therefore there is no need for it to also have large financial compensation.

Graeber argues very convincingly that automation has, in fact, caused the mass unemployment that early Twentieth-century thinkers feared. The only jobs that can't be automated are those that involve caring for other people, such as teaching and health care. But because our society thinks that work is a virtue and that caring for other people doesn't actually qualify as work, we have created an entire economy of bullshit jobs to keep people employed.

Graeber has a remarkable ability to view his own society with fresh eyes, and to examine it as if he were an outsider. This lets him see the sheer absurdity of our reality. This book is very well-argued and clearly makes the case that most jobs are bullshit, and that the ideas most of us just accept without examining are very counterintuitive.
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LibraryThing member RajivC
"Bullshit Jobs" is a brilliant, thought-provoking book. David Graeber spent the first few chapters giving us examples of bullshit jobs and bullshit activities before moving on to a plausible definition of this kind of work.

At one point, I was worried that he would fill the book with such
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definitions and examples. If so, the book would have been fluffy and superficial.

In chapter three, he shifted gears, went into the theories of labor, and associated them with theology and the emerging field of economics. At this point, the book became deep and thought-provoking.

We seem to be in a rut and a world where we cannot escape the vicious pull of bullshit jobs. We frown on leisure, as I experience.

The world's population is increasing, and people must be employed. Could this be an additional reason for the proliferation of bullshit jobs?

Whichever way you look at it, we have a world populated by unhappy people.
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LibraryThing member BrentN
Political and economic philosophy is a dangerous subject to write. Your words will have a natural target audience. Fail to properly shade your text to your audience and your book will end up in (large) piles in a discount book warehouse. Or, in the age of digital books, with a 7-digit rank in the
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overall store...

Fortunately for the readers of this book, Graeber's commentary is equally caustic towards the movement conservative, the country club liberal, and even the well-meaning but slightly sanctimonious social democrat. The central thread of this work, which builds on an earlier essay that he published, is that regardless of whether you speak of the public sector, the academy, or private industry, the desire to build fiefdoms and heirarchies in the workplace give rise to the proliferation of meaningless jobs that are as damaging to the mental health of their incumbents as they are wasteful.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a large portion of one chapter dealing with the phenomenon of people working in BS jobs in order to fund their passion. Graeber accurately, and with recourse to excerpts from several interviews, documents the difficulties with this lifestyle and the drain on creative energy it can cause.
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LibraryThing member icallithunger
Really interesting book and an easy read, specially taking into account the topic. Graeber starts the book by mentioning all the points its going to touch and delivers just that, there's no point underdeveloped or any that seems to be more important than the rest. Finally, I really liked how
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Graeber doesn't write a book about a problem and tries to sell his own solution, he does mention some ideas but breaks them down in such a way that's clear you're free to either agree or disagree with him.
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LibraryThing member ericlee
Five years after buying this book, I finally sat down to read it. It is very good. Unfortunately, the author passed away in the meanwhile and we will hear no more of his incisive — and often very funny — observations. Graeber was one of the key figures in the Occupy movement, worked as an
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anthropologist and was a self-described “anarchist”. In his view, capitalist society can function perfectly well if everyone worked just a fraction of the time they now work. To keep everyone employed all the time, however, required the creation of “bullshit jobs” — jobs that contribute nothing to society and that are usually hated by those who do them. The jobs are just as likely to be found in the private sector as the public one. The book is an extended version of an essay Graeber wrote and the many responses he received from people who do bullshit jobs and hate them, mainly in the USA and UK. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member sashame
its fun and has some decent insights, but is too long, too fluffy, and poorly argued
LibraryThing member Kavinay
Don't mistake Graeber as attacking people with bad jobs or complaining about vacuous work. Rather, he articulates a much more disturbing scenario that neoliberal and religious approaches to work as a defining characteristic of modern life have us stuck: modern work is an end to itself even when the
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value it provides is non-existent. Considering how people might work less rather than toil for no reason is so outside scope for modern institutions that we adopt neofeudal management practices to justify the status quo.
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LibraryThing member A.Godhelm
A proto-Battle Royale, except with no fighting, just walking. Yes, in the future people will be enraptured with marathon walking. Why would you risk your life walking? Well, half the people in the story have no real idea. The prize is whatever you want and a bundle of cash, but nobody has ever
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actually seen a winner.
It's a slow motion car chase with a bizarre dearth of motivation for anyone to get involved or watch it. This is the same guy who later writes The Running Man which clocks in at half the length of this bloated mess and works the premise far better. I have no idea what people see in this novel, which ends with the cherry on the shit sundae of having an ambiguous conclusion. You see if you leave it all up to the reader, they get to write their own ending, which is so much better.
He should have left writing the entire book up to the reader.
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LibraryThing member BibliophageOnCoffee
I've been meaning to read this since it came out in 2018, and oddly enough I started reading it a couple days before David Graeber passed away. We definitely lost a great thinker. This book is just so spot on about the modern workforce. It's such a shame that Graeber's life ended way too soon.


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