Increasing numbers of workers in rich countries — as many as 35 or 40 percent in some surveys — are secretly convinced their jobs are pointless. Either they are covertly watching YouTube videos all day or they see their work as having no social value: That is, if their job were to disappear tomorrow, it would make no real difference. As a result, most are deeply miserable. I call these “bulls–t jobs.” Over the last year or so, I’ve been asking people to send me accounts of their most useless occupations. Here are some of the jobs that came up most frequently:
1. Compliance workers.
Banking is riddled with bulls–t top to bottom. One banking efficiency expert told me he estimated about 80 percent of banking jobs could easily be eliminated, but everyone agreed the most idiotic sector was definitely “compliance.” (No. 2 was HR, and No. 3 middle management.) The banking sector keeps thousands of employees whose only job is to pretend each transaction is in accord with government regulations that the banks, in fact, systematically ignore. There is level after level here. Complains one: “It was not enough for the compliance office to submit bulls–t work, attested to by bulls–t third parties, to bulls–t quality-control people. We had to develop ways to measure this maelstrom of bulls–t. First, we had to pretend we did find a few bad transactions and tabulate them. Then they’d pass that to the ‘data scientists,’ whose job was to make pretty pictures out of the data. The bosses would then take these pretty pictures to their bosses, the top executives, which helped ease the awkwardness inherent in the fact that the executives had no idea what their subordinates were talking about or what their teams did.”
2. Student-paper writers.
Writing essays and term papers for college students is now a huge industry in the United States, with agencies employing thousands of paper writers. “While I have had the opportunity to write the rare, interesting essay, I’ve found that I’m largely writing countless papers about business and marketing,” wrote one. “After some consideration, this makes a lot of sense to me. It’s hard for me to imagine many folks are studying to get a BA in business administration because it’s their passion. So why not hire someone else to do the work? After all, isn’t that exactly what a business major is supposed to be learning how to do?” Still, “I can’t help but think it’s all an enormous waste of time that largely functions as a stepping stone to getting my clients bulls–t jobs of their own as administrative coordinators, strategic-marketing consultants and financial-services specialists.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever met a single call-center worker who didn’t both hate their job and felt everyone would be better off if no one had to do it. According to one typical account: “It was a job with no social value whatsoever. At least if you stack shelves at a supermarket, you’re doing something that benefits people. In call-center work, you’re making an active negative contribution to people’s day. I called people up to hock them useless s–t they didn’t need and if they asked, ‘Is this a sales call?’ I wasn’t allowed to tell them.” And ever wonder how those people in India feel, fobbing off innocent customers for some bank or utility? Here’s one: “I hated this sector so much and my life is entirely meaningless.”
4. Middle management.
Most middle managers feel they spend almost all their time on useless box-ticking rituals or pretending to supervise people who need no supervision. “I have a bulls–t job, and it happens to be in middle management,” wrote one. “Ten people work for me, but from what I can tell, they can all do the work without my oversight. My only function is to hand them work. (I will say that in a lot of cases the work that is assigned is a product of other managers with bulls–t jobs, which makes my job two levels of bulls–t).” No doubt some are doing useful work, but most middle managers secretly feel they might as well be digging holes and then filling them in again all day.
5. Corporate lawyers.
The most prestigious, high-paying corporate lawyers usually won’t admit it, but anyone else employed in the industry thinks all corporate-law offices could be sucked into a vortex with no ill effects. Many secretly wished this would happen. “I am a corporate lawyer (tax litigator to be specific),” wrote one. “I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all of the time.” Particularly indignant are the lower-ranking minions in large law firms or paralegals whose entire job is to adjust commas and do endless detailed grammatical reviews of documents no one will read or, alternately, know that their firm is being paid by the minute and are therefore encouraged by their superiors to be as inefficient as possible.
6. Movie executives.
Ever wonder why Hollywood movies are so bad? One reason is where once there were just writers, directors and producers; now there’s a dozen or more useless executives in between. None of them really have anything to do, but all of them feel they have to interfere with the script — and everything else — just to make some excuse for their existence.
7. Academic administrative staff.
Over the last several decades, university administration has ballooned insanely — even while the number of teachers and students remain pretty much the same. There are hosts of new provosts, vice chancellors, deans and deanlets and even more, who all now have to be provided with tiny armies of assistants to make them feel important. First they hire them, then they decide what they’re going to do — which is mostly, make up new paperwork to give to teachers and students. As one complained: “Every dean needs his vice dean and sub-dean, and each of them needs a management team, secretaries, admin staff; all of them only there to make it harder for us to teach, to research, to carry out the most basic functions of our jobs.”
One could go on: Almost every large corporation seems to be full of managers managing managers, flunkies, box tickers, data analysts, strategic-vision coordinators or people who are paid to answer the phone once or twice a day but spend the rest of the time playing fruit mahjong or updating their Facebook profiles. Government is hardly better. But trying to make government more like the private sector actually seems to make this worse. Yet no one wants to talk about it. If all these people were just allowed to go home and learn knitting, or how to play the mandolin, the world would be a far happier place.
David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He is the bestselling author of “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” and “Bulls–t Jobs: A Theory,” available now from Simon & Schuster.