📆 May 27, 2023 | ⏱️ 4 minute read

Nobody Knows How Many Bullshit Jobs Exist

Before I get into this, I need to define what bullshit jobs are exactly. To do that, I’ll quote the person who popularized the idea, deceased American anthropologist David Graeber:

“Bullshit jobs are jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist. That’s the bullshit element. A lot of people confuse bullshit jobs and shit jobs, but they’re not the same thing.

Bad jobs are bad because they’re hard or they have terrible conditions or the pay sucks, but often these jobs are very useful. In fact, in our society, often the more useful the work is, the less they pay you. Whereas bullshit jobs are often highly respected and pay well but are completely pointless, and the people doing them know this.”

Here are a few examples: movie executives, sign spinners, academic administrative staff, telemarketers, middle management, gas pumpers, door assistants, etc.

So my claim in this entry is that nobody knows how many bullshit jobs exist. I’m not claiming that the number of bullshit jobs is unknowable, just that the methodologies that have been used to determine the number of bullshit jobs (polling) don’t produce accurate results.

For instance, someone may respond to a poll saying their job is pointless just because it’s a shit job. This may just be a problem with how the question is posed, but there are several other reasons that mere self-reporting might be unreliable in this particular case. Even if people do understand the question, it may be detrimental to their sense of meaning in life to admit to themselves that their job is pointless, so they lie on the poll. That seems likely to me.

But even if people understand the question and are honest in their answer, it also seems likely to me that many people who have bullshit jobs just don’t realize their jobs are bullshit and thus answer the poll incorrectly. Anyone working in health insurance or in billing departments of hospitals who doesn’t know about socialized medicine would probably mark their job as useful in a poll even though it wouldn’t exist in a sane healthcare system.

Everyone who participates in the war on drugs who doesn’t realize their labor would be obsoleted with a policy change would probably also consider their bullshit job useful. This includes the DEA, drug criminals, some law enforcement agents, some prison staff, some psychiatrists, and some healthcare workers.

As Graeber suggested in his book, bullshit jobs have the tendency to multiply. Imagine a security guard guarding a branch office that the business doesn’t need. The security guard may have no way of knowing that that branch office is pointless. In that case, they wouldn’t have a way to know their job was useless either. There may be many workers like this who aren’t even in a position to know if their job is bullshit.

In conclusion, I think that polling as a methodology for determining the number of bullshit jobs is deeply flawed. There are too many people who either won’t be honest or just aren’t aware that their job is bullshit. I think that a better methodology would be to come up with categories of bullshit jobs, then count how many people work in them rather than relying on self-reporting. Alternatively, since many jobs are only partially bullshit, maybe it would be better to estimate how many hours of pointless labor people are doing.

I want to finish this entry by pointing out that eliminating bullshit jobs won’t reduce the total number of jobs by that same amount. Getting rid of bullshit jobs can actually create jobs that are more useful. For example, in countries/states that end their war on drugs, many jobs disappear and a lesser but still significant number of new jobs are created such as working in drug dispensaries, trip guides, etc.

These new jobs may still be shit jobs, but at least they actually accomplish something.