Only 4.8% of workers felt they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do useful workMarten Bjork/Unsplash

A study by sociologists from the University of Cambridge and the University of Birmingham has questioned the so-called ‘bullshit jobs theory’ — the idea that many people work in jobs that they themselves think should not exist.

The concept of bullshit jobs was first proposed by noted anthropologist David Graeber in an article, On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs. Graeber then went on to elaborate the theory in a book, titled simply Bullshit Jobs. In addition to being a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), Graeber was an anarchist and a campaigner who played a leading role in the Occupy movement. He died in September 2020.

“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger.”

Graeber argued in his article that the jobs which used to dominate the economy of Western nations, such as industry, domestic service, and agriculture, are being “automated away”. This leaves a large part of the workforce unoccupied. But rather than mandating a decrease in working hours, Graeber wrote, “the ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger”.

As a result, much of the workforce finds itself working in jobs that are useless: “productive jobs” have been replaced by “bullshit jobs”. Graeber’s definition of uselessness was based on the perception of a job by the person who performed it. If the worker thought it did not make a meaningful contribution to the world, it was a ‘bullshit job’.

Jobs from across the economy qualified for Graeber’s definition. Graeber cited fields including“financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations” as evidence of a ballooning bureaucracy. Graeber’s argument was not only economic, but political, pointing to failures in the market economy to generate meaningful work.

Bullshit jobs theory has received widespread attention in the press, and Magdalena Soffia, a Cambridge researcher and one of the authors of the new study, admits “there’s something appealing” about the theory.

She said: “The fact that many people have worked in such jobs at some point may explain why Graeber’s work resonates with so many people who can relate to the accounts he gives. But his theory is not based on any reliable empirical data, even though he puts forward several propositions, all of which are testable.”

Soffia and two colleagues, including Professor Brendan Burchell from Cambridge’s Department of Sociology, have challenged Graeber’s hypothesis in a paper. The paper, published in the journal Work, Employment and Society, analysed responses from the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), which asks people in countries across Europe about their work.

The main conclusion of the research was that only 4.8% of workers felt they ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ do useful work. Graeber, on the other hand,suggested the proportion of useless jobs was between 20% and 50%. The study also found that the number of bullshit jobs is falling, not rising, decreasing from 7.8% in 2005 to 4.8% in 2015.

The analysis did not find any field in which most workers feel their job is useless.

The analysis did not find any field in which most workers feel their job is useless. Several jobs in Graeber’s list, including legal and administrative occupations, also ranked below average by the percentage of employees who rated their job as lacking meaning. Student debt, which Graeber suggested was a factor in generating bullshit jobs, also seemed to have no effect on perceptions of uselessness.

Graeber’s research and the new study differ in the level of uselessness they looked for. While in the EWCS workers reply to the statement ‘I have the feeling of doing useful work’, Graeber asked respondents whether their job makes a meaningful contribution to the world.

But bullshit jobs are not completely out. The new study found a correlation between perceptions of uselessness and a poor score on the World Health Organisation Well-Being Index, lending support to Graeber’s idea that bullshit jobs are harmful. Professor Burchell, one of the authors, praised Graeber for his “insightful and imaginative work”.

Burchell added: “[Graeber] may have been way off the mark with regards how common BS jobs are, but he was right to link people’s attitudes towards their jobs to their psychological wellbeing, and this is something that employers — and society as a whole — should take seriously.”