Bullshit Jobs | Hidden Brain Have you ever had a job where you had to stop and ask yourself: what am I doing here? If I quit tomorrow, would anyone even notice? This week on Hidden Brain, we talk with anthropologist David Graeber about the rise of what he calls "bullshit jobs," and how these positions affect the people who hold them.
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BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down

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BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down

BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down

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  • Transcript

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

Heads up, parents. If you didn't notice it in the title, our topic today is bull [expletive] jobs. That bleep you just heard - it won't be in the rest of the episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

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VEDANTAM: Many of us, at some point in our careers, have had jobs that seem pointless...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I once had a bullshit job working as a work-study student when I was in college.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I passed out flyers for the street car during one summer, and I could not figure out why I was doing that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I've had some temp jobs where I've literally sat in the closet.

VEDANTAM: ...Jobs where you ask yourself, what am I even doing here? Like, really, what is my actual role at this company? If I disappear tomorrow, would anyone notice?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I was doing some paper filing, but they didn't have that much paper filing, and for a week, I sat in a supply closet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Doing expense reports and creating, like, a new piece of paper for every single transaction item on every receipt for every single thing that expensed, like, down to, like, the most minimal thing.

VEDANTAM: This week, we're looking at jobs that feel so pointless, so gut-wrenchingly boring, that they are, in the words of one expert, bullshit.

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VEDANTAM: If you don't have one of these jobs yourself, you probably know someone who does, like the guy bingeing YouTube videos on his computer at work or the woman who always seems to be playing solitaire.

DAVID GRAEBER: So it was almost all office workers, almost all people who had jobs where, you know, you kind of see them there and you kind of wonder, is that guy really doing anything? Well, it turns out, you know, they're not.

VEDANTAM: Why do these jobs exist? Why do they seem to be proliferating? And what effects do these jobs have on us?

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VEDANTAM: The American TV show "The Office" tells a story of a paper supply company in Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE OFFICE THEME")

VEDANTAM: People show up at work, but it's not always clear what they're doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

RAINN WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) Damnit. Jim.

VEDANTAM: A lot of the time, people invent pranks or distractions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

WILSON: (As Dwight Schrute) You put my stuff in Jell-O again.

JENNA FISCHER: (As Pam Beesley, laughter)

VEDANTAM: They're bored. Many of them want to find meaning in their work, but what they are doing is pointless.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

FISCHER: (As Pam Beesly) You want me to write down people's indefinable qualities?

STEVE CARELL: (As Michael Scott) I want you to write down everything that people are doing all day, and then type it up in a way that is helpful.

VEDANTAM: Michael Scott, the boss played by Steve Carell, leads the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

CARELL: (As Michael Scott, singing) I don't want to work. I just want to bang on this mug all day.

B J NOVAK: (As Ryan Howard) Did you ask me here for any specific reason?

VEDANTAM: David Graeber has spent quite a bit of time thinking about the many, many real-life versions of Michael Scott. He's a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, and he's the author of the book "Bullshit Jobs: A Theory." David, welcome to HIDDEN BRAIN.

GRAEBER: Oh, thank you.

VEDANTAM: So you wrote this essay a couple of years ago that has now turned into a book, and you described an entire category of jobs. You call these bullshit jobs. And they're not necessarily menial jobs or boring jobs, but they are almost always pointless jobs.

GRAEBER: Yes, they are actually quite rarely menial. I mean, there are some cases where people were, say, hired as a museum guard and told to guard a room with nothing in it. That would be both menial and boring. But most often, these jobs are, if nothing else, prestigious and well-paid. A lot of jobs like this are in middle management - they're clerical, managerial, administrative sort of positions. Or they're positions in PR, marketing, human resources. Almost invariably, they are well-paid with good benefits, and you get a lot of prestige, you know. Yet, at the same time, the people who do them often report themselves genuinely miserable. You know, they feel they are living a lie and, not only that, they're living a lie against their will. They'd really rather be doing something useful with their lives.

VEDANTAM: So when you wrote this essay a couple years ago, I'm not quite sure you anticipated this, but the response to the essay was extraordinary. People wrote in from all over the world saying help, I'm stuck in a b.s. job.

GRAEBER: Yeah. I mean, all over the world people seemed to recognize themselves in the story I told, and the story I told was almost a joke. You go to these parties, and you talk to people who are married to academics or, you know, are in the business world. I'd say, oh, what do you do? They'd often say, oh, nothing really. And, you know, at first, I thought they're just being modest or don't think their job is very interesting, but, you know, ply them with a few drinks, and eventually they will often admit that they meant it literally. They literally do nothing.

So I wrote this little piece where I basically said, well, you know, back in the '30s, they thought we'd be working the 15-hour week by now. They thought that, you know, mechanization would mean we'd be living lives of leisure, but instead of just, you know, decreasing the working week, what they seem to have done is just made up these imaginary jobs just to keep us all busy. It's almost as if there's like some fiendish intelligence making up pointless positions for us to do. How did this happen?

And I wrote this piece, and it just went crazy. I really didn't anticipate anything like it. I mean, all over the world, people were translating it and distributing it. The server kept crashing. Then they put it in - newspapers would run it as a column, and you'd get these comments sections which are just amazing. People would say things like oh, my God. It's true. I am a corporate lawyer. I contribute nothing to humanity. I'm just miserable all the time. These confessions started pouring out, so I realized this was a much larger phenomenon than I had even imagined.

VEDANTAM: I understand that polls have been conducted asking people, do you think your job is meaningless? Do you think your job is pointless? What do they tell us?

GRAEBER: Well, yeah, that actually surprised me because even after the outpouring on the Internet, I thought OK, you know, maybe 15, 20 percent of jobs are like this. And remember; these are people who think their own jobs are pointless. I mean, I'm not going to go and tell somebody who feels his job is meaningful that they're wrong, but, you know, if you feel you're not doing anything all day, who would know better than you? All right. So after a while, they conducted some surveys. And one of them was YouGov, and then later they did another one in Holland, and they both came up with pretty much exactly the same results. Between 37 to 40 percent of all people who had jobs were convinced that if their job didn't exist, it would make no difference at all.

VEDANTAM: That is a huge number, David.

GRAEBER: It's insane. I had no idea. And that's the people who are sure of it. You know, only 50 percent of people were sure their jobs made a difference absolutely. And if you think about all the types of jobs where no one would possibly doubt that they're fulfilling a useful social function, I mean - you know, I'm sure the number of bus drivers, the number of nurses, the number of mechanics and repairmen, also service workers, actually. You know, I eventually asked people to send in testimonies and stories about their most pointless jobs, and almost none of them were in service or retail. Most people feel, you know, if people want this product, who am I to judge? It was almost all office workers, almost all people who had jobs where, you know, you kind of see them there, and you kind of wonder, is that guy really doing anything? Well, it turns out, you know, they're not.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) You know, David, in your book, you describe the story of Kurt, who was a German military subcontractor, and he feels his job is utterly pointless. Why does he feel this way?

GRAEBER: Yes. This is one of the first really elaborate examples I got of the kind of job I was talking about, given to me spontaneously by someone on the web. He said, you know, I'm a subcontractor to a subcontractor to a subcontractor, all private firms, who work for the German military. And he said, you know, because of outsourcing, if a German soldier wants to move his desktop computer from one office to another, he actually has to fill out a bunch of forms, call Human Resources, they call logistics, they call me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking German).

GRAEBER: And I have to drive 500 kilometers sometimes. I have to rent a car, drive to wherever this military base is, fill out a rack of forms, put the thing in a box, it goes down the hall, somebody else takes it out of the box, gives me another form to sign, and then I drive home. And that's his entire job.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAEBER: And one of the interesting things about these jobs is that people were often very confused about how much people knew and how much they could admit. You know, does my supervisor know that I spend most of the day actually making cat memes? Do they know I'm playing computer games? Am I allowed to say? You know, to what degree do my co-workers know? Can I tell them? You know, there's all these questions that people have. How much do I have to pretend to work? And how much am I just allowed to be seen to be just kicking back? And people are very nervous about this. There are all these gray zones. They'll hire someone, an engineer, in case the air conditioners break. For some reason, they find it impossible to just say, well, you're just here in case the air conditioners break. Otherwise, try to keep out of people's way, and let them, you know, play cards or, you know, surf the Internet or do whatever they like all day. Somehow that's not allowed, so they have to make up these rituals, or at the very least, you have to pretend to be working because it's considered somehow insulting not to. And often people really suffered from that, the fact that, A, they had to pretend to some degree, they couldn't just pursue their own projects, and, B, they're never quite sure how much they were allowed to pretend.

VEDANTAM: This actually leads us to a story that you describe about your own life. You and some friends signed up to be dishwashers...

GRAEBER: (Laughter) My very first job.

VEDANTAM: ...And something happened on the job - right. Something happened on the job that made you think about the role of time in how work is constructed. Tell me that story.

GRAEBER: OK, this is the very first job I had. I think I was 14 years old, maybe 15, and it was at a beach resort, and I got a job working as a dishwasher in the kitchen. And there was a whole bunch of us. We were hired at the same time. We're all about 15 years old, and being 15-year-old boys, you know, when the big rush came, we took it on as a challenge. We were like, OK, we are going to be the very best dishwashers of all time. You know, we're going to be so fast, we're going to be so efficient, the boss is going to be really impressed. You know, we went at it, and we, like, finished it in record time and had this huge sparkling pile of dishes and kind of kicked back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAEBER: The boss came in, we were showing off our handiwork, and he was like, what the hell are you guys just sitting around for? Said well, we just finished all the dishes. And he said, yeah, well, keep working. You're on my time. You're not - you know, you can lounge around on your own time. We were like what do you mean? I mean, you know, there's nothing to do. And he said, well, clean the baseboards. And we said, we already cleaned the baseboards. Well, clean them again. So we realized that there's this kind of weird idea that there is, like, my time and your time. If I have paid you money, I own your time, and you're not allowed to just kick back. You're not allowed to - you know, there's no point in working fast. That's what we basically learned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAEBER: Don't be too efficient because then they'll just make up work. And that experience of doing work that you know isn't necessary just because the boss doesn't want to see you being idle is really degrading. And it got me to thinking - this concept of my time - how can your time belong to someone else? How can you rent time? And I started doing a little research, and I realized - not at the time but since - that this is a really weird concept that just never would have occurred to most people who've ever lived. You know, in the ancient world, if you see a potter - if you're an ancient Roman or an ancient Greek - you know, you could see a potter, and you could imagine buying the pots. That's easy, right? You can imagine buying the potter - they had slavery. But the idea that you could rent this potter's time was just bizarre. You know, it just never would have occurred to anybody. It takes a whole series of very complicated philosophical and also technological changes that make it possible to take time, make it into uniform units that can then therefore be bought and sold.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: You teach at the London School of Economics, but before that, you worked at Yale University. In your book, David, you point out that the cost of education has skyrocketed in many parts of the world. The reason isn't that teachers are being paid more than they were before. Instead, you say universities have gone out and hired an army of workers who are doing b.s. jobs.

GRAEBER: Yeah. This is actually really marked in America, and in America I have the statistics. The number of administrators has gone up quite sharply, much more so than teachers, but even more important than that, the number of administrative staff has just skyrocketed. It's like 240 percent increase over the last 30 years. So administrative staff basically mean all those guys who work for the deans, for the vice provost - all these endless positions they're constantly making up. And what seems to be going on is that these people are being hired essentially for little reason other than making the people now running the universities - who are no longer the teachers, no longer the professors, but rather top administrators - basically feel good about themselves, feel important. They hire these guys who are basically there almost like feudal retainers. You know, I get hired as a vice provost, so obviously I need four or five assistants. You know, they decide what the assistants will actually do later. Assistant's trying to figure out something to do, so...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter)

GRAEBER: ...So (laughter) the assistant says I know, I'll fill out - you know, I'll do a time allocation study. And then suddenly, people like me have to spend, like, hours every week filling out time allocation studies, breaking down exactly what I do at every hour of the day, so I can't actually do stuff 'cause I'm filling out the forms. And this is how it works. Like, the more of these guys there are in these bullshit jobs, the less time the people with real jobs have to actually do their work. And this isn't just universities. I mean, the same thing is happening in hospitals. More and more hospital administrators means nurses have to spend more and more time doing paperwork and less time nursing. Primary schools - same thing. Teachers just have to spend all their time in meetings and reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: OK. By this point, you might be looking around at fellow commuters, at co-workers, at friends, and asking yourself which people find their work boring and pointless? It turns out there are tells to identify people doing bullshit jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Working a bullshit job might feel like an exercise in futility, a task that seems completely pointless. In truth, there's a perverse logic that shapes how and why these jobs come to be. David Graeber has brought an anthropologist's eye to the life of the bored office worker, and he's come up with a classification system for different kinds of b.s. jobs. The first category is something he calls a duct taper. Rather than fix serious headaches, many organizations take the easy route - they paper over the problem. David has a revealing story from his own life.

GRAEBER: This was quite early on in my time in the U.K. university system. And they had this shelf in my office. I was always a little worried about it. It seemed kind of precarious. And one day, it just completely ripped out of the wall. There was this huge gaping hole in the wall. There was mangled metal, you know, hanging over my desk - so obviously no way I could fix it myself. And so I called buildings and grounds, and, you know, they said, OK, we'll send a carpenter. And it took about a week and a half for the carpenter to show up, and people in the office were calling; I was calling; everybody was calling, and it became this daily ritual. And I gradually realize, there's one guy - we always got the same guy - whose entire job seemed to consist of apologizing for the fact that the carpenter is very busy and couldn't come. And one day, it occurred to me, like, well, why don't they just fire that guy and hire a second carpenter?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRAEBER: ...You know, because then they won't need him, right?

(LAUGHTER)

GRAEBER: And I mentioned this to various people, and they looked at me like, yeah, right; that would ever happen. And I realize that this is a perfect example of a bullshit job. His job is only necessitated because the system is stupidly constructed. So he's there to - it's the equivalent of if you had a leak in the roof, instead of fixing the roof, you hire some guy to empty a bucket every hour. You know, it's a totally pointless position. And gradually, I realized that in the software industry at least, this is called duct taping. It's a fairly common usage.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about a second category of bullshit jobs, David. This one involves managers who come up with meaningless assignments for their subordinates. You call them taskmasters.

GRAEBER: That's right. Now, a taskmaster is a type of bullshit job which involves - there's two different types, actually. One of them is simply a supervisor of people who don't need supervision, and a lot of middle managers wrote to me and said that they had that kind of job. You know, often, they'd done a certain job; they got promoted to management, so they knew what was entailed doing the job, and they knew that, basically, they didn't need supervision at all, but they had to pretend they were supervising them anyway.

But another type is exactly what I was describing in the case of universities - people whose job seems to end up being creating paperwork and unnecessary tasks for other people to do. So again, to go back to the middle management example, say you did have a job, and you got promoted to supervising that job, and you knew that they didn't need supervision. Gradually, you would realize that, rather than just sit here all day, probably the best thing you could do to make - look good to your boss is to create some kind of target system. You know, give them paperwork to do to make sure they're hitting their targets, and then there'll be something to file and process, and you'll have something that you can do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The classic example comes from the story of a woman named Chloe.

GRAEBER: She was one of the few people who was in academic administration - in the higher echelons - who was willing to come forward and admit this to me. She said, well, you know, I took on this job as a nonexecutive dean. So non-executive basically means you have no power; you don't control money; so you're strategic; you're supposed to come up with ideas, but you have no real ability to make anybody do that. So essentially, she had a pointless job. She would come up with a plan, and then nobody would pay any attention. However, she was given three assistants. Again, that's what happens. As soon as you get a prestigious position, they immediately give you assistants, and then you have to figure out something for them to do. In her case, none of them had any obvious function, so she had to spend her time making up things for them to do so they wouldn't get in trouble for just sitting around.

VEDANTAM: So you can have b.s. jobs to help the boss feel like he's actually necessary when he isn't. You can have b.s. jobs that are designed to paper over problems that an organization cannot or does not want to fix. David also describes a third type of b.s. job. On the surface, these jobs are not pointless, but the only reason an organization has them is because other organizations have them. David calls the people who work these jobs goons. I asked him what he meant by the term.

GRAEBER: I had to make that up because so many people wrote to me with jobs that I hadn't really anticipated, jobs which involved a certain element of aggression, which might have seemed necessary or helpful to the corporation - they weren't completely useless - but that the people doing them felt shouldn't exist anyway, largely because they felt the entire industry or profession was unnecessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

GRAEBER: So telemarketers were a great example.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Hi, Mr. Vedantam. I'm calling today with a special offer for...

GRAEBER: Telemarketers felt strongly that - I mean, 95 percent of telemarketers, I'm sure, feel strongly that if all telemarketers were to vanish in a puff of smoke, the world would be a better place. But a lot of corporate lawyers feel that way, too. I mean, you know, sure; there's some higher-ups who would argue, no, corporate law is very important; it holds things together. But you know, most corporate lawyers I've talked to - who are usually the lower-ranking ones - will say, oh, come on; I mean, if this entire industry were to disappear, it would be great; you know, I mean, you only need a corporate lawyer because somebody else has a corporate lawyer. It's a little like a feudal lord. You know, I mean, they always say feudal lords are there to protect the peasants, right? That's their justification for taking feudal rents. But, you know, if you really look into the matter, who are they protecting the peasants from? Other feudal lords. So again, if there were no feudal lords, feudal lords would be unnecessary. So that's why I called them goons. There's an element of aggression there, and - but on the other hand, you know, they're only there because other such aggressive people exist.

VEDANTAM: David says another b.s. job is the flunky. These jobs primarily exist to make someone or something look impressive.

GRAEBER: Classic flunkies of the past have included things like doorman or footmen. You know, I always wondered what a footman actually was. You always read about them in "Alice In Wonderland" and these 19th-century books.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRAEBER: And you know what the footmen were? They were the guys who wore these really, you know, fancy military-looking uniforms, but the thing they actually did was they ran in front of people's carriages looking for bumps in the road. So, you know, the whole idea is, if I have a servant just to do this one basically kind of superfluous, not really totally necessary thing, I'm really rich and important, so you should know that. And that's a classic flunky. Often, flunkies will be assigned one very minor task, sort of like the guy who tweezes the lord's mustache before a joust or something like that.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRAEBER: But really, they're just there so that everybody can know I've got lots of servants. But in the corporate world, it's very much the same because in the corporate world, the actual status of an executive is often measured by how many people work under. So he has no incentive to get rid of unnecessary employees. And, in fact, you often find people saying, yeah, I'm just there to make someone else look important or seem important. Receptionists often say that. You know, obviously, some receptionists are very busy and have a real job, but there are some receptionists who, you know, maybe they get one phone call a day, two. Otherwise, they change the candy bowl or, you know, water the plants or something, but basically, they're just sitting around. So why do they have a receptionist at all? You know, if it's just one call a day, they could just take the call themselves, right? The reason why is because if you don't have a receptionist, you don't look like a real corporation.

VEDANTAM: One reason that companies end up with b.s. jobs is that it's sometimes difficult or impossible or unpleasant to get rid of people who are not functioning well. You mentioned the example of the guy who's apologizing for the carpenter not showing up. Now, it could just be that getting rid of that guy and hiring another carpenter might be administratively onerous. So talk to me about this idea that part of the problem might actually just be, you know, rigidity in how organizations work, and instead of basically, you know, getting rid of the person you don't want and finding the person you do want, you end up sometimes just keeping the person you don't want or now hiring an additional person to come in and do the job that you actually do need to get done.

GRAEBER: That was one of my favorite examples, actually, because I - you know, the taskmasters are obviously the ones that where it's most difficult to get them to fess up and tell - send in testimonies about what's going on, but I got a couple. And one of them said exactly that. You know, one reason that you end up getting so many bullshit jobs in large bureaucracies is if someone has seniority and, you know, good reports, well, it's almost impossible to fire them. So if, suddenly, they become a drunk or just, you know, lose interest in the job, become bad at what they do, the easiest thing to do, instead of getting rid of them, is to hire someone else to do their job. But if you hire someone else to do their job, you can't admit that they're doing their job, right? So you have to make up a different job, and then, often, you have to walk them through, get them - you know, tell them what to put on their CV so they look like they can do this other thing, even though, really, they're going to be doing, you know, what the drunk guy does.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

GRAEBER: And, you know, so you have these elaborate rituals of creating dummy jobs.

(LAUGHTER)

GRAEBER: And then, you know, when that guy goes, you might need to hire someone to actually do the made-up job, and it just becomes endlessly Machiavellian and elaborate.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OFFICE")

JOHN KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) What we're doing here, Michael handles more of the big-picture stuff, and I handle more of the day-to-day stuff, so together...

KATHY BATES: (As Jo Bennett) Yeah, I think I understand.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) All right.

BATES: (As Jo Bennett) Each of you is doing half a job.

KRASINSKI: (As Jim Halpert) No.

CARELL: (As Michael Scott) And sometimes I can hardly handle that (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: When we come back - the psychological consequences of working in a job that you not only find boring, but that you think is meaningless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about the range of psychological effects that you describe that arise from doing these kinds of b.s. jobs. And I want to begin with research that you cite that was done amongst babies...

GRAEBER: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: ...That you say sort of shows the value of meaningful work. What was the research?

GRAEBER: Yeah, that was really interesting. I'd heard this expression, and it always stuck in my head - the pleasure at being a cause. (Unintelligible) made sense to me somehow, you know? A lot of what we do which seems fun doesn't seem to have any point, but it's just, like, knowing that you can do things itself is kind of fun. And, indeed, there was a German psychologist who was trying to come up with a theory of play actually, and he noticed something very interesting. He noticed that infants, when they're first trying to figure out who they are...

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)

GRAEBER: ...Because, you know, at first, infants don't even really understand that they are a discrete entity separate from the world around them, where they stop and the world starts is not clear to them, you know. They're kind of continuous with their mother. They're continuous with their environment. OK. So babies actually figure out that they are a discrete entity at the moment they realize they can have predictable effects on the world. So there's some point where a child - say they're moving their arm around and they move something on the table - move a pencil.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL ROLLING)

GRAEBER: And they realize if they move their arm the same way, the pencil will move in the same way as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF PENCIL ROLLING)

GRAEBER: And the moment where they realize that, there's this sort of feeling of incredible happiness comes over a child. You can see them just - absolute joy and delight. Like...

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY BABBLING)

GRAEBER: ...Wow, I can move a pencil. This is great. It'll happen the same way every time. And that moment they say is the moment you realize that you are something different from the world. You know, you are a thing that can have effects on the world. And what they argue is that sense of self is tied up with that kind of joyous realization that you can have effects on the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: What happens when small children are prevented from influencing their worlds? David says they experience a decline in well-being and efficacy.

GRAEBER: Kids freak out. You know, they go from being incredibly happy to being really confused and upset. You are blocked from having any meaningful effect on the world around you. You kind of collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRAEBER: Now, I really think that's what's happening in the case of bullshit jobs. People suddenly become incredibly depressed. They lose all motivation, and they don't understand why they feel that way. That's - you know, in a way, they think, I should be happy, right? I'm getting paid money to do nothing. Something for nothing - that's a great deal, but why am I so miserable? I think that's the reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: I remember once talking with Peter Ubel. He's a researcher at Duke University. He once conducted a study. He told volunteers that they could sit silently - you know, no iPhones, no distractions, nothing - for five minutes. And if they did that, they would get $2.50. He also told them that they could spend the time solving very, very difficult problems. And he asked them how much would they want to be paid for doing the puzzles instead of doing nothing. Here's what Ubel told me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PETER UBEL: We found that the large majority of the students said we'd have to pay them more than $2.50 to solve the word puzzles. And yet when we actually finished the five minutes and asked them how much they enjoyed those five minutes, the people solving the word puzzles enjoyed the five minutes significantly more. And yet very few of them said, yeah, pay me $2, and I'll be happy to do word puzzles 'cause at least I'll be having fun.

VEDANTAM: One implication from the study, David, is that people don't fully appreciate all the dimensions of a job when they apply for it. So you might think, hey, it's great to get paid money for doing absolutely nothing, but the issue of boredom, the issue of meaninglessness, the issue of pointlessness - these things become salient only after you've started doing the job. So in some ways, our psychological bias is partly to blame for the proliferation of b.s. jobs.

GRAEBER: Well, I think it's partly, too, that we're all taught that people want something for nothing. I mean, think about economics. What does economics teach you? Basically that we all want something for nothing, that, you know, people wish to get the maximum benefit for the least expenditure of time and resources and effort. So, you know, according to economics, anybody who's handed a job where they're paid good money to do nothing should be happy as a clam, you know. But so one of the strange things is that people don't understand why they aren't happy. We're given this false assumption about what people are basically about and what people are basically like.

VEDANTAM: You argue that there are even spiritual consequences of b.s. jobs, and one of them is something that you call scriptlessness (ph). What do you mean by that?

GRAEBER: I remember being very impressed by a psychological study which looked at people in - you know, sort of looked at times they'd been in love or people had been in love with them when they were teenagers and how they'd managed to integrate the experience or - especially unrequited love. And what they found out was that, you know, if you are in love with someone who does not return your feelings, well, you know, it's difficult, but you can come up with a story about it. You know, you - people would come to terms with it. They almost remember the incidents fondly 20 years later. It was the people who had other people who were in love with them, who didn't actually feel the same way about them, who were still kind of hurting. They were really confused. They felt guilty, but they felt indignant. And they just didn't know how to feel.

And one of the reasons why, they suggested, is because, you know, if you're in love with someone who doesn't love you, you know exactly how you're supposed to feel. There's, like, 2,000 years of literature telling you exactly how you're supposed to feel, how you're supposed to behave, what's appropriate, what isn't. Whereas if you're on the other side, you're pretty much at a loss. You know, there are no novels written from the point of view of Roxane instead of, you know, Cyrano. And so those people didn't have a script. And in a very similar way, it seems like bullshit jobs put one in a similar situation. You don't know how you're supposed to feel about this. You should be happy, but you're not. You can't - don't know if you can talk about it. You don't know who you can - there's no kind of anchor to give yourself a sense of what's going on or what you should think or do about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: One of the most interesting ideas you explore is that in many countries we have a fetish about work. We think a person who's working a job, even if it's a b.s. job, is in some ways a better human being than the person who's just hanging out. So it seems like there's a moral component to this whole belief structure.

GRAEBER: Absolutely. I think this cannot be understood except through looking at the history of - well, for one thing, religion. I mean, if you look at the story of the Garden of Eden or even Hesiod's story of Prometheus, they both have the same basic theme, which is that, you know, we have to work because we disobeyed the gods or we disobeyed God, you know. We rebelled, and we were punished. And gods are seen as creators. So in a way, we are punished - they said, you want to be like God? Fine, be like God. You can create the world, but it'll be painful and miserable. So there's (laughter) this notion that, A, work is productive and, B, that it is suffering and that it's kind of our punishment for our own arrogance. But at the same time, it's seen as moralizing.

You know, through working, we become an adult, become a real, mature, self-contained, like, human being as opposed to kids who are just all over the place, right? You know, through work, you become an adult. So all of these ideas - work is production, work is punishment, work is necessary to attain maturity - all kind of bundled together. And what's happened is that there's this idea now that if you're not doing something, something you don't really enjoy, you're not working harder at it than you really want to be working - preferably for someone you don't like very much - you know, you're just a bad person. You're not a real adult certainly, and you're probably just some lazy parasite who doesn't deserve the help or support of their community. And that idea has been drilled into people incessantly for the last 30, 40 years.

VEDANTAM: Isn't it possible that there are actually jobs that people might find meaningless or pointless, but that are, in fact, useful or essential? I mean, to take your example, it does seem absurd to ask Kurt to drive, you know, a hundred miles to help move a computer 15 feet. But maybe they have found - I'm just tossing this out - when you factor in liability or regulations or some other set of rules, that this is indeed the cheapest way to do something. So isn't it possible that at least in some cases bullshit jobs have a purpose that might be invisible to the person who's working the job?

GRAEBER: Well, it's possible, and no doubt there are a few cases like that. But I think that the number of cases like that must be far outnumbered by the number of cases where it's the other way around - because after all if there is some way that Kurt's job is really necessary, it seems unlikely that no one's going to explain that to him. On the other hand, you know, if you are working for a magazine that it turns out doesn't really exist - I have an example like that. Someone was writing...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) A magazine that doesn't exist?

GRAEBER: Yeah, she was writing for a travel magazine, you know, one of those ones they have on airplanes. And gradually she figured out that they - that it's a scam, you know. Actually, there is no such magazine. They have this whole office full of people preparing copy and illustrations for the - for a magazine that - it never is actually printed.

(CROSSTALK)

VEDANTAM: Wait, wait, wait. Why were they doing that?

GRAEBER: She wasn't quite sure. She thought it might have to do with a tax write-off or they got a grant or some sort of like - you know, there was some financial scam going on. There's lots of things like that going on. So if you're involved in a scam or something like that, you know, of course that's the very thing they won't tell you. So, you know, if there's a way that your job seems pointless but it's useful, chances are someone is going to explain that to you just because, you know, you want your workers to be motivated. On the other hand, you know, if you're writing reports for a central office and, you know, the central office takes the reports and files them and never reads them, probably they're not going to tell you that.

VEDANTAM: I want to talk about the idea that jobs in some ways are jobs. You know, they pay the bills. They cover the mortgage. They allow us to go on vacations. I want to play you a clip from the movie "Dinner For Schmucks," where the lead character explains to his girlfriend why he works at a job that he doesn't love.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS")

PAUL RUDD: (As Tim) There's you and the me that you know. And we love each other, and we have a wonderful life. But then there's the me that you don't know. And the me that you don't know has to do things sometimes so that you and the me that you know can live in this nice apartment and eat at nice restaurants and go to Cabo for Christmas. He takes care of us.

STEPHANIE SZOSTAK: (As Julie) You know what? There should not be any you I don't know.

RUDD: (As Tim) But there is. You might not like him. I don't like him. I hate him, but we need him. You know, it's like the CIA.

SZOSTAK: (As Julie) The CIA?

RUDD: (As Tim) The CIA does some pretty funky, nasty stuff in the shadows, but I, for one, am glad they're there.

VEDANTAM: What do you think, David? If we didn't have b.s. jobs, how would millions of people get paid?

GRAEBER: Well, there's a lot of ways you could solve that problem. Probably the easiest one would be just pay everybody, and then let them sort out what they do for themselves because, you know, we have this idea that's drilled into our heads that people want something for nothing, but as I say, the very fact that people who are actually paid to do nothing are so unhappy shows that that's not really true. People really do want to have an effect on the world around them.

I always give the example of prisons. Obviously, in America, you know, they basically force people to work, but even where they don't - you know, where they have really nice prisons - they use withdrawing your work privileges as a way of punishing you. That is to say, you know, given a choice between sitting around playing cards or watching TV all day and pressing shorts in the prison laundry room - you know? - even these mostly rather antisocial people, you know, would actually rather work than just sit around.

So people want to work. I - so I kind of support universal basic income. I've kind of come around to the position that that's probably the best solution. If we just give people - you know, we say like, OK, all this technology, all these robots, you know, it's produced collectively by all of us. It's not like one person came up with that. That's a product of, you know, us and our ancestors doing hundreds of years of thinking and laboring, so let's pay us all back for that work, you know? Let's give everybody a basic income and leave it up to you to decide what to do.

VEDANTAM: To be sure, a universal basic income is a controversial idea. Also, while it would take care of essential needs, a basic income wouldn't buy people lots of dinners in fine restaurants or vacations in Cabo. David's underlying point, though, is that instead of aspiring for greater material wealth, we should all seek more leisure time.

GRAEBER: I know perfectly well that there's lots of societies - most societies - where people work distinctly less than they do today. You know, probably, the average oppressed medieval serf worked about half of what we work. But certainly, people in other societies can be found to work two or three hours a day maximum. So what do they do? They come up with incredibly interesting things to do. You know, we'd all be sitting around in cafes gossiping, and the gossip would get really interesting - you know? - because people would have enough time to have lives. We just don't know what it's like to actually have a life anymore, a lot of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: If I didn't have to work, and I still had money coming in, I would be in a developing country in Africa, helping people learn and participate in the democratic process and get rid of leaders who don't support their interests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'd love to be in, like, a cover band. I think that'd be a lot of fun - Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, you know, and those kind of genres.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: If I didn't have to work, I'd go to Asia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: You know, I would ensure that those individuals that have substance use disorder were really taken care of on a equitable level.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Me, I'd like to go to space.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Got to space?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Yeah. If I have money, and if I can do anything, I'd love to see the planets from up there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: David Graeber is a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics. He studies theories of value and social constructs. He's the author of the book "Bullshit Jobs." David, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

GRAEBER: It's been a real pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Adhiti Bandlamudi with help from Parth Shah and Laura Kwerel. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen and Thomas Lu. Special thanks to Dan Charles. We also need to bid farewell to Adhiti, who was our Kroc Fellow these past couple of months. As you heard from her work on this episode, she's a terrific young journalist. She's going off to join a public radio station in North Carolina. We're going to miss her journalistic chops and her baking. Come back soon, Adhiti. I promise I'm not saying that only because of the cake.

Our unsung hero this week is Samuel Alwyine-Mosely, a producer at the BBC. There are lots of logistical details that go into coordinating an interview, particularly when a guest is overseas. David Graeber was in London when we spoke with him, and Samuel took care of all those little details to make sure the conversation went smoothly. Thank you, Samuel.

If you've escaped from a bullshit job and have advice for listeners in a similar situation, share your story with us on social media, either by tagging us in the post or with the hashtag #BSjobs. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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