Faust founds his kingdom because he must do something; and his only ideal of what he hopes to secure for his subjects is that they shall always have something to do.
Work, work, work, work, work, sings Rihanna through the grocery store sound system. Why do we have to do it? What else do we have to do? The questions are staging a comeback. Old dreams of new deals and new dreams of old jobs wake and walk. David Graeber’s latest book, Bullshit Jobs, is one of many contributions to this rethinking. Slapdash and anecdotal, it reads like a parody of a pop-business manual, an anarchist take on Charles Duhigg or Malcolm Gladwell. The premise, which gained wide coverage following a 2013 article of the same title, is that many-to-most people in the wealthy world are employed in jobs not only unpleasant but purposeless: their days are filled with what amounts to busywork, however cleverly disguised, or they are filled with sitting around doing nothing.
Graeber’s scheme divides the working world in four. There are those who do actually necessary labor, like harvesting, manufacturing, cleaning and caring for children, the sick or the elderly. These jobs have clear value, tend to be low-status and poorly paid and are often performed by the most vulnerable. The upper echelon of meaningful and rewarding work—art, medicine, science, NGO administration, etc.—is reserved almost exclusively to those born into wealth, not least because such careers often require expensive degrees or long unpaid apprenticeships. Alongside them stand the better-remunerated but less obviously virtuous elite of bankers and corporate executives and such—roles with clear duties and goals, even if those goals are often at odds with public interests. Everyone else is stuck doing some sort of bullshit: work that’s not only of questionable utility in broad terms, but clearly pointless or redundant within its own organizational context. Personal reports from workers in this last group, which Graeber subdivides into the categories of flunky, goon, box ticker, duct taper and taskmaster, form the core of the book.