For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"Alienation Is Not ‘Bullshit’: An Empirical Critique of Graeber’s Theory of BS Jobs"

by Soffia, Magdalena; Wood, Alex J; Burchell, Brendan (2021)


David Graeber?s ?bullshit jobs theory? has generated a great deal of academic and public interest. This theory holds that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value. Despite generating clear testable hypotheses, this theory is not based on robust empirical research. We, therefore, use representative data from the EU to test five of its core hypotheses. Although we find that the perception of doing useless work is strongly associated with poor wellbeing, our findings contradict the main propositions of Graeber?s theory. The proportion of employees describing their jobs as useless is low and declining and bears little relationship to Graeber?s predictions. Marx?s concept of alienation and a ?Work Relations? approach provide inspiration for an alternative account that highlights poor management and toxic workplace environments in explaining why workers perceive paid work as useless.

Key Passage

The BS jobs theory suggests that many workers experience their jobs as being comprised of meaningless tasks in which they have to appear productive. As a result some academics writing on the future of work, and the post-work and anti-work traditions, have suggested that if, as Graeber claims, 30–60% of work is ‘bullshit’, radical reductions in the length of the working week could be easily achieved (e.g. Frayne, 2019; Susskind, 2020). It is important to recognise that Graeber is not simply stating that some people have useless jobs but is instead proposing a theory that seeks to explain why these jobs exist. This theory is premised on the existence of an economic system, that Graeber (2018) terms ‘managerial feudalism’, that produces a large and increasing number of workers with BS jobs, especially those with student debt in the finance, law and administration professions. However, the evidence presented by Graeber (2018) in support of his ‘bullshit jobs’ thesis is largely based on qualitative data from employees who approached the author to praise him for his earlier speculative essay on the subject and to share anecdotes with him. Not only does reliance on this data source provide little empirical support for Graeber’s generalisations but it is also likely plagued by self-selection bias. Fortunately, Graeber’s book offers several clear predictions that are straightforward to test. (p.2)


Alienation, Marx, Bullshit Jobs, Graeber, Weber, Paid Work, Useless Work, Meaningless Work, Wellbeing


Bullshit Jobs, Alienation, Capitalism

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