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

Graeber (2018) believes that when individuals report their jobs as being useless, this is an accurate appraisal by the individual of their job’s social value. This, Graeber goes on to argue, is harmful to an individuals’ wellbeing as it provides little identity or purpose and, moreover, requires workers to pretend this is not the case. Graeber states this is a source of ‘spiritual violence’ that ‘makes clear the degree to which you are entirely under another person’s power’. This is held to be a psychologically damaging experience, because humans need to conceive of ‘themselves as capable of acting on the world and others in predictable ways. Deny humans this sense of agency, and they are nothing’ (Graeber, 2018: 101). This view of paid work as constraining essential human agency is striking in its resemblance to alienation, yet this concept is absent from Graeber’s account. Similarly, Marx argued that labour under capitalism is inherently alienating as it blocks individuals’ essential need for self-realisation. However, for Marx this was not the result of individuals being engaged in activity that was of no social value but rather because capitalist social relations frustrate the free development of human abilities in spontaneous activity. The alienation of labour then focuses our attention upon the social relations under which work takes place, generally (Braverman, 1974), and the process of control that exists over work relations, specifically (Hyman, 1975). As Wood (2020) argues, it is necessary to ‘recognise that paid work is not just a simple matter of market exchange but also of power relations’. Although Marx wrote of alienation as a fairly homogenous phenomenon, more contemporary writers have highlighted the degree to which work relations ‘differ in the relative power of employers and employees to control tasks, negotiate the conditions of employment, and terminate a job’ (Kalleberg, 2011: 83). Therefore, that work relations frustrate the potential for self-realisation may offer an alternative explanation for why people experience their job as useless. Moreover, Elster (1985, 1986) argues that self-realisation entails self-externalisation in addition to self-actualisation, as selfrealisation is dependent on abilities being observable to others who confirm or deny them. This understanding of alienation highlights that workers might see their work as useless and suffer reduced wellbeing when work does not provide them with the means to use and develop their skills, abilities and capacities, or because their abilities are denied by others in the workplace. Unlike the BS jobs theory, alienation is not premised on the view that the work being undertaken is inherently pointless and of no value. Instead, it highlights the importance of the social relations under which work is undertaken and the degree to which they constrain the ability of workers to affirm their sense of self through the development and recognition of skills and abilities. (p.6)


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


Bullshit Jobs, Alienation, Capitalism

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