Bullshit jobs

Bullshit jobs are a big problem, according to economist David Graeber:

Graeber’s unique contribution is to tie these changes to human history, and to explain why, anthropologically, they may not be all that surprising. In an essay five years ago, he made the seemingly bizarre assertion that perhaps as many as 30 percent of all jobs actually contribute nothing of use to society. It might seem an obnoxious claim, if not for the fact that a huge number of people willingly attest to the worthlessness of their own jobs. A 2015 U.K. survey found that 37 percent of people felt their jobs “did not make a meaningful contribution to the world,” and a later poll in the Netherlands found 40 percent saying the same thing.


Perhaps even more surprising is the nature of these “bullshit” jobs, as Graeber calls them. They aren’t in teaching, cleaning, garbage collecting or firefighting, but seem mostly to be in the professional services sector. Since writing his essay, Graeber says he has been contacted by hundreds of people saying they agree — they work in pointless jobs which could be eliminated with absolutely no loss to society — and they’ve come mostly from human resources, public relations, lobbying or telemarketing, or in finance and banking, consulting, management and corporate law. Of course, neither Graeber nor anyone else can be a final judge which jobs are useful or not, but the people who offer this view of their own jobs come most frequently from the service sector.

As I was reading I was hoping for a precise meaning of a useless job, but could not find it. A ‘BS job would seem to mean a job that the author David Graeber himself does not like and or does not see a need for, which I think is presumptuous of him to know which jobs are useful or not.

But perhaps his definition includes jobs that involve PR, lobbying, and middle-men, in which workers do not interact directly with the customer or product. An example of a BS job could be to write a negative press release that implicates a competitor and then trying to get the media to publish it. Or writing negative Amazon and Yelp reviews against a competitor.

Perhaps bullshit jobs include jobs that could be eliminated if firms colluded, but coordination is hard and often illegal. In the example regarding Amazon and Yelp reviews, if two equal companies agreed to not write negative reviews, they would both get the same market share than if they competed, but the useless jobs and expenses of writing negative reviews would be eliminated. This is discussed further in the post Nash Equilibrium and cooperative games: example
, that shows how cooperation can yield superior returns to competition. But the problem is, cooperation is hard to distrust and defection, it’s illegal for firms to collude, and firms are not equal. A firm that superior will often put the weaker one out of business than cooperate.

A bullshit jobs may also be jobs that have zero or negative social impact. Jobs involved in the tobacco industry could be considered bullshit if the societal losses due to disease exceed the economic gains from tobacco consumption. Bitcoin and the entire ‘blockchain’ industry may be another example. Blockchain technology has close to zero penetration in the overall economy, yet it has spawned this massive multi-billion dollar industry that employs probably 10,000 people in involved in trading, regulation, coding, exchanges, and so on. This industry is able to thrive in spite of near-zero penetration because investors are converting their dollars into what are effectively shares denominated in virtual currency.

In an economy that is so competitive and fickle, where missing an earnings estimate can cause a stock to fall 10-20% (like we saw with Facebook a week ago), companies are not going to waste their money on jobs that are useless, even if to outsiders such jobs may seem useless.