As ‘purpose’ ascends the ranks of the HR lexicon, researchers have claimed that the so-called ‘bullshit jobs’ theory, which contends that many jobs are useless and of no social value, is flawed.
David Graeber’s 2013 essay on the phenomenon of bullshit jobs is closely associated to the concept of purpose at work. The US anthropologist argued that, rather than John Maynard Keynes’ prediction that technology would advance so much by 2000 that developed societies would achieve a 15-hour working week, in fact, over the past century huge swathes of people “spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed”.
Although the data doesn’t always support David Graeber’s claims, his insightful and imaginative work played an important role in raising awareness of the harms of useless jobs. He may have been way off the mark with regards how common BS jobs are, but he was right to link people’s attitudes towards their jobs to their psychological wellbeing, and this is something that employers – and society as a whole – should take seriously” – Prof Brendan Burchell
Graeber, who died in 2020, described such vocations as “bullshit jobs” and he included in their kind, public relations, corporate law, financial services, telemarketing and HR.
Dr Magdalena Soffia from the University of Cambridge and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, said: “There’s something appealing about the bullshit jobs theory. The fact that many people have worked in such jobs at some point may explain why Graeber’s work resonates with so many people who can relate to the accounts he gives. But his theory is not based on any reliable empirical data, even though he puts forward several propositions, all of which are testable.”
To examine his ideas, the research team looked at the European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS) and the reasons why respondents answered “rarely” or “never” to the statement: ‘I have the feeling of doing useful work’. The surveys, carried out every five years, garnered data on the usefulness of jobs, employee wellbeing and quality of work. The number of respondents grew from 21,000 in 2005 to 30,000 in 2015.
Purpose at work
According to Graeber, 20- 50% of the workforce – possibly as much as 60% – are employed in bullshit jobs. Yet the EWCS found that just 4.8% of EU workers said they did not feel they were doing useful work. The figure was slightly higher in the UK and Ireland, but still only 5.6% of workers.
The research also found no evidence to support his belief that the prevalence of bullshit jobs was on the rise – in fact, the percentage of people in such work fell from 7.8% in 2005 to just 4.8% in 2015.
Dr Alex Wood from the University of Birmingham said: “When we looked at readily-available data from a large cohort of people across Europe, it quickly became apparent to us that very few of the key propositions in Graeber’s theory can be sustained – and this is the case in every country we looked at, to varying degrees. But one of his most important propositions – that BS jobs are a form of ‘spiritual violence’ – does seem to be supported by the data.”
Graeber argued that bullshit jobs were a form of “spiritual violence” that make workers miserable and at risk of anxiety and depression. The research team found strong evidence between the perception of one’s job as useless and an individual’s psychological wellbeing, albeit a correlation rather than necessarily a causal link.
In the UK in 2015, workers who felt their job was not useful scored significantly lower on the World Health Organisation’s wellbeing index, than those who felt they were doing useful work (an average score of 49.3 compared with 64.5).
The research team found that those individuals who felt respected and encouraged by management were less likely to report their work as useless. Individuals who saw their job as useful tended to be able to use their own ideas at work – an important element for feeling that your job provides you with the ability to make the most of your skills – was correlated with a perception of usefulness.
The 2021 People & Purpose Award
Professor Brendan Burchell, University of Cambridge, said: “Although the data doesn’t always support David Graeber’s claims, his insightful and imaginative work played an important role in raising awareness of the harms of useless jobs. He may have been way off the mark with regards how common BS jobs are, but he was right to link people’s attitudes towards their jobs to their psychological wellbeing, and this is something that employers – and society as a whole – should take seriously.
“Most importantly, employees need to be respected and valued if they in turn are to value – and benefit psychologically as well as financially from – their jobs.”