One in 20 workers are in ‘useless’ jobs – far fewer than previously thought

  Man working at a laptop  Credit: Bermix Studio

The so-called ‘bullshit jobs theory’ – which argues that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value – contains several major flaws, argue researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Birmingham.

Even so, writing in Work, Employment and Society, the academics applaud its proponent, American anthropologist David Graeber, who died in September 2020, for highlighting the link between a sense of purpose in one’s job and psychological wellbeing.

Graeber initially put forward the concept of ‘bullshit jobs’ – jobs that even those who do them view as worthless – in his 2013 essay The Democracy Project. He further expanded this theory in his 2018 book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, looking at possible reasons for the existence of such jobs.

Jobs that Graeber described as bullshit (BS) jobs range from doormen and receptionists to lobbyists and public relations specialists through to those in the legal profession, particularly corporate lawyers and legal consultants.

Dr Magdalena Soffia from the University of Cambridge and the What Works Centre for Wellbeing, one of the authors of the article, 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 test Graeber’s propositions, the researchers turned to the 2005–2015 European Working Conditions Surveys (EWCS), examining reasons that led to respondents answering ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ to the statement: ‘I have the feeling of doing useful work’. The surveys – taken in 2005, 2010 and 2015 – gather measures on the usefulness of the job, workers’ wellbeing and objective data on the quality of work. The number of respondents grew from over 21,000 in 2005 to almost 30,000 in 2015.

According to Graeber, somewhere between 20% and 50% of the workforce – possibly as many as 60% - are employed in BS 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.

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