Why do so many people feel their work is completely unnecessary?

David Graeber writes:

One day, the wall shelves in my office collapsed. This left books scattered all over the floor and a jagged, half-dislocated metal frame that once held the shelves in place dangling over my desk. I’m a professor of anthropology at a university. A carpenter appeared an hour later to inspect the damage, and announced gravely that, as there were books all over the floor, safety rules prevented him from entering the room or taking further action. I would have to stack the books and not touch anything else, whereupon he would return at the earliest available opportunity.

The carpenter never reappeared. Each day, someone in the anthropology department would call, often multiple times, to ask about the fate of the carpenter, who always turned out to have something extremely pressing to do. By the time a week was out, it had become apparent that there was one man employed by buildings and grounds whose entire job it was to apologise for the fact that the carpenter hadn’t come. He seemed a nice man. Still, it’s hard to imagine he was particularly happy with his work life.

Everyone is familiar with the sort of jobs that don’t seem, to the outsider, really to do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists, corporate lawyers or the sort of people who spend their time staffing committees that discuss the problem of unnecessary committees. What if these jobs really are useless, and those who hold them are actually aware of it? Could there be anything more demoralising than having to wake up in the morning five out of seven days of one’s adult life to perform a task that one believes does not need to be performed, is simply a waste of time or resources, or even makes the world worse? There are plenty of surveys about whether people are happy at work, but what about whether people feel their jobs have any good reason to exist? I decided to investigate this phenomenon by drawing on more than 250 testimonies from people around the world who felt they once had, or now have, what I call a bullshit job. [Continue reading…]

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