The “Bullshit Jobs” That Keep You From A Four-Hour Workday

A reality check suggested by one of Occupy Wall Street’s founding figures.

The “Bullshit Jobs” That Keep You From A Four-Hour Workday
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

The American economy is roughly six times as productive as it was in the 1930s. So why aren’t we working 1/6 as hard?


The standard explanation is usually some combination of the following:

1) We actually love working.

2) We have an endless appetite for new goods and services, which we work ever-harder to pay for.

But there’s a slightly different framework put forward by David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist and Occupy Wall Street founding figure: “bullshit jobs.”

…rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”

Graeber qualifies this statement, slightly: He’s not calling all telemarketers, health administrators and corporate lawyers “bullshit,” just those who self-identify as having jobs that “should not really exist.” (He does add: “I’m not sure I’ve ever met a corporate lawyer who didn’t think their job was bullshit.”) That said, his basic diagnosis is that “bullshit job”-possessors are “basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc)–and particularly its financial avatars,” while those who do productive work are “relentlessly squeezed and exploited.”

In other words, if you’re working too hard, it’s either because you are being exploited to pay for a class of “bullshit job”-havers, or you, yourself, have a “bullshit job.”


Sounds a little confusing. To tell which category you’re in, he offers a suggestion in Tweet:

About the author

Stan Alcorn is a print, radio and video journalist, regularly reporting for WNYC and NPR. He grew up in New Mexico.