It's no secret that many office jobs are dull and draining, with employees only grudgingly going about their daily tasks simply to make ends meet. As if to make the ordeal all the more unbearable, some jobs seem to contribute nothing to society. Some examples include administrative assistants, door attendants, store greeters, telemarketers, and many middle managers. Not even the employee cannot justify the existence of their jobs, although they might pretend that's not the case to avoid embarrassment.
Over the years, numerous studies have explored the phenomenon of employees considering their work to be socially useless. One theory that gained considerable attention is the "bullshit jobs theory" proposed by American anthropologist David Graeber. According to this theory, some jobs are objectively useless. Such jobs exist solely to keep people employed and maintain the capitalist economic system, Graeber asserts.
But just how many such jobs are we talking about? A recent study from the University of Zurich, led by sociologist Simon Walo, presents a different perspective on the matter.
Unlike Graeber, Walo and colleagues have, for the first time, provided quantitative data to understand the relevance of various occupations and their impact on employees' perceptions. In the process, they were astonished by just how many people firmly believed their jobs are essentially pointless.
Office jobs are more likely to feel socially useless
"Bullshit jobs" often involve excessive bureaucracy, repetitive tasks, or responsibilities that do not contribute tangibly to the betterment of society.
Graeber categorized these jobs into five types:
- Flunkies: Jobs that exist to make others feel important, such as doormen or receptionists in certain contexts.
- Goons: Roles that contribute to enforcing questionable rules or policies, like telemarketers or corporate lawyers dealing with tax loopholes.
- Duct tapers: Employees who address issues that shouldn't exist in the first place, like technical support for products known to be faulty.
- Box-tickers: Jobs created to fulfill regulatory requirements without substantial impact, such as compliance officers with limited decision-making power.
- Taskmasters: Supervisory positions that oversee other roles that may not require supervision.
Graeber's theory quickly resonated with many people, tapping into the frustration and disillusionment some workers experience. It opened discussions about the state of the modern job market and the value society places on certain professions.
But Graeber isn't without his critics. Some argued that subjective opinions about job usefulness may not accurately represent the objective value these roles bring to society. They emphasized that even seemingly menial tasks can contribute to the overall functioning of complex systems.
Indeed, one major criticism of Graeber's theory is that it's much too subjective. Some employees might feel their jobs are useless solely because the tasks are routine or they lack good management -- but that doesn't mean their job is intrinsically pointless. However, Walo and colleagues would beg to differ. Their study suggests that indeed some jobs are more pointless than others, if this comparison can be made.
“The original evidence presented by Graeber was mainly qualitative, which made it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem,” says Walo in a media statement.
“This study extends previous analyses by drawing on a rich, under-utilised dataset and provides new evidence. This paper is therefore the first to find quantitative evidence supporting the argument that the occupation can be decisive for the perceived pointlessness.”
The study involved analyzing survey data from 1,811 employees in the USA representing 21 different types of jobs. Respondents were asked about their feelings regarding making a positive impact on the community and society and whether they found their work useful. Surprisingly, 19% of respondents, across a range of occupations, answered "never" or "rarely" to these questions.
After accounting for factors such as routine work, job autonomy, and quality of management, Walo found that the nature of the job still played a significant role in how employees perceived its pointlessness. Specifically, employees in occupations considered "useless" by Graeber were more likely to have negative perceptions about their work's impact on society.
Among the occupations showing higher levels of perceived pointlessness were business and finance, sales, office assistants, and managers. Employees in these roles were more than twice as likely to express the belief that their work lacked social utility compared to others.
Private-sector jobs more affected
The study also discovered that the private sector had a higher proportion of workers perceiving their jobs as socially useless compared to the non-profit or public sectors.
While the study supports the concept of "bullshit jobs," it also acknowledges that various other factors influence employees' perceptions of their work. Alienation, unfavorable working conditions, and social interactions were among the additional factors that contributed to such perceptions.
“Employees’ assessment of whether their work is perceived as socially useless is a very complex issue that needs to be approached from different angles,” says Walo. “It depends on various factors that do not necessarily have anything to do with the actual usefulness of work as claimed by Graeber."
The findings appeared in the journal Work, Employment and Society.