According to The Economist, 40% of jobs are "bullshit"

I just came across this article in The Economist from a few months ago and thought I’d share:

Bullshit jobs and the yoke of managerial feudalism

Basically, the gist is this. According to anthropologist David Graeber, “A bullshit job is one that even the person doing it secretly believes need not, or should not, exist. That if the job, or even the whole industry, were to vanish, either it would make no difference to anyone, or the world might even be a slightly better place.”

As many as 40% of workers surveyed believe their job to be purposeless “bullshit”. The number may actually be lower or higher, as many jobs that seem pointless may contribute to a larger purpose while many people who think their jobs have a purpose, might not be aware of how useless it is.

He even goes so far to say that much of these overcompensated bullshit jobs are basically a form almost feudalistic “rent collecting”.
As someone who has spent much of his career in “management consulting” or “project management”, I’ve long suspected this. Some might say even benefited from this system.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that I see certain workplaces becoming the equivalent of “college”. That is to say, a place where people go work for a couple years to get some prestigious branding on their resume, often performing work of dubious value. For example, simply having a couple years of “Accenture, Deloitte, Google”, or “McKinsey” on one’s resume is viewed as a form of accomplishment, even if one managed to do little more than show up to work.

I think the problem is that industries are so complex these days, that lots of jobs contribute a few pieces to the puzzle and workers in them never quite get that what they are doing is important. Each piece in a puzzle, after all, isn’t that important unless it is missing.

And I have an example. My daughter worked for an overseas company where much of their sales was online. Their server was in the US, and that required paperwork, renewed each year. They had a big layoff of what management no doubt thought were unimportant jobs, and the knowledge that this certificate had to be renewed fell through the cracks. They were planning a big promotion around Easter - which was when the certificate ran out and their website went dark.
Oops. Filing that paperwork no doubt seemed like bullshit, but it was important.

However I agree with you about management consulting. :smiley:

Ironically jobs involving human shit are the ones whose absence would be felt most severely by society.
I’d still rather have a bullshit job.

I remember the scene in Office Space in which one character (I think it was Tom Smykowski) tried to justify his existence to the Bobs and yet it was clear that his job was unnecessary. I really identified with him.

How far can the population, industry and basically the entire planet’s economic paradigm expand before the whole shebang becomes unsustainable and implodes under it’s own fundamentally ill-conceived and perverted interests and inefficiencies? Seems to me we must moving in that direction, but how much farther to go?

Sometimes, but jobs involving bureaucratic ‘paperwork’ are often just overly complicated for no particular reason other than heritage processes and a desire to keep maintain an organizational structure. Such jobs can be soul crushing: NPR Hidden Brain Podcast: “BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down”

Management conslutting is pretty much the definition of “bullshit job” insofar as it rarely provides anything beyond a rationale for making the changes management wanted to make anyway, but there are plenty of bullshit jobs in pointless industries, from all of the paper shuffling and administrative effort in insurance and health care, to spending your first years as a lawyer for a major firm as a glorified intern, searching through boxes of files and scanning papers to be OCRed, especially when those papers are printouts from an email server.

The truly frightening thing, though, is how few people actually have any practical skills that would let them be in any way self-sufficient. Most people can’t make a fire, build a shelter, snare a rabbit, or find water in the woods. They certainly don’t know how to grow food or raise livestock except using seeds and fertilizer obtained in packets and bags from the garden department of the home improvement store. And so few people have advanced craft skills like blacksmithy or glass blowing that these have been relegated to esoteric hobbies of pretentious hipsters living in Portland Southeast.

Although there is still a desperate need for skilled trades, we’ve lost many of the traditional skills to automation and modern manufacturing, and what few people appreciate is that expert systems and even limited machine intelligence is set to to something of the same to ‘white collar’ workers doing intellectual labor. Frankly, I’d be surprised if the number is as low as 40%; from a practical standpoint, any job that doesn’t require outward facing direct human interaction with the general public, specialized areas of knowledge, or executive decision-making is probably going to have a very limited application in the future.


I wonder how often a management consulting firm has turned in a report that essentially reads “You’re running a pretty decent operation here. Maybe paying a bit too much for the printers ¯_(ツ)_/¯ ? May we have our cheque now please?”

He had people skills!

It’s definitely true that management is bloated and mostly try to figure out what to do with themselves while others do the actual work. They schedule lots of meetings with one another to keep themselves busy.

I was reminded of that, and also of the brilliant “Old Lady Job Justification Hearings” sketches from the BBC radio show “That Mitchell and Webb Sound.” The premise is that, in the future, people will have to appear before a panel of old ladies to justify what they do for a living. Here and here are a couple of examples I could find online.

I once worked for a startup founded by a bunch of ex-McKinsey alums. They literally couldn’t install a white board without doing a cost-benefit analysis.

Which wouldn’t have been discovered without the aid of management consultants (the Bobs)!

Seriously though. Is it the management consultants who are useless? Or is it the highly paid executives who hire McKinsey to do their strategy, Accenture to redesign their business processes, Mercer to do their hiring, Cognizant to run their IT systems, EY to run their PMO, so on and so forth.

What are all the people who actually work for the company doing?

Of course, once you hire all those consultants, they need to start having all those long meetings to justify their billable hours.

They are building empires. I’ve seen a lot of this, mostly from a new-development perspective. In such organizations managers are typically valued in proportion to the budgets they control, so there is actually a disincentive to economize, especially in head offices. Basically if you as, say, an IT manager are faced with a major new technology challenge, you have two clear options. One, have your own people take on the development and project management tasks – and you know that they’re incompetent buffoons who have spent much of their careers simply navigating and climbing the institutional bureaucracy (think “Dilbert”, but know that this is very much a real-world truth). You’ve now assumed a great risk and done little or nothing for your budget. Do not expect kudos for saving your company millions of dollars and building internal expertise. You may even lose prestige for failing to follow institutional protocols by bringing in high-priced outside consultants.

Two, you can ask for vast sums of money to hire a world-class technology consulting firm, thus putting yourself in the prestigious position of managing a new perhaps multi-million dollar initiative in addition to your existing duties, and having a decent chance to claim success because, unlike the morons you employ, these are actual technology experts. Plus, there’s a compelling CYA aspect: by outsourcing to an outside firm, you have a convenient scapegoat in case everything falls apart. And fall apart it may. Because – you know those morons you employ? They’ll make sure the outside firm gets bad information, is blocked from resources it needs, and best of all, that the project requirements change every day.

So it’s no surprise that such initiatives frequently go nowhere, despite the expenditure of tens of millions of dollars. In at least one such case I know of, the organization’s reaction to imminent project failure was – and this is not a joke – to hire an expensive technology-oriented management consulting firm to advise them on whether to shut the project down or not! They had of course already decided to shut it down, but this keeps everyone’s asses all covered and toasty warm.

Others have suggested this already, but very common IME for people to have little understanding how their job fits into the bigger picture, and thus couldn’t judge whether it’s useless. I guess a large fraction of the 40% would fall in that category, and heavily outnumber people who think their job has a purpose but it really doesn’t.

The fact that companies can often get rid of a significant % of employees in cutbacks and still function more or less, although most average people are very critical of that*, makes it plausible that excess people and useless functions can pile up in fat and happy companies. But I doubt it’s anything like 40%.

*I sense some tension if not hypocrisy if people get on the bandwagon of bashing empire building managers for fluffing up payrolls, then also take up the typical populist gripe whenever any company lays anybody off.

FTR, my comment about empire-building was not in relation to fluffing up payrolls, but in relation to fluffing up budgets, specifically by diverting vast sums to third-party technology consulting firms who not only produce the deliverables, but use the money and experience to enhance their own employees’ skills and capabilities. I have no problem with consultants – management or technology or any other kind – and in fact I was one for a number of years, and thus I benefited rather nicely from this particular institutional culture. I have a problem with fat-cat organizations for whom that is the automatic modus operandi for virtually any significant initiative. Among all the other problems it causes, it’s telling its own employees, “you’re useless, but we’ll let you watch”.

Nor would I necessarily have a huge problem with a company systematically trimming fat from their administrative organizations, where it often accumulates undetected for decades. My biggest moral issue is layoffs that occur entirely unnecessarily among blue-collar workers because it’s cheaper to outsource everything they do overseas, or among front-line workers for no reason other than “because we can”, causing low-wage workers to lose their jobs altogether and customer service to suffer. And the icing on the cake is that many of these layoffs, and even entire plant shutdowns, have occurred shortly after the company in question reports record profits and/or benefits from supposedly “job-creating” tax cuts or government incentives.

I had a lot of different white collar management type jobs and the thing they almost all have in common is that

  1. the entire department could probably be totally automated within a year by one subject matter expert and a few programmers
  2. the work could easily be done by a motivated and properly trained high school kid for about a quarter to a third of what they pay us

I think a large number of big corporate CEO positions are bullshit jobs, but not because they are useless. It’s just that they’re so overpaid. Yes, they play an important role, but they are shamelessly disproportionately paid for the work they actually do. Their pay scale is determined solely by how well they sell their reputation, not for the actual work they do—which many much lower paid people could do.

The CEO job I can understand. Someone needs to be “in charge”. It’s many of the various “middle management” jobs that I think are suspect. And I’m actually ok with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company making millions of dollars. So long as he is doing a good job. But I think the concept of paying these guys a fortune even if the company tanks is bullshit. Everyone else’s compensation is tied to their performance and the health of the company. Why not the guy who runs it?

I’ve mostly worked in consulting firms. So at least in the context of the company, you either need to be selling work or billing hours like a law firm to demonstrate value.

I once did a brief stint in a management job at a large insurance company as a “Manager of Technology Strategy”. I didn’t understand it as it seemed to serve no purpose. Mostly it just seemed to involve meeting with different business units spinning our wheels creating project charters to send up and down to some “steering committee” to never get approved.

At my last client, I told my bosses back at the firm that there was a major issue in that the client wanted me managing three projects at once. Their response was to ask if I needed additional layer of “governance” above me. The problem is I can’t physically be in three meetings at once. I don’t need another “boss” to report to. I need another PM to split the workload.

I have one classmate from college who, as far as I can tell, makes a lot of money working for a major software company as a sort of “thought leader” on innovation. He doesn’t actually design, build or innovate. He doesn’t even market the products. He just sort of blogs about innovation.
I could go on with other examples, but I think this is the point the author was making. You have the CEO and other various business heads making the high level decisions. You have people who do the actual work (more often freelancers, contractors and outsourced vendors these days). Then you have all these various layers of middle managers who I think serve no purpose other than to insulate decision makers from any potential negative effects of their decisions.

In addition to jobs which are useless regardless of how competently they’re done, there are

(a) teams which are overstaffed because some of the team members are useless. I’ve worked on technology teams where some of the staff could have been dismissed and been completely unmissed. This is no secret; I remember one team where one useless engineer was frequently sent to conferences since he was so expendable. (Is astute hiring to avoid useless employees one reason some companies are more successful than others?)

(b) entire projects which, even when done competently, are (and could have been predicted to be) unproductive. They may be unproductive because they fail, or because even if successful they do not contribute to the real economy. As an extreme example of this, consider mortgage and investment banking during the GWB era. These bankers and brokers were successful if judged on their own terms and many billions in bonuses were paid, but society would have been better off if these bankers stayed at home and drew unemployment checks!

At the lowest hierarchical levels, teams have to be overstaffed, or rather have to seem to be overstaffed, because you need people to cover for when other people are away. Someone may be ill, on holiday, at a conference, on a training course, away for a meeting, or whatever, but the work still needs to be done.

The head of some company said that at least half his advertising budget was wasted. The trouble was, he didn’t know which half.

I work in IT. 50% of my job could be done by the average well-trained chimpanzee. 20% can be done by any decently-competent programmer. 20% only I can do. 10% nobody can do. But often not even I know which part is which.