Bullshit Jobs in an age of Coronavirus

28 March 2020 – day 3 of official quarantine: Tacoma, WA

After two weeks without school my daughter’s school district has decided that kids will have graded assignments starting this week. Or maybe they haven’t? I got a voice message yesterday that the instructors will ask us to do some online work and that they will distribute computers to the kids who need them but so far the district homepage remains unchanged.

Either way this is unwelcome news to Avie. She seems to want to disappear into TikTok rather than confront the world right now. Whenever I tell her she has work to do, I get an angry response. Not outright defiance but that look that says a lot more than just “no”. Feel free to fill in what you would have said when you were 12 and your dad was asking you to do what amounts to busy work in the midst of what seems like the end of the actual world.

This whole pandemic is sweaty ballbags. I’ve never had to put in as many hours at work as I have for the last two weeks and most of the work I’ve done has been repetitive and largely pointless. I like helping people solve problems. I like fixing things. I like learning new things. I like teaching people how to do something fun. But all of that is gone. Instead, I attend a lot of meetings: meetings to check in with people, make sure that they can meet; meetings to talk about meetings (not kidding); meetings to talk about the work that I’ve been doing (not kidding); and some meetings which literally duplicate the work that I’ve just done (not kidding).

I can’t concentrate in these meetings. I lose myself and wander off. I don’t think I’m the only one. I watch the others. They are all doing the same. This makes these meetings almost entirely pointless.

Ironically, just before the pandemic exploded I was reading the book “Bullshit Jobs” by David Graeber. As I have written about here before the main thesis of the book is that a lot of people have bullshit jobs, they know that they have bullshit jobs, and they are deeply dissatisfied with those bullshit jobs. But what this Covid-19 pandemic is revealing more than ever is exactly how many of us have these jobs and how much the economy of the West relies on them.

In the first few chapters of Bullshit Jobs, Graeber – an anthropologist – allows the people who work these bullshit jobs to flesh out the definition for themselves. After several delightful chapters and with plenty of first person observations he arrives at this definition: a bullshit jobs is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case.”

Within this definition, Graeber identifies five major types of bullshit jobs: flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. With the taskmasters being the very worst of the bunch.

Flunkies are a sort of holdover from the feudal era. Think of doormen, who often serve no purpose other than to press a button to allow someone into a building. These are jobs that are created to make powerful people feel powerful or as a signifier of wealth and/or power.

Goons are easy to identify, for example corporate lobbyists, but the work they do might seem somewhat useful. These jobs do perform a service for the company that they work for but it’s their entire industry which is irrelevant. For example, if all of the corporate lobbyists disappeared tomorrow, the world would actually rejoice. Companies only need lobbyists because there are lobbyists. And the work of a Goon is often just to bully, cajole, or convince someone to do something and the only reason a company needs to do this is because other companies are doing it. Telemarketers, corporate lawyers, and so on, all Goons.

Duct tapers is what my job was when I first started in IT. We had an IT department on campus and the staff didn’t like the job they were doing. So my unit hired me to do their IT work for them. Instead of fixing the systemic flaw in the workflow, they hired me.

Box tickers have one of the worst jobs and here it’s important to distinguish between “shit” jobs and bullshit jobs. A shit job is someone who has to physically pick fruit, for example. Backbreaking, tedious, dangerous, and often underpaid, shit jobs are none-the-less completely necessary. Without fruit pickers, we don’t have fruit.

Bullshit jobs are the opposite of all of that. They are often highly skilled, require advanced degrees, work in offices, and make good money.

“Performance analysts” and “compliance officers” or even “oversight committees” are all box-tickers. Their jobs are to make sure the company (or government org) look like they care about the rules, or are complying with regulations. Box tickers are people who seem like they look into problems without actually looking into the problems.

And then there’s the king daddy of them all, the fucking task-master. At their best, task masters exist to prove that they need to exist but at their worst, they are actually the ones who assign even more pointless bullshit jobs.

At their best these are middle-management folks who “direct” the work of others by having them fill out annual reports and other forms or paperwork. This all intends to show that not only is the unit working but implies that the manager is directing that work.

I’ve also heard this job referred to as “professional meeting attender”; they not only call a lot of meetings but also have to attend a lot of meetings with folks above them. All of these meetings are usually about rounding up all of the other bullshit jobs and having them compile annual bullshit reports.

Are they working? Yes, in a very real way it’s a lot of work to do this job because they have a ton of reports to write and meetings to attend. But what are they actually doing?

The more pernicious of these middle-managers are the ones who assign bullshit jobs to others. In the context of this article and my opening paragraphs where I describe myself assigning Avie busy work, I was a task-master who was assigning her a bullshit job.

There isn’t a single industry in the modern Western economy which is immune to bullshit jobs. The market forces which were supposed to winnow out these jobs have actually been honed to create more of them So much so that now the entire economy runs on bullshit jobs. As one student-worker put it so concisely that my eyes water:

A lot of these student work jobs have us doing some sort of bullshit task like scanning IDs, or monitoring empty rooms, or cleaning already-clean tables. . . . I’m not altogether familiar with how the whole thing works, but a lot of this work is funded by the Feds and tied to our student loans. It’s part of a whole federal system designed to assign students a lot of debt—thereby promising to coerce them into labor in the future, as student debts are so hard to get rid of—accompanied by a bullshit education program designed to train and prepare us for our future bullshit jobs.

We are repeating this exact thing at my work, and now with the added layer of “telework”. And one of my main tasks in this crisis has been to find work for the student employees to do while we are shuts down.

What’s incredible about this is that most of their jobs before were “just showing up.” That meant sitting at a desk, waiting for someone to ask them a question, and then either answering the question or directing them to the person who could answer that question. I took it as my purpose in life to give my employees more to do than just sit at the desk. I tried to create work that was more meaningful, create efficiencies in systems that helped students, and let students experiment with technologies which taught them new skills – skills they could use to teach others.

I don’t decry giving these students work and I will do it because they NEED the money to survive. In fact, I was the first person in my unit to point this out to the hierarchy. But the fact that they need bullshit jobs is exactly the problem here. Bullshit jobs have turned into a sort of “workfare” for the educated classes.

That’s a fact that seems inescapable now as the Coronavirus pandemic has deemed essential and non-essential. The essential people are the folks stocking shelves in the supermarket, driving long-haul trucks, delivery drivers, nurses, doctors, people manufacturing essential goods (medical and otherwise), farm workers, and food workers. The rest of us are told to stay at home, shelter in place, and devise new things to do with our time, to prove that we are productive.

The pandemic has forced us all to become task-masters, box-tickers, and duct tapers for the very (probably) bullshit jobs we held before so that we could all continue to exist at a high-level of universal basic income.

I’m not an economist but the whole system always seemed deeply flawed to me. When I was in the Army in the 80’s it was patently obvious that we were all there on a sort of welfare system. And as the military-industrial complex rose and as “pork-barrel” spending increased at the Federal level, I started wondering how many of the jobs which supplied the military and infrastructure projects (the bridge to nowhere) were just versions of workfare? If you build missiles you’re kind of just a Goon, aren’t you? The only reason we need rockets and bombs is because others have rockets and bombs!

And, all of this government “red-tape” that people says kills jobs? In my lifetime it does the exact opposite. It creates jobs! Millions and millions of jobs. Jobs for people to process oversight paperwork, efficiency modeling, insurance claims, and so on.

When I went to college the mantra was literally “get any degree” and you’ll get a job. I got a degree. Then I got a job, in an office, largely doing bullshit work. I did transform my job into something more meaningful, something much more helpful, and I think I help people a lot now. But I literally could have ridden out my first job for 40 years, never gotten fired, and retired having spent most of my life doing something completely unfulfilling.

I’m not that much of an outlier. I’m a pretty normal guy, doing pretty normal work, for a pretty normal place. I have a good job, I make good money, and I am still employed (for now!). I do help people, I do fix things, and I try my best to be the kind of employer (and dad) who doesn’t just add to the stream of BS work that people have to do now. But the problem is that bullshit jobs are endemic to our society now.

Graeber quotes President Obama after the USA passed the worst healthcare plan ever devised in human history*, “everybody who supports single-payer health care says, ‘Look at all this money we would be saving from insurance and paperwork. That represents one million, two million, three million jobs.” And all politicians know this for a fact. Running for president, Howard Schultz called universal healthcare “not American,” adding, “What industry are we going to abolish next — the coffee industry?” And said that single-payer would “wipe out the insurance industry.”

And not just the insurance industry (which is completely useless, Goon, work) but think about what Medicare for All really means. It says that it will save money – and it would – but it would do so by eliminating millions of jobs in insurance, middle-management, billing departments, claims-negotiators, oversight officials, and so on. All of those people make middle-class incomes which in turn support the people who do that actual work of our society.

That’s why Trump needs so many people to just go back to work and why he literally doesn’t care if we live or die from this virus or really from any of the existential threats we face (global warming, etc.). I’ve long held the sneaking suspicion that most of human endeavor (especially in the West) is a con of some sort. Getting people to do stuff that they probably wouldn’t want to do by tempting them with baubles like Harleys or new cars. The economy relies on people doing all of these bullshit jobs because the economy is bullshit and only functions as long as we are producing bullshit wealth for a bullshit class of top bullshitters!

I don’t want to tell my daughter to do busy work. I see the value in learning math and I will work with her on that homework. I see the value in reading non-fiction, and in reading and writing in general. I think structure is good and keeping away the boredom also super positive. And I think it would be awesome if she kept a journal of her life right now. But I am not assigning anyone bullshit work. I won’t be the fucking task-master.

But I’m not sure what choice I have. Right now the Task-Master-in-Chief, President Trump, wants us all to get back to work, and to look busy, look sharpish. So get back to work, y’all. We got an economy to save.


*Obamacare was and will forever remain the signature bill of the modern Democrat party: a massive corporate giveaway under the guise of helping people, while actually causing massive harm to most Americans. This bill was the albatross which elected Trump, which put Biden up as the nominee, which will kill millions of Americans in this pandemic, which will bankrupt millions more, and which will see Trump re-elected in 2020. And I think the only reason why this legislation was passed was because Obama/Democrats/Republicans balked at cutting millions of bullshit jobs.


  1. Really fascinating take, Tim. We have 3 kids and we have also not gone down the “recreate school at home” road, rather choosing to try and find their actual interests and develop those more. Yes, the school sets them ‘work’ but once that’s done to the minimum, there is time for other more important things. As a family we are growing with this event – we’re on Day 16 of me working from home, and cooking, and being around to help. It’s different. I like it, I think?

    1. I’m just now settling in to Work from Home and so we spent most of last week doing meetings for 9 hours a day which was horrific. I will feel a LOT better when I have more time at home to do more with Avie.

      Do you want to go back to work, though? Like go back to the office?

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this post Tim. So many things to say but I’ll save it for a book. I worked for Oracle, AT&T and IBM amongst others selling enterprise systems.

    Two observations of the US – At the coalface the lack of a welfare safety net and deregulated business behaviour has led to lots of very low paid jobs. For example how many millions working just for tips are currently struggling to make ends meet?

    And at the top of the pyramid a culture of litigation has caused key decision makers to be very risk averse creating processes and teams purely designed to justify and maintain the status quo.

    All I can say is if you’re going to work for someone , make sure they pay you well.

  3. Great post Tim. As a green engineer from a European family that has worked many years in the food and power industries, I have struggled to understand and explain the shallowness of the western ( and particularly) American consumption driven culture – my career has generally been positive, and I think mostly important, but even I feel I have drifted into BS job territory and cannot fathom how so many people can tolerate doing jobs that give no personal satisfaction, and at the end of the day do nothing but prop up this ridiculous house of cards that is western capitalism. Stay safe.

  4. Great ruminative piece on work, work culture and the point of it all, especially now. I had a day job for a few years which my (then) 12 year old daughter asked me about. I did my best to explain what I did and in the simple wisdom of a child she said, “So basically you go to meetings for a living.”

    She cut through to the chase. I realized about 80% of a 5-day work week was spent in meetings. Team discussions, one-on-ones, reviews, presentations, trainings, etc. It was all f%&king meetings. And those meetings, would generate other meetings and emails and phone calls. I was talking and messaging (not even even actually writing) for a living, deciding very little and getting paid for it. Typical mid-to-upper management stuff where I learned corporate speak “at the end of the day, net-net, from all my stakeholders”.

    The people I worked with couldn’t believe “a guy like me” was a cog in the machine just like them. It was the corporate equivalent of the line in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”:
    “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar
    And say, “Man, what are you doing here?”
    After a while I couldn’t believe it either and so I left a fair, decent life of a bulls&%t job for one of uncertainty, adventure and risk. I followed my muse and I got very lucky.

    I am thankful and safe and wish the same for the 7 am kickoff community.

      1. Ya, same thing I wanted to ask. I quit after doing some path breaking stuff in financial inclusion (the business had stabilized and the meetings were beginning to creep up), and American academia and scholarship is leaving me jaded. Everyday I wake up feeling I’m in bad faith.

  5. Excellent piece Tim. Having spent 35 years working in the UK’s NHS, I watched the growth of these bullshit jobs diverting resources from patient care towards self-serving apparatchiks expanding their fiefdoms with executive assistants’ assistants spending days in ‘planning meetings’ serving little purpose and achieving no clinically useful conclusion.

    Strangely the analogy of a virus infecting a host cell and subverting its processes to serve a new primary purpose of producing more viruses springs to mind. Sadly I think that particular host cell may be too far gone down that route to recover its former efficiency. It’s interesting though that the UK government has recalled retired doctors and nurses to help deal with the current healthcare crisis but to my knowledge we haven’t recalled any retired middle managers or executives.

  6. IT worker here. “Professional meeting attender” is what I do, give or take. I’m lucky that I didn’t lose my job over coronavirus – I have no real useful skills for the modern tech world, as a result of my bullshit job.

    It’s a vicious cycle, really: you’re tied up all day in meaningless paperwork (“core work” is what they call it in my office), and you don’t get to touch any of the tech during work hours. I know some people come home and start studying and coding and whatnot. I haven’t, and I’ve fallen behind on the latest technologies.

    I moved up the corporate ladder a few times, and the more I earned on every new role – the less meaningful work I did.

    I’m thinking of writing a separate essay about the subject of bullshit job in tech (since the Graeber book, while fantastic, did not cover this subject extensively enough. It even had one minor error – calling open source software “freeware”).

  7. With you on the bullshit jobs. But would defend the ACA some. Medicare4All or some other form of single-payer wasn’t going to pass. The ACA did at least get additional people covered, which was important. Beyond the insurance aspect, it also started some other important reforms, such as moving away from Fee For Service health care to various types of value based care. Single payer isn’t somehow going to fix everything wrong with the system. Medicare still has plenty of fraud, waste and abuse. It doesn’t fix the high cost of med school, lack of rural health care, lack of primary care docs, etc. It’s not a magic silver bullet.

  8. David Graeber! He was all the rage when I was doing coursework for my PhD in anthropology, and we were still talking about globalization activists and the WTO Seattle protests. In about 10 short years, the right thinking positions (against brexit, for Hillary Clinton against The Ignorant Orange Failed Businessman Sweaty Ballbag of Bullshit) have become neoliberal positions. I can’t think of a more rapid shift of practically available political positions.
    Separately, thank you for your kind message on the previous post Greg.

  9. A bit rushed so can’t read all the posts, but the great bit about obamacare reminded to note: obamacare was originally romneycare, implemented quite successfully by Romney at state level, who then had to edit his autobiography and distance himself completely from it. Hilarious irony.

  10. Nice post which puts so much in perspective. My job is to approve or set budgets for people who actually go out and do real work. I guess that puts me in the taskmaster category.

    It’s back to normal day to day work now for us in the office. I guess what WFM does to me is remind me how 90 percent of my job can be done from home. And that 90 percent actually consists of two hours at full concentration and focus..

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