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Episode
26

Why Are So Many Jobs So Pointless? The Rise of the Bullsh*t Job

Feb 14, 2020
Economics
-
21
minutes
Work life
Business
Philosophy

Why do so many jobs seem quite so pointless?

Today we're taking a look at the phenomenon of the bullsh*t job, and its effect on us individually and as a society.

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[00:00:02] Hello hello, hello, and welcome to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:09] I'm Alastair Budge.

[00:00:12] I have to give a quick parental guidance warning for this podcast as there is a slightly naughty word that is going to come up quite frequently. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise, as the word is also in the title of this podcast, so now is your time to press pause if you are not ready.

[00:00:31] Okay then the naughty but not really that naughty word is bullshit. 

[00:00:38] Today, we are going to be asking ourselves why so many jobs seem so pointless and talking about the phenomenon of the rise of bullshit jobs.

[00:00:51] Before we jump right into the heart of the podcast though, I just want to remind those of you listening on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iVoox or wherever you get your podcasts that you can get the transcript and key vocabulary for this podcast at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:10] The transcript is super helpful for following every single word that I say and not missing one single thing, and the key vocabulary provides you with definitions of the trickier words, so you can build your vocabulary at the same time as improving your listening. 

[00:01:27] So check that out, it's at Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:31] Okay then bullshit jobs. 

[00:01:34] So this is an idea pioneered by an anthropologist from the London University of Economics called David Graeber. 

[00:01:45] In 2013 he wrote an article called On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, which essentially argued that a large proportion of the jobs that are currently in existence are pointless, are bullshit.

[00:02:04] He said if they went away tomorrow, these jobs, there would actually be no meaningful difference to the world, and in fact, it could be a better place. 

[00:02:18] He said, about bullshit jobs, he said, it is a scar across our collective soul, yet virtually no one talks about it. 

[00:02:30] So what are these bullshit jobs? 

[00:02:33] Why are they bullshit and what should we do about it?

[00:02:38] Well, the jobs he took aim at, the ones he was referring to, were mainly those in the fields of things like finance, law, human resources, public relations and consultancy. 

[00:02:54] You might consider them classic office jobs that you might imagine someone wearing a suit for and spending a lot of time in meetings and sitting in front of a computer.

[00:03:07] He published the article in a slightly obscure magazine called Strike, and it was a viral hit, a huge, almost overnight success. 

[00:03:20] The article had more than 1 million visitors and it crashed the website.

[00:03:27] It was translated into 12 languages, and some guerilla activists even replaced hundreds of adverts inside London tube carriages, inside the London Metro, with quotes from the article in order to provoke commuters into realising the pointlessness of their jobs. 

[00:03:51] The article was reproduced in magazines in dozens of different countries and Graeber, that author, received hundreds of emails from people all over the world telling him about their own completely pointless, completely bullshit jobs. 

[00:04:10] He never expected the article to have such an impact, but the reception it received really validated the fact that what he had written about had really struck a chord, he had published something that resonated with a huge amount of people.

[00:04:30] In 2018, five years after the original article, he published a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which is an extension of the essay, and also really interestingly, it includes a lot of the examples that he received from people around the world as a reaction to the original article. 

[00:04:55] It's an excellent book, a fascinating read, and I'd definitely recommend it for those of you that feel comfortable enough reading books in English.

[00:05:04] So today we are going to be talking about these bullshit jobs, the kinds of jobs that Graeber takes aim at, the reasons for this and the impact it has on society. 

[00:05:18] So Graeber says that a vast amount of jobs that we have in the world today are pointless, that they exist for pointless reasons, and the world would be a better place if we got rid of them altogether.

[00:05:32] The definition of a bullshit job, according to Graeber is, and I'm just quoting directly from him now, it is "a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious, so damaging, 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". 

[00:06:03] So that's the definition of a bullshit job according to Graeber. 

[00:06:08] He puts these bullshit jobs into five different categories. 

[00:06:14] The first one he calls flunkies. So these are people who serve to make their superiors, their bosses feel important, so things like receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, and so on. 

[00:06:33] The second category is the category of what he calls goons. So these are people who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, so lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists. 

[00:06:52] The third category is what he calls duct tapers.

[00:06:57] So duct tape is the special type of sticky tape, the sellotape that you put on to cover up a hole or a crack. 

[00:07:06] Graeber talks about duct tapers, saying that they are the people who try to smooth over preventable problems, so programmers, developers who are repairing poor quality code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don't arrive.

[00:07:28] The fourth category is what Graeber calls box tickers. So people who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy, as a replacement for action, for actually doing things. So people like performance managers, in-house magazine journalists, leisure coordinators. 

[00:07:53] And the fifth category of bullshit jobs is taskmasters. So these are people who manage or create extra work for people who don't need it. So middle management, leadership professionals. 

[00:08:09] So those are our five categories of bullshit jobs. Flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. 

[00:08:20] Graeber points out that despite the prediction of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 that increases in productivity would lead to everyone working 15 hours a week, what has actually happened is that a whole category of jobs has emerged that has no real purpose in society other than the bullshit purposes in the five categories that we just spoke about. 

[00:08:50] If you have ever worked in any sort of medium to large organization, whether that's in the private or public sector, I'm sure that a lot of this might be familiar to you.

[00:09:04] On a personal level, I used to work both as an employee and a contractor, a consultant to some quite big companies, and I was astounded to see how much of the work that people do in these companies is exactly this, is pointless, is bullshit. 

[00:09:25] It's especially the case with private companies, which you might expect would be more efficient as every employee who doesn't need to be there and isn't actually adding value is reducing the profitability of the company.

[00:09:43] Capitalism in theory, should get rid of these kinds of inefficiencies

[00:09:51] So why, Graeber asks, do such jobs exist? 

[00:09:57] Graeber suggests that it's actually a sort of systematic problem. Politicians are obsessed with employment numbers, always trying to get more and more people into work. 

[00:10:11] Plus people want to feel like they are busy and contributing to society.

[00:10:17] Not working is almost demonized, almost thought of as a bad thing to be doing, and so people engage in these kinds of pointless, these bullshit jobs, even though they know that they aren't really adding any huge value to society.

[00:10:38] Graeber suggests that these jobs are actually really damaging to us individually and collectively. 

[00:10:46] He also says that one result of the bullshitization of many jobs is that people look down on, they almost disparage, jobs that are inherently useful and assume that the pay for these kinds of jobs, these useful jobs should be lower, almost because they have a value to society and are good jobs, they don't need to be paid as much. 

[00:11:16] So things like teachers, nurses, carers, where there is an obvious and tangible benefit to society, these are jobs in the UK at least where the pay is comparatively low, while what Graeber would call bullshit jobs, corporate lawyers, financial consultants, and so on are some of the highest paid.

[00:11:43] The solution could be, Graeber argues, for some sort of universal basic income

[00:11:51] If people are being paid large amounts to do bullshit jobs where not a huge amount of value is being created, why not just pay everyone a fixed amount so that they are freer, they are more free to engage in their own passions and do things that are actually valuable, not pointless work.

[00:12:16] The logic goes, if someone is sitting at their desk for 40 hours and their job isn't actually contributing anything, why make them sit at their desk in the first place? 

[00:12:29] It really is an interesting idea and it struck a chord, it resonated with me as I've experienced a lot of this firsthand

[00:12:39] And I'd guess even if you haven't ever been exposed to working environments where there are these kinds of pointless or bullshit jobs yourself, I guess that you might recognise a lot of what Graeber talks about in the book through conversations and experiences shared with friends or family.

[00:13:02] And one thing I think is absolutely fascinating is that after the original article was published, which was more just a theory saying he thought these things existed, so after this thing was published, he was contacted by people all over the world saying, this is exactly my life, you've hit the nail on the head, and they would recount, they would tell him exactly what they did.

[00:13:29] Lots of them are really interesting, so much so that I want to finish today's podcast by reading out five examples from the book. 

[00:13:39] So these are examples that were sent in by these anonymous workers who did bullshit jobs.  

[00:13:46] Our first is called guarding an empty room, and I'm just reading this out directly from the person who did the job.

[00:13:58] I worked as a museum guard for a global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused. 

[00:14:06] My job was to guard that empty room ensuring no museum guests touched the, well, nothing in the room, and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation like books, phones, et cetera. 

[00:14:29] As nobody was ever there, I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours waiting for the fire alarm to sound. 

[00:14:40] If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it. 

[00:14:47] Okay. 

[00:14:48] Our second example is called copying and pasting.

[00:14:53] I was given one responsibility. Watching an inbox that received emails in a certain form from employees asking for tech help and copy and paste it into a different form. 

[00:15:08] Not only was this a textbook example of an automatable job, it actually used to be automated. There was some disagreement between managers that led to a standardisation that nullified, that got rid of, the automation.

[00:15:25] The third example is called looking busy. 

[00:15:32] I was hired as a temp, as a temporary worker, but not assigned any duties. I was told it was very important that I stay busy, but I wasn't to play games or surf the web. My primary function seemed to be occupying a chair and contributing to the decorum of the office.

[00:15:56] At first, this seemed pretty easy, but I quickly discovered that looking busy when you aren't is one of the least pleasant office activities imaginable. 

[00:16:07] In fact, after two days it was clear that this was going to be the worst job I ever had. I installed Lynx, a text-only web browser that basically looks like a DOS, a disc operating system window, no images, just monospaced text on an endless black background.

[00:16:30] My absent minded browsing of the internet now appeared to be the work of a skilled technician. The web browser, a terminal into which diligently typed commands signalled my endless productivity.

[00:16:43] Fourth, we have a bullshit job called sitting in the right place. 

[00:16:50] I worked in a college dormitory during the summer. I have worked at this job for three years, and at this point it is still unclear to me what my actual duties are. 

[00:17:02] Primarily, it seems that my job consists of physically occupying space at the front desk.

[00:17:09] While engaged in this, I am free to pursue my own projects, which I take to mean mainly creating rubber band balls out of rubber bands I find in the cabinets. When I'm not busy with this, I might be checking the office email account. I have basically no training or administrative power of course, so all I can do is forward these emails to my boss.

[00:17:35] I move packages from the door where they get dropped off to the package room, answering phone calls, again, I know nothing and rarely answer a question to the caller's satisfaction or finding ketchup packets from 2005 in the desk drawers. For these duties I am paid $14 an hour. 

[00:17:55] Then the last one is my favourite one.

[00:18:01] I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies' marketing departments.

[00:18:07] I often work with global PR agencies on this and write reports with titles like "how to improve engagement among digital healthcare stakeholders". 

[00:18:18] It is pure, unadulterated bullshit and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments.

[00:18:26] I was recently able to charge around 12,000 pounds to write a two page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn't used in the end because they didn't manage to get to that agenda point. 

[00:18:44] Fascinating, right, these examples? 

[00:18:47] If you enjoyed this podcast and this idea of bullshit jobs, then I'd definitely recommend picking up a copy of the book.

[00:18:55] It is really an interesting read. The language isn't super complicated and if you could understand most of the examples I just read out, then you should have no trouble reading the book. 

[00:19:08] Okay that is it for today's little foray into bullshit jobs. It's a really interesting idea, and I'd love to know what you think.

[00:19:19] You can email us, which is hi@leonardoenglish.com or say hi on Facebook or Instagram. 

[00:19:27] As always, if you are looking for the transcripts or key vocabulary, then you can grab yourself a membership to Leonardo English and get access to every transcript and key vocabulary for every podcast we've ever done over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:19:45] As I said, the transcripts can be the most amazing resource to help you follow every word and the key vocabulary is super useful for learning new words and phrases. 

[00:19:56] And final point, if you are listening on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iVoox or wherever you get your podcasts, then remember to hit that subscribe or like button or follow button so you get the next podcasts zooming into your app when they next come out, which is every Tuesday and Friday. 

[00:20:14] You've been listening to English Learning For Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:20:20] I'm Alastair Budge and I will catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]



Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:02] Hello hello, hello, and welcome to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:09] I'm Alastair Budge.

[00:00:12] I have to give a quick parental guidance warning for this podcast as there is a slightly naughty word that is going to come up quite frequently. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise, as the word is also in the title of this podcast, so now is your time to press pause if you are not ready.

[00:00:31] Okay then the naughty but not really that naughty word is bullshit. 

[00:00:38] Today, we are going to be asking ourselves why so many jobs seem so pointless and talking about the phenomenon of the rise of bullshit jobs.

[00:00:51] Before we jump right into the heart of the podcast though, I just want to remind those of you listening on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iVoox or wherever you get your podcasts that you can get the transcript and key vocabulary for this podcast at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:10] The transcript is super helpful for following every single word that I say and not missing one single thing, and the key vocabulary provides you with definitions of the trickier words, so you can build your vocabulary at the same time as improving your listening. 

[00:01:27] So check that out, it's at Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:31] Okay then bullshit jobs. 

[00:01:34] So this is an idea pioneered by an anthropologist from the London University of Economics called David Graeber. 

[00:01:45] In 2013 he wrote an article called On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, which essentially argued that a large proportion of the jobs that are currently in existence are pointless, are bullshit.

[00:02:04] He said if they went away tomorrow, these jobs, there would actually be no meaningful difference to the world, and in fact, it could be a better place. 

[00:02:18] He said, about bullshit jobs, he said, it is a scar across our collective soul, yet virtually no one talks about it. 

[00:02:30] So what are these bullshit jobs? 

[00:02:33] Why are they bullshit and what should we do about it?

[00:02:38] Well, the jobs he took aim at, the ones he was referring to, were mainly those in the fields of things like finance, law, human resources, public relations and consultancy. 

[00:02:54] You might consider them classic office jobs that you might imagine someone wearing a suit for and spending a lot of time in meetings and sitting in front of a computer.

[00:03:07] He published the article in a slightly obscure magazine called Strike, and it was a viral hit, a huge, almost overnight success. 

[00:03:20] The article had more than 1 million visitors and it crashed the website.

[00:03:27] It was translated into 12 languages, and some guerilla activists even replaced hundreds of adverts inside London tube carriages, inside the London Metro, with quotes from the article in order to provoke commuters into realising the pointlessness of their jobs. 

[00:03:51] The article was reproduced in magazines in dozens of different countries and Graeber, that author, received hundreds of emails from people all over the world telling him about their own completely pointless, completely bullshit jobs. 

[00:04:10] He never expected the article to have such an impact, but the reception it received really validated the fact that what he had written about had really struck a chord, he had published something that resonated with a huge amount of people.

[00:04:30] In 2018, five years after the original article, he published a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which is an extension of the essay, and also really interestingly, it includes a lot of the examples that he received from people around the world as a reaction to the original article. 

[00:04:55] It's an excellent book, a fascinating read, and I'd definitely recommend it for those of you that feel comfortable enough reading books in English.

[00:05:04] So today we are going to be talking about these bullshit jobs, the kinds of jobs that Graeber takes aim at, the reasons for this and the impact it has on society. 

[00:05:18] So Graeber says that a vast amount of jobs that we have in the world today are pointless, that they exist for pointless reasons, and the world would be a better place if we got rid of them altogether.

[00:05:32] The definition of a bullshit job, according to Graeber is, and I'm just quoting directly from him now, it is "a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious, so damaging, 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". 

[00:06:03] So that's the definition of a bullshit job according to Graeber. 

[00:06:08] He puts these bullshit jobs into five different categories. 

[00:06:14] The first one he calls flunkies. So these are people who serve to make their superiors, their bosses feel important, so things like receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, and so on. 

[00:06:33] The second category is the category of what he calls goons. So these are people who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, so lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists. 

[00:06:52] The third category is what he calls duct tapers.

[00:06:57] So duct tape is the special type of sticky tape, the sellotape that you put on to cover up a hole or a crack. 

[00:07:06] Graeber talks about duct tapers, saying that they are the people who try to smooth over preventable problems, so programmers, developers who are repairing poor quality code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don't arrive.

[00:07:28] The fourth category is what Graeber calls box tickers. So people who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy, as a replacement for action, for actually doing things. So people like performance managers, in-house magazine journalists, leisure coordinators. 

[00:07:53] And the fifth category of bullshit jobs is taskmasters. So these are people who manage or create extra work for people who don't need it. So middle management, leadership professionals. 

[00:08:09] So those are our five categories of bullshit jobs. Flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. 

[00:08:20] Graeber points out that despite the prediction of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 that increases in productivity would lead to everyone working 15 hours a week, what has actually happened is that a whole category of jobs has emerged that has no real purpose in society other than the bullshit purposes in the five categories that we just spoke about. 

[00:08:50] If you have ever worked in any sort of medium to large organization, whether that's in the private or public sector, I'm sure that a lot of this might be familiar to you.

[00:09:04] On a personal level, I used to work both as an employee and a contractor, a consultant to some quite big companies, and I was astounded to see how much of the work that people do in these companies is exactly this, is pointless, is bullshit. 

[00:09:25] It's especially the case with private companies, which you might expect would be more efficient as every employee who doesn't need to be there and isn't actually adding value is reducing the profitability of the company.

[00:09:43] Capitalism in theory, should get rid of these kinds of inefficiencies

[00:09:51] So why, Graeber asks, do such jobs exist? 

[00:09:57] Graeber suggests that it's actually a sort of systematic problem. Politicians are obsessed with employment numbers, always trying to get more and more people into work. 

[00:10:11] Plus people want to feel like they are busy and contributing to society.

[00:10:17] Not working is almost demonized, almost thought of as a bad thing to be doing, and so people engage in these kinds of pointless, these bullshit jobs, even though they know that they aren't really adding any huge value to society.

[00:10:38] Graeber suggests that these jobs are actually really damaging to us individually and collectively. 

[00:10:46] He also says that one result of the bullshitization of many jobs is that people look down on, they almost disparage, jobs that are inherently useful and assume that the pay for these kinds of jobs, these useful jobs should be lower, almost because they have a value to society and are good jobs, they don't need to be paid as much. 

[00:11:16] So things like teachers, nurses, carers, where there is an obvious and tangible benefit to society, these are jobs in the UK at least where the pay is comparatively low, while what Graeber would call bullshit jobs, corporate lawyers, financial consultants, and so on are some of the highest paid.

[00:11:43] The solution could be, Graeber argues, for some sort of universal basic income

[00:11:51] If people are being paid large amounts to do bullshit jobs where not a huge amount of value is being created, why not just pay everyone a fixed amount so that they are freer, they are more free to engage in their own passions and do things that are actually valuable, not pointless work.

[00:12:16] The logic goes, if someone is sitting at their desk for 40 hours and their job isn't actually contributing anything, why make them sit at their desk in the first place? 

[00:12:29] It really is an interesting idea and it struck a chord, it resonated with me as I've experienced a lot of this firsthand

[00:12:39] And I'd guess even if you haven't ever been exposed to working environments where there are these kinds of pointless or bullshit jobs yourself, I guess that you might recognise a lot of what Graeber talks about in the book through conversations and experiences shared with friends or family.

[00:13:02] And one thing I think is absolutely fascinating is that after the original article was published, which was more just a theory saying he thought these things existed, so after this thing was published, he was contacted by people all over the world saying, this is exactly my life, you've hit the nail on the head, and they would recount, they would tell him exactly what they did.

[00:13:29] Lots of them are really interesting, so much so that I want to finish today's podcast by reading out five examples from the book. 

[00:13:39] So these are examples that were sent in by these anonymous workers who did bullshit jobs.  

[00:13:46] Our first is called guarding an empty room, and I'm just reading this out directly from the person who did the job.

[00:13:58] I worked as a museum guard for a global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused. 

[00:14:06] My job was to guard that empty room ensuring no museum guests touched the, well, nothing in the room, and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation like books, phones, et cetera. 

[00:14:29] As nobody was ever there, I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours waiting for the fire alarm to sound. 

[00:14:40] If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it. 

[00:14:47] Okay. 

[00:14:48] Our second example is called copying and pasting.

[00:14:53] I was given one responsibility. Watching an inbox that received emails in a certain form from employees asking for tech help and copy and paste it into a different form. 

[00:15:08] Not only was this a textbook example of an automatable job, it actually used to be automated. There was some disagreement between managers that led to a standardisation that nullified, that got rid of, the automation.

[00:15:25] The third example is called looking busy. 

[00:15:32] I was hired as a temp, as a temporary worker, but not assigned any duties. I was told it was very important that I stay busy, but I wasn't to play games or surf the web. My primary function seemed to be occupying a chair and contributing to the decorum of the office.

[00:15:56] At first, this seemed pretty easy, but I quickly discovered that looking busy when you aren't is one of the least pleasant office activities imaginable. 

[00:16:07] In fact, after two days it was clear that this was going to be the worst job I ever had. I installed Lynx, a text-only web browser that basically looks like a DOS, a disc operating system window, no images, just monospaced text on an endless black background.

[00:16:30] My absent minded browsing of the internet now appeared to be the work of a skilled technician. The web browser, a terminal into which diligently typed commands signalled my endless productivity.

[00:16:43] Fourth, we have a bullshit job called sitting in the right place. 

[00:16:50] I worked in a college dormitory during the summer. I have worked at this job for three years, and at this point it is still unclear to me what my actual duties are. 

[00:17:02] Primarily, it seems that my job consists of physically occupying space at the front desk.

[00:17:09] While engaged in this, I am free to pursue my own projects, which I take to mean mainly creating rubber band balls out of rubber bands I find in the cabinets. When I'm not busy with this, I might be checking the office email account. I have basically no training or administrative power of course, so all I can do is forward these emails to my boss.

[00:17:35] I move packages from the door where they get dropped off to the package room, answering phone calls, again, I know nothing and rarely answer a question to the caller's satisfaction or finding ketchup packets from 2005 in the desk drawers. For these duties I am paid $14 an hour. 

[00:17:55] Then the last one is my favourite one.

[00:18:01] I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies' marketing departments.

[00:18:07] I often work with global PR agencies on this and write reports with titles like "how to improve engagement among digital healthcare stakeholders". 

[00:18:18] It is pure, unadulterated bullshit and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments.

[00:18:26] I was recently able to charge around 12,000 pounds to write a two page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn't used in the end because they didn't manage to get to that agenda point. 

[00:18:44] Fascinating, right, these examples? 

[00:18:47] If you enjoyed this podcast and this idea of bullshit jobs, then I'd definitely recommend picking up a copy of the book.

[00:18:55] It is really an interesting read. The language isn't super complicated and if you could understand most of the examples I just read out, then you should have no trouble reading the book. 

[00:19:08] Okay that is it for today's little foray into bullshit jobs. It's a really interesting idea, and I'd love to know what you think.

[00:19:19] You can email us, which is hi@leonardoenglish.com or say hi on Facebook or Instagram. 

[00:19:27] As always, if you are looking for the transcripts or key vocabulary, then you can grab yourself a membership to Leonardo English and get access to every transcript and key vocabulary for every podcast we've ever done over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:19:45] As I said, the transcripts can be the most amazing resource to help you follow every word and the key vocabulary is super useful for learning new words and phrases. 

[00:19:56] And final point, if you are listening on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iVoox or wherever you get your podcasts, then remember to hit that subscribe or like button or follow button so you get the next podcasts zooming into your app when they next come out, which is every Tuesday and Friday. 

[00:20:14] You've been listening to English Learning For Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:20:20] I'm Alastair Budge and I will catch you in the next episode.


[END OF PODCAST]



[00:00:02] Hello hello, hello, and welcome to the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:09] I'm Alastair Budge.

[00:00:12] I have to give a quick parental guidance warning for this podcast as there is a slightly naughty word that is going to come up quite frequently. It shouldn't come as a huge surprise, as the word is also in the title of this podcast, so now is your time to press pause if you are not ready.

[00:00:31] Okay then the naughty but not really that naughty word is bullshit. 

[00:00:38] Today, we are going to be asking ourselves why so many jobs seem so pointless and talking about the phenomenon of the rise of bullshit jobs.

[00:00:51] Before we jump right into the heart of the podcast though, I just want to remind those of you listening on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iVoox or wherever you get your podcasts that you can get the transcript and key vocabulary for this podcast at leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:01:10] The transcript is super helpful for following every single word that I say and not missing one single thing, and the key vocabulary provides you with definitions of the trickier words, so you can build your vocabulary at the same time as improving your listening. 

[00:01:27] So check that out, it's at Leonardoenglish.com.

[00:01:31] Okay then bullshit jobs. 

[00:01:34] So this is an idea pioneered by an anthropologist from the London University of Economics called David Graeber. 

[00:01:45] In 2013 he wrote an article called On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, which essentially argued that a large proportion of the jobs that are currently in existence are pointless, are bullshit.

[00:02:04] He said if they went away tomorrow, these jobs, there would actually be no meaningful difference to the world, and in fact, it could be a better place. 

[00:02:18] He said, about bullshit jobs, he said, it is a scar across our collective soul, yet virtually no one talks about it. 

[00:02:30] So what are these bullshit jobs? 

[00:02:33] Why are they bullshit and what should we do about it?

[00:02:38] Well, the jobs he took aim at, the ones he was referring to, were mainly those in the fields of things like finance, law, human resources, public relations and consultancy. 

[00:02:54] You might consider them classic office jobs that you might imagine someone wearing a suit for and spending a lot of time in meetings and sitting in front of a computer.

[00:03:07] He published the article in a slightly obscure magazine called Strike, and it was a viral hit, a huge, almost overnight success. 

[00:03:20] The article had more than 1 million visitors and it crashed the website.

[00:03:27] It was translated into 12 languages, and some guerilla activists even replaced hundreds of adverts inside London tube carriages, inside the London Metro, with quotes from the article in order to provoke commuters into realising the pointlessness of their jobs. 

[00:03:51] The article was reproduced in magazines in dozens of different countries and Graeber, that author, received hundreds of emails from people all over the world telling him about their own completely pointless, completely bullshit jobs. 

[00:04:10] He never expected the article to have such an impact, but the reception it received really validated the fact that what he had written about had really struck a chord, he had published something that resonated with a huge amount of people.

[00:04:30] In 2018, five years after the original article, he published a book called Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, which is an extension of the essay, and also really interestingly, it includes a lot of the examples that he received from people around the world as a reaction to the original article. 

[00:04:55] It's an excellent book, a fascinating read, and I'd definitely recommend it for those of you that feel comfortable enough reading books in English.

[00:05:04] So today we are going to be talking about these bullshit jobs, the kinds of jobs that Graeber takes aim at, the reasons for this and the impact it has on society. 

[00:05:18] So Graeber says that a vast amount of jobs that we have in the world today are pointless, that they exist for pointless reasons, and the world would be a better place if we got rid of them altogether.

[00:05:32] The definition of a bullshit job, according to Graeber is, and I'm just quoting directly from him now, it is "a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious, so damaging, 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". 

[00:06:03] So that's the definition of a bullshit job according to Graeber. 

[00:06:08] He puts these bullshit jobs into five different categories. 

[00:06:14] The first one he calls flunkies. So these are people who serve to make their superiors, their bosses feel important, so things like receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, and so on. 

[00:06:33] The second category is the category of what he calls goons. So these are people who act aggressively on behalf of their employers, so lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists. 

[00:06:52] The third category is what he calls duct tapers.

[00:06:57] So duct tape is the special type of sticky tape, the sellotape that you put on to cover up a hole or a crack. 

[00:07:06] Graeber talks about duct tapers, saying that they are the people who try to smooth over preventable problems, so programmers, developers who are repairing poor quality code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don't arrive.

[00:07:28] The fourth category is what Graeber calls box tickers. So people who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy, as a replacement for action, for actually doing things. So people like performance managers, in-house magazine journalists, leisure coordinators. 

[00:07:53] And the fifth category of bullshit jobs is taskmasters. So these are people who manage or create extra work for people who don't need it. So middle management, leadership professionals. 

[00:08:09] So those are our five categories of bullshit jobs. Flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters. 

[00:08:20] Graeber points out that despite the prediction of the famous economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 that increases in productivity would lead to everyone working 15 hours a week, what has actually happened is that a whole category of jobs has emerged that has no real purpose in society other than the bullshit purposes in the five categories that we just spoke about. 

[00:08:50] If you have ever worked in any sort of medium to large organization, whether that's in the private or public sector, I'm sure that a lot of this might be familiar to you.

[00:09:04] On a personal level, I used to work both as an employee and a contractor, a consultant to some quite big companies, and I was astounded to see how much of the work that people do in these companies is exactly this, is pointless, is bullshit. 

[00:09:25] It's especially the case with private companies, which you might expect would be more efficient as every employee who doesn't need to be there and isn't actually adding value is reducing the profitability of the company.

[00:09:43] Capitalism in theory, should get rid of these kinds of inefficiencies

[00:09:51] So why, Graeber asks, do such jobs exist? 

[00:09:57] Graeber suggests that it's actually a sort of systematic problem. Politicians are obsessed with employment numbers, always trying to get more and more people into work. 

[00:10:11] Plus people want to feel like they are busy and contributing to society.

[00:10:17] Not working is almost demonized, almost thought of as a bad thing to be doing, and so people engage in these kinds of pointless, these bullshit jobs, even though they know that they aren't really adding any huge value to society.

[00:10:38] Graeber suggests that these jobs are actually really damaging to us individually and collectively. 

[00:10:46] He also says that one result of the bullshitization of many jobs is that people look down on, they almost disparage, jobs that are inherently useful and assume that the pay for these kinds of jobs, these useful jobs should be lower, almost because they have a value to society and are good jobs, they don't need to be paid as much. 

[00:11:16] So things like teachers, nurses, carers, where there is an obvious and tangible benefit to society, these are jobs in the UK at least where the pay is comparatively low, while what Graeber would call bullshit jobs, corporate lawyers, financial consultants, and so on are some of the highest paid.

[00:11:43] The solution could be, Graeber argues, for some sort of universal basic income

[00:11:51] If people are being paid large amounts to do bullshit jobs where not a huge amount of value is being created, why not just pay everyone a fixed amount so that they are freer, they are more free to engage in their own passions and do things that are actually valuable, not pointless work.

[00:12:16] The logic goes, if someone is sitting at their desk for 40 hours and their job isn't actually contributing anything, why make them sit at their desk in the first place? 

[00:12:29] It really is an interesting idea and it struck a chord, it resonated with me as I've experienced a lot of this firsthand

[00:12:39] And I'd guess even if you haven't ever been exposed to working environments where there are these kinds of pointless or bullshit jobs yourself, I guess that you might recognise a lot of what Graeber talks about in the book through conversations and experiences shared with friends or family.

[00:13:02] And one thing I think is absolutely fascinating is that after the original article was published, which was more just a theory saying he thought these things existed, so after this thing was published, he was contacted by people all over the world saying, this is exactly my life, you've hit the nail on the head, and they would recount, they would tell him exactly what they did.

[00:13:29] Lots of them are really interesting, so much so that I want to finish today's podcast by reading out five examples from the book. 

[00:13:39] So these are examples that were sent in by these anonymous workers who did bullshit jobs.  

[00:13:46] Our first is called guarding an empty room, and I'm just reading this out directly from the person who did the job.

[00:13:58] I worked as a museum guard for a global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused. 

[00:14:06] My job was to guard that empty room ensuring no museum guests touched the, well, nothing in the room, and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation like books, phones, et cetera. 

[00:14:29] As nobody was ever there, I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours waiting for the fire alarm to sound. 

[00:14:40] If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it. 

[00:14:47] Okay. 

[00:14:48] Our second example is called copying and pasting.

[00:14:53] I was given one responsibility. Watching an inbox that received emails in a certain form from employees asking for tech help and copy and paste it into a different form. 

[00:15:08] Not only was this a textbook example of an automatable job, it actually used to be automated. There was some disagreement between managers that led to a standardisation that nullified, that got rid of, the automation.

[00:15:25] The third example is called looking busy. 

[00:15:32] I was hired as a temp, as a temporary worker, but not assigned any duties. I was told it was very important that I stay busy, but I wasn't to play games or surf the web. My primary function seemed to be occupying a chair and contributing to the decorum of the office.

[00:15:56] At first, this seemed pretty easy, but I quickly discovered that looking busy when you aren't is one of the least pleasant office activities imaginable. 

[00:16:07] In fact, after two days it was clear that this was going to be the worst job I ever had. I installed Lynx, a text-only web browser that basically looks like a DOS, a disc operating system window, no images, just monospaced text on an endless black background.

[00:16:30] My absent minded browsing of the internet now appeared to be the work of a skilled technician. The web browser, a terminal into which diligently typed commands signalled my endless productivity.

[00:16:43] Fourth, we have a bullshit job called sitting in the right place. 

[00:16:50] I worked in a college dormitory during the summer. I have worked at this job for three years, and at this point it is still unclear to me what my actual duties are. 

[00:17:02] Primarily, it seems that my job consists of physically occupying space at the front desk.

[00:17:09] While engaged in this, I am free to pursue my own projects, which I take to mean mainly creating rubber band balls out of rubber bands I find in the cabinets. When I'm not busy with this, I might be checking the office email account. I have basically no training or administrative power of course, so all I can do is forward these emails to my boss.

[00:17:35] I move packages from the door where they get dropped off to the package room, answering phone calls, again, I know nothing and rarely answer a question to the caller's satisfaction or finding ketchup packets from 2005 in the desk drawers. For these duties I am paid $14 an hour. 

[00:17:55] Then the last one is my favourite one.

[00:18:01] I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies' marketing departments.

[00:18:07] I often work with global PR agencies on this and write reports with titles like "how to improve engagement among digital healthcare stakeholders". 

[00:18:18] It is pure, unadulterated bullshit and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments.

[00:18:26] I was recently able to charge around 12,000 pounds to write a two page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting. The report wasn't used in the end because they didn't manage to get to that agenda point. 

[00:18:44] Fascinating, right, these examples? 

[00:18:47] If you enjoyed this podcast and this idea of bullshit jobs, then I'd definitely recommend picking up a copy of the book.

[00:18:55] It is really an interesting read. The language isn't super complicated and if you could understand most of the examples I just read out, then you should have no trouble reading the book. 

[00:19:08] Okay that is it for today's little foray into bullshit jobs. It's a really interesting idea, and I'd love to know what you think.

[00:19:19] You can email us, which is hi@leonardoenglish.com or say hi on Facebook or Instagram. 

[00:19:27] As always, if you are looking for the transcripts or key vocabulary, then you can grab yourself a membership to Leonardo English and get access to every transcript and key vocabulary for every podcast we've ever done over on the website, which is Leonardoenglish.com. 

[00:19:45] As I said, the transcripts can be the most amazing resource to help you follow every word and the key vocabulary is super useful for learning new words and phrases. 

[00:19:56] And final point, if you are listening on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iVoox or wherever you get your podcasts, then remember to hit that subscribe or like button or follow button so you get the next podcasts zooming into your app when they next come out, which is every Tuesday and Friday. 

[00:20:14] You've been listening to English Learning For Curious Minds by Leonardo English. 

[00:20:20] I'm Alastair Budge and I will catch you in the next episode.


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