The consequences of having a 'bullshit job'

NPO Radio 1
Robert Dur

The concept of bullshit jobs has been introduced by anthropologist David Graeber in his book ‘Bullshit Jobs: A Theory’ (2018). According to Graeber, over half of jobs in nowadays economies are pointless or even harmful to society. Robert Dur, Professor of Economics of Incentives and Performance at Erasmus School of Economics, explains the concept of bullshit jobs and gives advice on what to do when you are in one, in an interview with NPO Radio 1 (23 February 2022).

What is a 'bullshit job'?

The definition of a ‘bullshit job’ is a job in which people feel that they are contributing little to nothing to society, or maybe even harming society. Dur shows that in the Netherlands relatively few people feel that they have a useless job. Data from 2020 show that approximately 5% of Dutch workers experience that they have a job that is always or almost always useless, which is among the lowest in the European Union. Another 15% indicates they have a job that is useless most of the time. All in all, workers in about one in five jobs have the feeling that their job is useless most of the time.

Who decides when you have a useless job?

Assessing objectively whether you have a useless job is very hard. Therefore, this is currently based on people’s own feelings. The Professor warns that we should not underestimate the importance of people’s perceptions about the usefulness of their job, since people’s feelings regarding their jobs have far-reaching consequences. Studies have shown that motivation strongly increases when people experience a sense of meaning in their job. Moreover, a meaningful job strongly increases people’s happiness.

Where are the most useless jobs?

Dur stresses that for almost any type of job there are people who think their jobs are useless, and there are people who think their jobs are useful. However, in certain types of jobs, the amount of people who report that their job is useless is disproportionately high. These include jobs in marketing and public relations, tax consultancy, and financial management. But also in jobs such as factory line work there are relatively many people who report that their job is useless. The latter may have something to do with workers who lose sight of the greater goal of what they do at work.

Advice for people with useless jobs

Dur argues that we are currently experiencing a tight labour market. He therefore advises people to use this moment to do one of the following actions. Firstly, he advises people to look inside of their current job to find aspects which can be improved. For instance, perhaps certain inefficient long meetings can be deleted. Secondly, people can try to switch jobs to another employer. Finally, Dur concludes that there is also a responsibility for the employer to critically assess whether certain meetings, processes, and/or activities are really necessary for business operation.

More information

The full item from NPO Radio 1, 23 February 2022, can be found here (in Dutch).

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