In 2013, the American anthropologist David Graeber began to notice a strange phenomenon. “I kept running into people at parties who didn’t want to tell you what they did [for work],” he recalled when we met. Others would say “we just make up the numbers” or “I can do my job in two hours a week – don’t tell my boss!” This wasn’t mere self-effacement – “they were really doing nothing”.
To test his thesis, Graeber wrote an essay that year for the radical magazine Strike!: “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”. The response was remarkable. Thousands of workers contacted him, the publication’s website crashed and the piece was swiftly translated into more than a dozen languages.
Graeber had assumed only around 15-20 per cent of the UK population had a “bullshit job”, which he defines as “one so pointless that even the person doing it can’t justify it”. But a 2015 YouGov poll, inspired by his piece, found that 37 per cent of British workers did not believe their job made a “meaningful contribution” to the world (a further 13 per cent were unsure).
The anarchist author, whose previous books include Debt: The First 5,000 Years and The Utopia of Rules, has now expanded his piece into a book: Bullshit Jobs. I met Graeber, 57 – rumpled in mustard trousers and battered brogues – at his office at the London School of Economics, where he is professor of anthropology. Though recovering from a stomach bug, he spoke animatedly of his recent visit to Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish region of Syria. As one of the “anti-leaders” of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Graeber was impressed by the “intentional” absence of state structures. “What the Kurds are worried about is an invasion from Turkey,” he added. “They feel very betrayed because they did all the fighting [against Islamic State].”