What comes to mind when you hear the phrase “bullshit job?” You might think of a difficult, horrible job where employees are mistreated, or maybe a job made up by a CEO in order to keep their children employed. However, it actually turns out that “bullshit job” has a specific definition, as laid out in David Graeber’s 2018 book “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory.” The book (which I highly recommend) defines a bullshit job as “a form of employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence.”
So how does this work in practice? Well, a good example that Graeber gives is the job of a receptionist. Not all receptionists have bullshit jobs; in fact, many are vital to the operations of the company they work at. But some companies function perfectly well without a receptionist, perhaps because they never get calls or visitors. Even so, these companies will have a receptionist anyway, simply because it looks “unprofessional” to have an unattended front desk at an office. This means that a salaried worker must spend 40 hours a week at that front desk just to do nothing.
The book also calls attention to the increasing “bullshitization” of non-bullshit jobs, a phenomenon that is plaguing office jobs. Often, all of the work in an office worker’s eight-hour workday can be completed in only one or two hours, leaving the rest of the day to be filled with pointless meetings or by pretending to work. As Graeber notes, people with these jobs regularly report that pretending to work is far more soul-crushing than actually working over that time.
To back up his points, Graeber cites two surveys conducted in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands that claim that more than a third of workers believe they have bullshit jobs. Now, a more recent study by the University of Cambridge shows that the number may be far lower. But we still have to contend with the fact that a significant amount of jobs have a large element of pretending to work rather than actually working.
This puts us in a difficult position as college students—there is a non-zero number of us who will spend our adult careers keeping up an appearance of working hard rather than actually doing so. Bullshit jobs are more common among salaried, white-collar workers—who usually have a college degree—than among waged, blue-collar workers. If the purpose (or at least, one purpose) of college is to prepare us for a career, then we must ask: does college prepare us for a bullshit job?
To answer that, we need to talk about the skills that college helps students develop. College courses are highly results-oriented, meaning that there’s nobody to supervise you and make sure that you’re learning the material in a specific way. In fact, depending on your professor, you may not even have to do any homework, as long as you do well on all the exams; a student can study for their class in any way they want as long as it’s effective. Think about how contrary that is to the dominant American work culture—the number of bosses who don’t care what you do as long as the work gets done is minuscule compared to the number of bosses that expect you to look busy even if you have nothing to do.
Colleges also emphasize the importance of teamwork. Study groups, Supplemental Instruction sessions, peer tutors and so on—your success in college is often determined by how well you can learn alongside and work together with the people around you. But once again, this is a big contradiction to the reality of work. Obviously, it varies depending on the workplace, but many jobs are designed to have a level of atomization such that individual work—or sometimes the lack thereof—is prioritized over the collective work done by everyone in the workplace.
Both of these discrepancies between college and work point to a harsh reality: that college may not adequately prepare us for the “bullshit-ized” jobs we’re likely to have in the “real world.” Rather, university prepares us for life as academics or professionals, such as doctors, lawyers and architects. But many of us will not end up as an academic or professional but instead be stuck with a bullshit job that pays the bills.
Now, I’m not so arrogant as to think that the college experience should be changed to prepare us for bullshit jobs just as much as academic jobs—especially because doing so would make college horrible. Rather, there needs to be a paradigm shift among students. It’s important for us to realize that the jobs we get after graduation will likely not be as glamorous or even as useful as we expected. There are multiple examples in “Bullshit Jobs” of recent graduates finding this out the hard way and suffering because of it. Even though much of the work we do as students at Case Western Reserve University serves no practical purpose, we should still cherish that work, as it may be the most meaningful work that some of us will do in our careers.