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BS Jobs: How Meaningless Work Wears Us Down

Anthropologist David Graeber says there's a perverse logic that has allowed pointless jobs to proliferate in many workplaces.
Yang Liu
Getty Images
Anthropologist David Graeber says there's a perverse logic that has allowed pointless jobs to proliferate in many workplaces.

Have you ever had a job where you stopped and asked yourself: what am I doing here? If I quit tomorrow, would anyone even notice?

In 2013, anthropologist David Graeberwrote an article in which he described these types of positions as "bullshit jobs." He received a flood of responses from people for whom this label struck a chord — people who felt their work was, essentially, meaningless.

"People would say things like, 'Oh my God, it's true. I'm a corporate lawyer. I contribute nothing to humanity, I'm just miserable all the time.' I realized this was a much larger phenomenon than I had imagined," he says.

Graeber says the stories he heard from workers are reinforced by recent surveys. In 2015, YouGov, a market research company, conducted a poll in London to understand how British workers felt about their jobs. Londoners were asked, "Is your job making a meaningful contribution to the world?" Thirty-seven percent of respondents said no. Graeber believes the number is probably higher than that.

This week on Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam talks with Graeber about the rise of bullshit jobs and how these positions can affect the people who hold them.

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, and Adhiti Bandlamudi. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Parth Shah is a producer and reporter in the Programming department at NPR. He came to NPR in 2016 as a Kroc Fellow.
Laura Kwerel