BS jobs, sh*t jobs and moral envy

  • Huge swaths of people spend their days performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.
  • It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs for the sake of keeping us all working.
  • The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound.  It is a scar across our collective soul.  Yet noone talks about it.
  • How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? 
  • David Graeber: On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs (2013)

David Graeber, in his new book, Bullshit Jobs: a Theory, describes the frustrations of people doing jobs that they know are useless or even harmful, because the meaningful jobs are either unavailable or low-paid.

He said that forcing people to engage on tedious activities that serve no useful purpose, or, worse still, pretending to work when they actually aren’t, constitutes a kind of spiritual violence.

Not all useless or harmful jobs are BS jobs. Graeber defines a BS job as one you know is useless, but you have to pretend is necessary.

I think many of the people who invent BS jobs, or invent useless tasks for the useful workers, are under the impression they are making a positive contribution.  Graeber said his strongest critics are business owners who deny the possibility that they could be paying anybody to do anything useless.

A certain number of people think the world is divided into predators and prey, and pride themselves on being successful predators.  An example would be the bankers and financiers who, prior to the 2008 financial crash, made subprime mortgage loans to suckers who could never pay them off, then collateralized the mortgages and sold them to other suckers.

What all these jobs—hedge fund managers, telemarketers, diversity consultants, receptionists who never get phone calls, consultants whose advice is never heeded, supervisors with nothing to supervise—is that, if they went on strike, nobody would notice.

What Graeber calls the sh•t jobs are just the opposite.  Food service workers, health care workers, trash collectors, janitors and cleaners—all these workers labor under worse conditions and for lower pay than in BS jobs, and, contrary to reason and justice, they get less respect.

Coincidentally or not, the sh•t jobs are disproportionately done by black people, Hispanics and immigrants.


Graeber said many of us have come to accept the idea that work consists of following somebody’s order to do something we dislike.  It follows, then, that if you want good pay, job security and benefits, you are lacking in moral character.  He calls this rights scolding.

It takes two forms.  Among right-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that working people in the time of Charles Dickens didn’t have, you are a fragile snowflake.  Among left-wingers, if you think you are entitled to anything that the most oppressed person alive today has, you are told to check your privilege.

It also follows that people whose jobs are fulfilling, such as school teachers, are not really working.  The idea is: You get to do work that is pleasurable, useful and respected.  How dare you want good pay and job security in addition?  Graeber calls this moral envy.

Moral envy explains the success of Republicans in stirring up public feeling against school teachers, he wrote, and why they target teachers and not school administrators, many (not all) of whom hold BS jobs.

Actually, as Graeber goes on to write, there is a basis for moral envy.  Many of the jobs that involve working for a righteous cause—disability rights advocate or arts administrator, for example—involve educational credentials that are hard for working-class people to get, and then the willingness to work for little or no pay, which few working-class families can afford.

David Graeber

The morally prestigious jobs are monopolized by what Chris Hedges and Thomas Frank call the liberal professional class.  Graeber said it is literally more thinkable that the daughter of a truck driver in Nebraska could become a millionaire or marry one than that she could become an international human rights lawyer.

The main vocation with moral meaning that is open to working class people is the military, he said.  Enlisting in “the service” is a way of being of public service.  That’s why the troops are held in such high regard.  Given their chances of being killed, maimed or traumatized, there is no reason to envy them.

I think Graeber exaggerates.  Many labor leaders, civil rights leaders and community organizers come from poor backgrounds and have had hard struggles in life.  But I agree that college-educated liberals have the first shot at a lot of morally prestigious jobs.  For example, as Graeber pointed out, you have to have a college degree to enlist in the Peace Corps.


Graeber said moral envy is also the reason why, during the bailout of General Motors, so many people resented the auto workers’ good pay and benefit, but didn’t resent the auto executives who caused the problem in the first place.

The idea was:  You get to have the satisfaction of making cars.  You shouldn’t expect job security and good pay in addition.

I don’t think this is so.  I think the pay and benefits of auto workers, and members of other industrial unions, are resented by non-union workers just out of envy, not specifically moral envy.  They were resented in particular by some of us college-educated professionals.

Back in the 1960s, there was an editor of my old newspaper who used to complain about how members of the United Steelworkers made more money than we did.  This never bothered me.  I always figured that if I really wanted to make as much money as a steel worker, I could drive to Pittsburgh and become one.  But this is all part of the criss-crossing pattern of resentments that keeps working people divided.


David Graeber Wikipedia page.

On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber for Strike! magazine (2013)

Punching the Clock by David Graeber for Harper’s Magazine.

‘I had to guard an empty room’: the rise of the pointless job by David Graeber for The Guardian.

Is Your Job BS? David Graeber on Capitalism’s Endless Busywork, an interview for In These Times.

Are You in a BS Job?  In Academe, You’re Hardly Alone by David Graeber for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Survey of US office workers from the book. Click to enlarge.

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One Response to “BS jobs, sh*t jobs and moral envy”

  1. Ataraxik Says:

    That sounds like a great book. I’m going to have to check that out.


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