In 2018, anthropologist David Graeber published “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory” about the rise of bullshit jobs in the modern economy. The author contends that more than half of societal work is pointless. He describes five types of entirely pointless jobs (source: Wikipedia):
flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important, e.g., receptionists, administrative assistants, door attendants, makers of websites whose sites neglect ease of use and speed for looks;
goons, who act to harm or deceive others on behalf of their employer, e.g., lobbyists, corporate lawyers, telemarketers, public relations specialists, community managers;
duct tapers, who temporarily fix problems that could be fixed permanently, e.g., programmers repairing bloated code, airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags do not arrive;
box tickers, who create the appearance that something useful is being done when it is not, e.g., survey administrators, in-house magazine journalists, corporate compliance officers, quality service managers;
taskmasters, who manage—or create extra work for—those who do not need it, e.g., middle management, leadership professionals.
For 25 years, I worked in a series of bullshit jobs in the finance industry. My jobs were to find creative ways to move money from one account to another. To give me a sense of purpose and meaning, I referred to this as “financial engineering”. Although my jobs did not fit strictly within these five categories, my crisis stemmed from the fact that I was making no positive contribution to society.
So, what are the five risks of being stuck in a bullshit job?
Risk 1: You are Living in a State of Delusion and Unhappiness
People often ask me how they know if they are in a bullshit job. Firstly, It is important to understand that a bullshit job is not the same as a shit job. To understand the difference, let me introduce to you Julio Cesar Cu. He is a sewer diver in Mexico City. His job is to dive into the city’s sewers and clear up blockages. Mexico City boasts more than 20 million inhabitants who produce 12,000 tonnes of waste every day – that is a shit job. Secondly, you will know whether you are in a bullshit job. Your job is pointless – you could take a 3-month vacation and the business would continue uninterrupted. You spend large chunks of your day writing pointless emails, in boring meetings, and your annual performance review is based on your perceived productivity. You have very few objective performance metrics. The goals in a bullshit job are more defensive than offensive. In other words, you are more focused on not fucking up than you are on shooting the lights out. The worst part of the bullshit job is not that it is meaningless – it is that you have convinced yourself that it is meaningful and that you are making your dent in the universe.
Humans are mobile creatures. We need to know where we are going. We do not experience any positive emotion unless we have an aim and we are making progress towards that aim. It is not so much the attainment of the goal that is satisfying, it is the process and journey towards the summit. A bullshit job has no aim, has no summit, and therefore is void of fulfillment.
Risk 2: You are Supremely Dispensable
Everyone knows the old corporate mantra – no one is indispensable. Dispensability is relative. Every organization has its rainmakers who are less dispensable (like Jeff Bezos at Amazon). On the other end of the spectrum are the hundreds of millions of people in the world who have bullshit jobs and are highly dispensable. The problem is that the majority of these people feel very comfortable with their mediocre and meaningless 40 hour-per-week existence. When times are good, this level of comfiness is justified. When times are tough – for example when you are living through a global pandemic – comfiness is the last thing you should be feeling.
Risk 3: You are Not Learning any Useful Skills
The most important skill in a bullshit job is the art of looking busy, and that doesn’t look so great on your CV. The top job skills in the 21st century are creativity, collaboration, communication, adaptability, leadership, and social skills. Hanging around the watercooler and drooling over the length of the receptionist's skirt does not qualify as social skills. If you are working in a medium to a large-sized corporation, you are becoming an expert in the internal systems and processes of that company, and these skills are not transportable.
Alvin Toffler says “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”. The longer you stay in a bullshit job, the more functionally illiterate you become.
Risk 4: Your Tolerance to Risk Declines over Time
The lure of a steady income with medical and dental, a retirement plan, and paid vacations are often too strong to ignore. These benefits make you feel comfortable. If you are stuck in a bullshit job that does not move you out of your comfort zone, your tolerance to risk is reduced. This creates a dilemma if after 20 years, your loyal employer calls you into his office and tells you the company is taking a new direction and you are not part of those new plans. As a redundant worker that has become a specialist in the bullshit procedures and systems of one company, your employment options are limited. Your only option may be to throw yourself into the tempestuous seas of entrepreneurship. The longer you stay in that bullshit job, the more difficult it will be to adjust to this new higher-risk environment.
Risk 5: The Longer You Stay, the Less You Get Paid
This is true for all jobs, not just bullshit jobs. According to Forbes, employees who stay in companies longer than two years get paid 50% less. Conventional wisdom flies in the face of this statistic. For the longest time in the history of work, loyalty and dedication to a particular employer have been heralded as the hallmark of the ideal employee beyond just being good at their job. The job market is changing. Job hopping is starting to lose its stigma. The bottom line is this – if you decide to stay in a bullshit job for longer than 5 years, not only will it kill your soul, but you will also be paid less in the process.
So how do we unpack this? If having a bullshit job is risking your personal and financial future, should everyone stomp into their boss's offices, plonk down their resignation letters and follow their passions? That would be foolish and irresponsible, especially if you have financial dependents. The journey to financial freedom is exactly that – a journey. It is a process that requires an immense amount of work, effort, and courage. It requires self-belief, determination, discipline, commitment, and a long-term road map. It does not require you to be a genius but it does require you to be curious and open-minded. Albert Einstein said, "I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious". The fact that young Albert boasted an IQ of 160 did not hurt, but winning the cerebral lottery is not a requirement for financial freedom.Life is not a game of poker where you either fold or go all-in. There are fifty shades of grey.
You may love your job but hate your employer. You may be a financial adviser in a large brokerage house. Test the waters to see if some of your largest clients would move with you if you decided to jump ship. Set up a side gig as a prelude to making the jump.
In 2017, CNN reported that 44 million Americans have a side gig they run in parallel with their full-time job. Perhaps you have a good nose for real estate. Instead of plowing your savings into a money market account, acquire a couple of high-quality apartments and rent them out. Start to develop a stream of income that is independent of your formal employment and see how it pans out.
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