Glaubt man David Grae­ber, ist fast die Hälfte aller Jobs ein­fach nur Schwachsinn – eben Bull­shit, nicht zu ver­wech­seln mit unattrak­tiven Jobs, die wohl oder übel getan wer­den müssen. Er hat ein Buch über dieses Thema geschrieben, damit wir sinnlose Positi


First book story: when Jeff Be­zos from Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico, had the idea for an on­line busi­ness that would sell books, he de­cided its name should be­gin with “A”. Why? Be­cause in the days be­fore Google, peo­ple found things on the in­ter­net with the help of in­dexes and al­pha­bet­ized lists, and any­thing be­gin­ning with “A” had a bet­ter chance of be­ing seen first. Be­zos called his com­pany Ama­zon, and it sold its first book in 1995. Sec­ond book story: in 1995, Jim Grant lost his job in the British tele­vi­sion in­dus­try. At 40, he couldn’t af­ford to re­tire, so he de­cided to write books for a liv­ing. While pre­par­ing for his new ca­reer, he no­ticed that authors were usu­ally listed al­pha­bet­i­cally in book­shops, so Jim Grant be­came Lee Child, which placed him near such fa­mous fic­tion writ­ers as Ray­mond Chan­dler and Agatha Christie. More than 100 mil­lion copies of Lee Child’s first 22 nov­els have been sold in 42 lan­guages.

The al­pha­bet is still very im­por­tant for those in the writ­ing busi­ness, but authors like Xuē Xīn­rán or Car­los Ruiz Zafón haven’t had to change their names to be found in the world’s big­gest book­shop, which be­gins with “A”. And don’t worry if you have dif­fi­culty spell­ing Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie, Haruki Mu­rakami or Ce­leste Ng — Ama­zon’s al­go­rithms will au­to­sug­gest the cor­rect form of these writ­ers’ names as you type.

Tech­nol­ogy has made life eas­ier for book writ­ers and book buy­ers, but it’s a se­ri­ous chal­lenge for the book pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, which must com­pete with both

“If a writer’s name doesn’t guar­an­tee sales, a con­tro­ver­sial ti­tle can help”

Net­flix for free time and Jeff Be­zos for profit mar­gins. Still, any busi­ness that’s been around since the time of Jo­hannes Guten­berg knows a trick or two, and book­sell­ers are not shy when it comes to us­ing sen­sa­tion­al­ism to get at­ten­tion. If a writer’s name doesn’t guar­an­tee sales, a con­tro­ver­sial ti­tle can help. That’s why we get books such as Eat­ing Peo­ple Is Wrong and How to Live with a Huge Pe­nis.

Taboo words

But what was shock­ing yes­ter­day is not so shock­ing to­day, so pub­lish­ers keep ex­per­i­ment­ing with taboo words in their ti­tles. Bull­shit Jobs, by David Grae­ber, is an ex­am­ple. Sure, we know a lot of taboo words and many of us use some of them reg­u­larly, but there’s still some­thing star­tling about Bull­shit Jobs when you hold the book in your hands and then talk to your chil­dren or par­ents or col­leagues about it. See­ing that word spelled out and then us­ing it can make some peo­ple feel un­com­fort­able.

David Grae­ber must have been asked thou­sands of times, “What’s a bull­shit job?” but he al­ways an­swers the ques­tion po­litely and pa­tiently with a vari­a­tion on the def­i­ni­tion in the first chap­ter of the book: “A bull­shit job is paid work that’s so com­pletely point­less and un­nec­es­sary that those who have these jobs can’t jus­tify them even though they have to pre­tend that this isn’t the case.”

What, then, is the dif­fer­ence be­tween bull­shit jobs and shit jobs?

“That’s easy: shit jobs are sim­ply bad jobs,” says Grae­ber. “You’d never want to have a shit job. The work is un­der­paid, un­ap­pre­ci­ated, of­ten back-break­ing and the peo­ple who do

“If the word ‘cre­ative’ is in the ti­tle, it’s prob­a­bly a bull­shit job”

them are not treated with re­spect. For the most part, shit jobs aren’t bull­shit jobs,” he con­tin­ues. “They usu­ally in­volve do­ing some­thing that needs to be done: build­ing, driv­ing, tak­ing care of peo­ple, clean­ing up af­ter peo­ple. Bull­shit jobs, on the other hand, are mostly well paid, the peo­ple do­ing them are treated like they’re im­por­tant and do­ing some­thing that needs to be done — but in fact, they’re not. Bull­shit jobs and shit jobs are op­po­sites, ac­tu­ally.”

David Grae­ber is a pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics. He be­lieves that free-mar­ket poli­cies have made life even harder for badly paid peo­ple and that they have also pro­duced lots of well-paid man­agers, bu­reau­crats, pub­lic re­la­tions ex­ec­u­tives, con­sul­tants, po­lit­i­cal ap­pa­ratchiks, lawyers and lob­by­ists who do noth­ing use­ful all day.

Is your job mean­ing­less? Do you feel that, if it were elim­i­nated to­mor­row, life would go on? Per­haps you think the world might even be bet­ter if your job didn’t ex­ist. If your an­swer is yes, it’s OK. You are not alone. Al­most half the jobs that peo­ple do ev­ery day could be con­sid­ered point­less, ac­cord­ing to Grae­ber.

So, is it pos­si­ble to tell from the ti­tle of a job if it’s a bull­shit job? “Well, if the word ‘cre­ative’ is in the ti­tle, it’s prob­a­bly a bull­shit job. You’re ei­ther cre­ative or not,” Grae­ber says.

A quick search at the Mon­ster.com job board shows com­pa­nies look­ing for a “Cre­ative Strate­gist & Sto­ry­teller”, a “Cre­ative Tech­nol­o­gist” and a “Cre­ative Ser­vices Co­or­di­na­tor”. The work sounds in­ter­est­ing. Just as in­ter­est­ing as the job of writ­ing books with ti­tles such as Bull­shit Jobs, maybe. Is that a bull­shit job, too?

Be­fore Grae­ber an­swers, he opens a wa­ter bot­tle and places 11 cap­sules and tablets on the ho­tel room table. “Two are for blood pres­sure,” he says. The rest are vi­ta­min sup­ple­ments.

What­ever one thinks of aca­demics and authors, it can­not be said that Grae­ber doesn’t work hard at both oc­cu­pa­tions. His books so far in­clude Lost Peo­ple: Magic and the Legacy of Slav­ery in Mada­gas­car; Debt: The First 5,000 Years and The Democ­racy Pro­ject: A His­tory, a Cri­sis, a Move­ment. He’s cur­rently work­ing on a new one, about cities.

Chal­lenges of au­to­ma­tion

An­thro­pol­o­gists, aca­demics and authors are in­ter­est­ing top­ics, David Grae­ber says, but what he wants to talk about is a dif­fer­ent “A” word: au­to­ma­tion. “Ro­bots re­ally are lead­ing to sig­nif­i­cant

gains in pro­duc­tiv­ity in man­u­fac­tur­ing, mean­ing that work­ers are down­sized,” he com­ments. “But there’s the same ten­dency to add use­less lev­els of man­agers be­tween the boss and the ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists and the work­ers.”

He’s crit­i­cal of “sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism”, which cen­tres on data col­lected by mon­i­tor­ing peo­ple’s ac­tiv­i­ties on­line and in the real world. “We see com­pa­nies cre­at­ing more bull­shit jobs to man­age and watch work­ers, thereby mak­ing their jobs shit­tier,” he says. “But you could ar­gue that the sur­veil­lance jobs aren’t re­ally bull­shit, be­cause they are do­ing some­thing, even if it’s some­thing not very nice,” he adds.

His real pas­sion, how­ever, is re­served for what he calls “the car­ing sec­tor” — health, ed­u­ca­tion and so­cial ser­vices. “The cre­ation of mean­ing­less ad­min­is­tra­tive jobs and the re­lated bull­shi­ti­za­tion of real work that forces nurses, doc­tors and teach­ers to fill out end­less forms all day is low­er­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity mas­sively and mak­ing work and life shit­tier,” he says.

Is there a so­lu­tion? Grae­ber is a fan of the “ba­sic in­come” — the idea that gov­ern­ments should give us all cash ev­ery month, no ques­tions asked. Most peo­ple, Grae­ber says, would be bet­ter off liv­ing on “free” money in­stead of do­ing soul­less jobs. The ba­sic in­come would pay peo­ple for those es­sen­tial “in­vis­i­ble” forms of work, such as car­ing for sick rel­a­tives, vis­it­ing the lonely or do­ing house­work, and it would also sup­port un­der­paid work­ers. Right now, the idea of pay­ing peo­ple for be­ing alive is the kind of thing only a rad­i­cal pro­fes­sor can take se­ri­ously be­cause economies and so­ci­eties would have to be re­ordered dra­mat­i­cally for a world based on paid leisure rather than paid labour.

David Grae­ber dis­agrees. He’s con­vinced that our eco­nomic sys­tem is ir­ra­tional be­cause the idea of elim­i­nat­ing mean­ing­less work is con­sid­ered to be the prob­lem, not the so­lu­tion.

Third book story: in 1923, F. Scott Fitzger­ald de­cided to write “some­thing new — some­thing ex­traor­di­nary and beau­ti­ful and sim­ple”. When he fin­ished the book, he sug­gested that it should be called Un­der the Red, White, and Blue. His ed­i­tor, Maxwell Perkins, gave it a shorter ti­tle: The Great Gatsby. In 2013, David Grae­ber wrote a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle ti­tled “On the Phe­nom­e­non of Bull­shit Jobs” and, five years later, it be­came a book: Bull­shit Jobs. A short book ti­tle is bet­ter than a long one, and a good book ti­tle is best of all.

Is your job mean­ing­ful?

Bad job? Or bull­shit job?

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