Alienation Is Not ‘Bullshit’: An Empirical Critique of Graeber’s Theory of BS Jobs
Soffia M, Wood AJ, Burchell B. (2021) Work, Employment and Society
David Graeber’s ‘bullshit jobs theory’ has generated a great deal of academic and public interest. This theory holds that a large and rapidly increasing number of workers are undertaking jobs that they themselves recognise as being useless and of no social value. Despite generating clear testable hypotheses, this theory is not based on robust empirical research. We, therefore, use representative data from the EU to test five of its core hypotheses. Although we find that the perception of doing useless work is strongly associated with poor wellbeing, our findings contradict the main propositions of Graeber’s theory. The proportion of employees describing their jobs as useless is low and declining and bears little relationship to Graeber’s predictions. Marx’s concept of alienation and a ‘Work Relations’ approach provide inspiration for an alternative account that highlights poor management and toxic workplace environments in explaining why workers perceive paid work as useless.