Careers

Do you secretly believe your job isn't necessary? Academic sees corporate law as one of the BS jobs


British anthropologist David Graeber recalls discovering the remarkable career of a childhood friend.

The friend was a poet and then the front man in an indie rock band—a singer Graeber heard on the radio without realizing he was the friend he had known. But after a few unsuccessful albums, the friend decided to go to law school.

“Now he’s a corporate lawyer working in a prominent New York firm,” Graeber wrote in an essay last year for Strike Magazine. “He was the first to admit that his job was utterly meaningless, contributed nothing to the world, and, in his own estimation, should not really exist.”

Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, distinguishes between jobs that involve “actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things” and those that employ “salaried paper-pushers.” The latter category of “bullshit jobs” includes corporate law and financial services, he says.

PBS recently interviewed Graeber, who is described as a “notorious ‘Occupy’ academic.”

Graeber told PBS that his Strike article has generated a lot of interest, including from people in the financial services industry. Some are writing blogs to tell their own stories. “There was one I saw in Australia,” he told PBS, “where people were writing things like, it’s true, I’m a corporate lawyer, I contribute nothing to society, I’m miserable all the time, I just do this for my children, otherwise I’d get out. Over and over again, people saying yes, it’s true, my job does nothing.”

And what about Graeber’s job as an academic? Graeber acknowledges that some people would view his job as the very definition of wasteful social expenditure. He says he wouldn’t presume to tell people who are convinced of their contribution to the world that they are wrong. But there are many who go to work knowing that their jobs are pointless, he said.

“Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed,” Graeber wrote for Strike. “The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul.”

According to another PBS story, Graeber has pushed a proposal for mass repudiation of student debt.

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