It's often been observed that the future didn't turn out as predicted. By now, thanks to technology's advance, we were supposed to be working 15-hour weeks, spending the rest of our time on great literature, conversation, and leisurely jetpack trips to the dome-covered shopping mall, to check out the latest range of 1950s horn-rimmed spectacles. Instead, we're busier than ever. But it's worse than that, according to David Graeber, the anthropology professor credited with helping to launch the Occupy movement: much of that busyness is completely pointless. Entire professions, he argued in a recent essay in Strike! magazine, consist of "bullshit jobs" that the world just doesn't need. If nurses and rubbish collectors disappeared overnight, we'd be in trouble; but "it's not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish". What explains this proliferation of pointlessness? Graeber concludes, true to his anarchist beliefs, that it's all about social control. A population kept busy with bullshit has no time to start a revolution.
I can already hear the indignant howls from PRs and telemarketers. (And the telemarketers have my home number. Oops.) But then I should probably howl, too, given how frequently surveys show that people think journalists contribute nothing to society. Who's Graeber to say what jobs are "needed" anyway? Some would say anarchist anthropologists aren't exactly essential. Anticipating this response, he poses a different question: what about people who consider their own jobs meaningless? "I'm not sure I've ever met a corporate lawyer who didn't think their job was bullshit," he writes. Get them tipsy at parties, and many others will speak similarly of their own work. "There is a profound psychological violence here. How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labour when one secretly feels one's job should not exist?"
Whether or not you agree with Graeber about the prevalence of bullshit jobs, it's hard to deny that plenty of jobs involve some bullshit. One reason we rarely complain about that, I suspect, is that we're chronically prone to confusing the feeling of putting in effort with actually getting useful things done. That's why lifts have "placebo buttons", which make us feel like we're achieving something when we're not. It's also why an exhausting day at the office leaves you feeling virtuous – a "hard worker" – even if you only did busywork. Two good hours on the important things, followed by an afternoon of TV and eating Monster Munch, might have been more constructive. But you'd feel like a skiver, and possibly get fired.
You can easily go too far with all this talk of meaningfulness: that way lies acres of self-help nonsense about Finding Your Life Purpose and "doing great work". But Graeber's analysis suggests a more down-to-earth question for navigating the world of careers: is the job you're doing, or applying for, one that the world would be perfectly fine without? (Financial necessity might still oblige you to do it, but at least you'll be acting without illusions.) As life strategies go, this seems a decent one: where possible, move in the direction of non-pointless activities, and away from those that reek of bullshit. Do stuff that people would miss – however slightly – if it never got done at all.
[First published in Guardian Weekend magazine. Photo by Steve Hankins.]
• If you're in New York on September 20, I'm doing a reading alongside Emma Brockes at KGB Bar. See the Events page for details. I'd love it if you'd come and say hello!