Book Review on David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs

Blogpost on David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs


Recently I had the pleasure to discuss David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs with the author.

Here is my five cents about his book.

In all his books Prof Graeber manages to hit a nerve in the tense muscles of public opinion. Was it the arbitrariness and political power play of who owns what to whom in international debt crises exposed in ‘Debt – Its First Five Thousand Years’, or the mindless and at times cruel hoops the rise of bureaucracy makes citizens jump through in ‘Utopia of Rules’, David Graeber always finds original ways in exposing some structural pathology in the politics of modern life. ‘Bullshit Jobs’ is no exception to this.

The key thesis of the erstwhile essay in Strike! Magazine and now extended book version is that myriads of people suffer from jobs which they a) don’t like, b) which don’t seem to add any form of value to the society, and often not even to the organization which hired them, but c) about which they still have to pretend to be happy and useful employees. There are many, at times depressing, at times outright hilarious descriptions of such activities: the woman working at a reception for a company which never has any visitors; the guy who works for a subcontractor of a subcontractor charging hundreds of Euros each time he moves around one cardbox from one office to the one right next to it.

This simple idea about the rise of a ‘reserve army’ of often white collar, often not too badly paid, but utterly senseless jobs created so much resonance that David Graeber started collecting responses of people describing their personal bullshit jobs and converting this material into this book. Both in its material and its main punchline in sometimes reminds me of reading Scott Adams’ Dilbert books (no criticism implied, to the contrary).

The book starts with some principle characteristics of bullshit jobs as well as some variants of such jobs. One variant, for instance, is ‘task masters’ who do not do any work themselves, but just distribute the real work among other employees. Mr. Graeber puts a lot of emphasis in the fact that this is not the typical public-sector bashing. As a matter of fact, bullshit jobs have flourished in the private sector, a sector usually thought to weed out any kind of organizational slack and inefficient staffing like an ambitious gardener would recklessly fight real weed among his prize-winning rose trees. One (private) sector which has particularly taken off in the last decades seems to concentrate a lot of bullshit jobs harbours all kinds of services related to information: marketing, lobbying, lawyering and related activities are those sectors that receive a lot of punches from Mr. Graeber. In a deeper, political-economy sense the reason for the growth of these jobs is the increasing importance of the financial sector in the economy, which is the pinnacle of this new type of pretentious and power-driven information society.

Bullshit jobs are somehow useful for society by keeping a lot of people busy and hiding away the fact that there might be too few useful jobs around. Having these kinds of jobs also papers over the problem that a lot of jobs that create huge social value such as being a nurse or a teacher or often badly paid, whereas a lot of jobs which enjoy tremendous financial remuneration create little or sometimes even negative social value. Given this remarkable fact, which find a lot of corroboration from other scholars, David Graeber proceeds to delve more deeply into the human psychology of work and the historical evolution of work as a value.

Mr. Graeber painfully exposes what is one of the most interesting human paradoxes when it comes to work ethic: many people love working, but they hate their jobs. They love the idea to be productive, contribute to society, connect with people, but they do not see how their own everyday paid routines would help them fulfilling either of these goals. Yet, perversely enough, it seems that the sheer fact that the work is sometimes so meaningless makes people being drawn to it in a masochistic manner. Precisely through this horrible activity people earn their right of being a member of society – life needs to be painful to be worth living.

According to ‘Bullshit Jobs’ this in many ways weird work ethic is not something that has followed humankind through all its history. To the contrary, it is the product of a relative recent shift in the valuation of work from being either a stepping stone to acquire full adhulthood or a necessary evil for social classes without means. If this diagnosis is correct, modern work ethic can and should be changed to allow people to realize their lives and to end a lot of contemporary human suffering. While Mr. Graeber, being the scholarly anarchist he is, eschews concrete policy solutions, especially those that could be related to government initiatives, he sees universal basic income as a potential antidote to this masochistic fixation.

There is a lot to praise in this remarkable book. The relentless exposition of the human condition which finds increasingly sophisticated ways to torture itself is a painful diagnosis to read. The creative knitting together ideas from different research such as anthropology, history, philosophy and psychology gives illuminating and new perspective on important problems such as underemployment and the golden calf of ‘job creation’. Most importantly, it is often a very funny read.

To be honest, there is much to agree for me in the book. I also believe that modern societies suffer from chronic shortage of meaningful jobs, and that there are alarming discrepancies in the way how the market values certain types of activities vs. society’s needs, whatever the latter really means. I also think that modern welfare states couple too tightly benefits to the readiness to work, however meaningless and shallow the work itself is. I even agree that in the long run a universal basic income might be the solution to such problems.

But here is also where I part ways or at least, I am not so sure. Humans are animals of habits, so take away jobs from them, are they really feeling better? Some parternalists would say they look for surrogate drugs such as watching television or youtube videos. Rebuilding the welfare state and the labour market in such ways takes a long-term, gradual and very careful project. At least it needs some preparation to make people ‘buy into’ such fundamental transformations.

Another issue I have is the question whether the situation is really that bad. David Graeber uses a subjective definition of bullshit jobs: whatever people themselves define as bullshit. This is a fair strategy, after all mental states are closely related to these subjective evaluations. But it is also a bit of a one-size-fits-it-all category of all resentments people have against their own way of life. You do not like your boss? You have a bullshit job. You do not see value in what you are doing? You have a bullshit job. You think you sell products to people who do not need them? You have a bullshit job. All these instances perhaps merit the label ‘bullshit’, but for very different reasons and they follow very different, not necessarily compatible logics.

In a basic sense, conflating these very different critiques also risks inflating the problem. For instance, as an academic, I like to moan about my administrative burden and, in particular, the endless hours of academic meetings which numb my brain and strain my hind quarters. But unlike Graeber, I do not think that these meetings come out of an overall drive towards competitiveness, financialization or bureaucratization, at least not only and not necessarily in the German case. What they rather illustrate is the complexity of a university as a feudal stake-holder society. Many different voices have to be reconciled in university meetings, sometimes in consensual fashion, from professors, students to the university leadership, but also including equal opportunity officers, representatives from staff etc. If anything, the long meetings illustrate the downsides of building an ever-increasing inclusive and deliberative society (albeit, in the University case, quite horribly constructed). As such, this trend is not necessarily bad, although quite painful to endure.

This, in my mind, is also perhaps the most important weakness of the book. ‘Bullshit Jobs’ seems to imply that there is an overall rationale to the project which constitutes giving people senseless jobs. I am not against conspiracy theories, so perhaps yes, the political elites often prefer to maintain horrible jobs because the alternative of unemployment of large batches of middle class employees frightens them. But I do think that modern societies are governed by many different logics, even if some such as the financial capitalist logic rightfully take the stage light of critical inquiry.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Socio-Economic Review Annual Prize 2017

I am very honored to have received SER’s annual best paper award for Left without choice? Economic ideas, frames and the party politics of value-added taxation

Many thanks to the editors, especially David Rueda and the reviewers. Also many thanks, of course, to the award giving committee.

You can find the article on the journal website here.

Abstract: This article investigates how different ideas about value-added taxation (VAT) frame the partisan politics of the welfare state. It employs a content analysis of German and British politicians’ motives in parliamentary debates on whether and why to increase VAT rates. A qualitative comparison reveals that there are remarkable differences between the two countries. In Germany, there is a clear and consistent shift in the efficiency frame from macroeconomic condemnation to microeconomic appraisal even among left politicians. This is not visible in British debates, where traditional partisan contestation prevails. The difference in efficiency frames is closely related to unemployment becoming a much more salient issue in Germany than in the UK. The quantitative analysis shows that speakers are indeed more likely to mention the efficiency frame when they are concerned about the labour market.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How to Ask for a #LetterofRecommendation #LoR

Dear all,

in a previous post I tried to take the easy route, just recommend someone else’s blogs on how to ask for a letter of recommendation. Somehow this does not work as I expected, so here are my quick bullet points for students, ex-students or anyone else who thinks a letter of recommendation from myself or anyone like me can be useful. (No irony intended. Okay, yes, a little irony was intended.)

1.) Please be aware that there is an inflation of LoRs. Nowadays even a small workshop or summer school wants such things. This means that professors need to write dozens of LoRs each month. To make this easier please be prepared when you approach the professor.

2.) Who wants the LoR? What do you know about them?

3.) Why do you want it? What for? (job search, stipend, summer school etc.)

4.) What do you want your professor to put into the LoR? You can lift the burden by suggesting specific issues yourself (language, previous experience,…). Should you prepare whole sentences? Well, sometimes it can be handy for a professor to include bits and pieces. LoRs are challenging for students to write, so do not try it. Most professors anyway insist in using their own writing style to keep in charge.

5.) The more specific you are in what you think helps your LoR the better. Background info such as a CV or a proposal (research, work…) is helpful, but often a bit cumbersome. Better give some specific ideas what to highlight or mention.

6.) Don’t forget to mention the most basic but most important details: Who is the recipient, address, deadline, mode of submission. In very few cases you will receive the LoR directly. Hence, the clearer the instructions where to send and when the quicker the LoR will get to its destination.

As always, let me know if I am missing something.




Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Kurzbeitrag zur #ZukunftderArbeit, #Robotik und #Digitalisierung

„Arbeitswelten der Zukunft“ #3: Prof. Dr. Achim Kemmerling – Robotik und die Zukunft der Arbeit

Das neue Wissenschaftsjahr des Bundesministeriums für Bildung und Forschung widmet sich 2018 dem Thema „Arbeitswelten der Zukunft“. Es soll „erkunden, welche Chancen sich eröffnen und vor welchen Herausforderungen wir stehen“. Forschung, Wissenschaft, Wirtschaft und Kultur suchen gemeinsam nach Antworten auf Fragen zu den Arbeitsplätzen von übermorgen. Auch die Universität Erfurt beteiligt sich mit einer Beitragsreihe wieder am Themenjahr des BMBF und geht dabei aus geisteswissenschaftlicher Sicht der Frage auf den Grund, wie sich zukünftige Arbeitswelten gestalten werden. Welche Ängste bringen Digitalisierung und Robotik mit sich? Wie haben sich Berufe gewandelt, beispielsweise der Lehrerberuf, die Arbeit in Bibliotheken und Archiven oder die Tätigkeit des Forschers selbst? Was ist Arbeit überhaupt, etwa lediglich die Erwerbstätigkeit oder nicht doch alles, was uns im Leben prägt, von familiären und freundschaftlichen Beziehungen bis hin zur Muße? Welche Rolle spielen zukünftig Internationalisierung, Ehrenamt, ständige Leistungssteigerung und Work-Life-Balance? Und wie müssen sich Unternehmen verändern, um zukunftsfähig zu bleiben? Diese und weitere Fragen sollen in der Textreihe „Arbeitswelten der Zukunft – Beiträge der Universität Erfurt zum Wissenschaftsjahr 2018“ diskutiert werden.

Im dritten Beitrag der Reihe zeigt Prof. Dr. Achim Kemmerling, Professor für Public Policy and International Development an der Willy Brandt School of Public Policy der Universität Erfurt, inwiefern die Angst vor technischem Wandel heute schon die Politik prägt:

Arbeit ist ein knappes Gut in modernen Gesellschaften. So knapp, dass viele Menschen eine Art Tunnelblick entwickeln: Sie können an nichts Anderes mehr denken als an die Sicherheit ihres Jobs oder die Chance, einen neuen Job zu finden. Die Psychologen Mullainathan und Shafir zeigen, wie Menschen in solchen Situationen die falschen Entscheidungen treffen können. Sprich: Wer sich zu sehr auf das Thema konzentriert, erreicht genau das Gegenteil – so als versuche man einen zerbrechlichen Gegenstand mit zu viel Kraft festzuhalten.

Vor diesem Hintergrund wirken die jüngsten Studien zu den Arbeitsmarkteffekten der Automatisierung und Robotik einschüchternd. Eine vielzitierte Studie der Ökonomen Frey und Osborne rechnet für manche Branchen mit bis zu 50 Prozent Jobverlust. Wenngleich andere Autoren zu weniger dramatischen Befunden kommen: Die Unsicherheit im öffentlichen Diskurs ist sichtbar.

Dabei ist oft unklar, was genau gemeint ist: Automatisierung, Digitalisierung oder technischer Fortschritt im Allgemeinen? Auch sind diese Phänomene nicht besonders neu, Rationalisierungsprozesse in Industrieproduktion gibt es schon seit Langem. Was jedoch in jüngster Zeit besonders greifbar scheint, sind Themen wie selbstfahrende Autos – immerhin hängen mehr als zehn Prozent der Arbeitsplätze in Deutschland mit Autofahren zusammen. Automatisierung wird auch plastisch in Form von elektronischen Haushaltshilfen. Digitalisierung schneidet zudem eine Schneise in die früher als sicher geltenden Schreibtischjobs, z.B. Versicherung oder Buchhaltung. Ihre Zuspitzung finden solche Debatten im Thema der künstlichen Intelligenz, die eindeutig auch hochwertige Arbeitsplätze gefährden könnte.

Aus wissenschaftlicher Perspektive wird bereits viel über das projizierte Ausmaß des technischen Wandels geforscht. Aber was wissen wir darüber, wie diese Diskussion den öffentlichen Raum verändern und vielleicht sogar Politik-Ergebnisse beeinflussen könnte? Diese Frage ist in zweierlei Hinsicht nicht trivial. Erstens kommen, wie bereits angedeutet, wirtschaftswissenschaftliche Studien zu höchst unterschiedlichen Ergebnissen. Es herrscht daher immer noch ein hohes Maß an Unsicherheit über die tatsächlichen Konsequenzen. Zweitens reagieren sowohl öffentliche Meinung als auch der politische Prozess nicht rein sachlich oder ungefiltert auf diese Information, sondern es kommt zu Unterschieden zwischen tatsächlichen und wahrgenommen Bedrohungen. Beispielsweise springen Medien und Politiker nicht auf alle Themen in ähnlicher Weise an, und sie sind sich dessen manchmal auch gar nicht bewusst.

Es gibt zwar schon einige Beiträge darüber, wie Gesellschaft und Politik das Problem wahrnehmen, dennoch steht die Forschung hier noch relativ am Anfang. Aber man kann vergleichen: Was lassen vergangene Innovationswellen für die derzeitige Diskussion erwarten? Und welche Folgen hat es, wie derzeit über Zukunft argumentiert und verhandelt wird, schon jetzt für die Politik?

Wirtschaftshistoriker wie Mokyr und andere zeigen, dass die verändernde Kraft neuer Technologien ein stetig wiederkehrendes Thema ist. Allerdings gibt es dabei nicht nur Episoden von Fortschrittsangst, sondern auch solche (naiven) Fortschrittsglaubens. Angewandt auf die aktuellen Diskussionen zur Zukunft der Arbeit bedeutet dies zwei Dinge: Erstens ist zu konstatieren, dass selbst führende Wirtschaftsvertreter argumentieren, dass dieses Mal wirklich etwas fundamental Neues entsteht. Zweitens hat jede Innovationswelle immer auch große Verwerfungen erzeugt. Politik hat dann versucht, diese zu kompensieren. In der Vergangenheit war die Reaktion jeweils eine Ausweitung des Wohlfahrtsstaates, z.B. beim Sprung einer Agrar- in eine Industriegesellschaft, und dann von einer Industrie- in eine Dienstleistungsgesellschaft. Diesem Anpassungsmodell sind jedoch finanzielle und strukturelle Grenzen gesetzt.

In meinen eigenen Arbeiten konzentriere ich mich daher eher darauf, wie technischer Fortschritt und Internationalisierung der Arbeit wahrgenommen und politisch verarbeitet wird. Da lässt sich schon einmal ganz vereinfacht feststellen, dass sich die öffentliche Meinung von Land zu Land erheblich unterscheidet. Dies ist teilweise ein Resultat der jeweiligen Arbeitsmarktlage, aber auch ein Ergebnis tieferliegender Arbeitsmarktstrukturen. Insbesondere sind dort, wo Übergänge im Arbeitsmarkt – etwa von Job zu Job oder von anderen Phasen in ein Arbeitsverhältnis – schwierig sind, auch die Ängste größer. Und diese Ängste haben größere Wirkungen.

Daher sind solche Befürchtungen nicht folgenlos, sondern gestalten schon jetzt die Politik. Sie wirken beispielsweise auch auf Bereiche der öffentlichen Meinung, in denen man einen Zusammenhang nicht unmittelbar vermutet. Ein Beispiel ist, dass Ängste vor Globalisierung und technischem Fortschritt Leute dazu bewegen können, restriktivere Einwanderungspolitiken zu fordern oder auch kostspielige Frühverrentungsprogramme. Auch Politiker sind vor diesen Folgen nicht gefeit. Die Zukunftsdiskussion beeinflusst die Art und Weise, wie Politiker das Thema wahrnehmen und welche Entscheidungen sie treffen.

Zwei Beispiele sollen hier genügen: Zum ersten ist es interessant, zu beobachten, dass in der Debatte geradezu eine Zwangskoppelung von Zukunft der Arbeit mit dem Thema des universalen Grundeinkommens bzw. des Bürgergeldes einhergeht. Es gibt sicherlich viele gute Argumente für das Bürgergeld, es kann aber kaum der einzige große Lösungsansatz für das Problem technologischen Wandels bleiben. Manchmal funktionieren die Effekte aber auch subtiler. Da Technologie-Angst bisweilen schlecht zu greifen ist, werden eher die Symptome als deren Ursachen bekämpft. Politische Ökonomen wie Colantone und Stanig sehen beispielsweise das immigrations- und handelsfeindliche, letztlich aber erfolgreiche Wahlkampfprogramm vieler populistischer Strömungen eher durch einen Globalisierungs- oder China-Schock ausgelöst als durch den zugrundeliegenden technischen Wandel.

Daher müssen Lösungsvorschläge auch auf mehreren Ebenen ansetzen: Arbeitsmarktübergänge müssen insgesamt gestärkt werden, und zwar nicht nur zwischen Inaktivität und Arbeit, sondern in allen wesentlichen Schnittstellen. Auch ist die Wahrnehmung von Problemen und deren psychologische Wirkung wichtig, um dem Problem von Zukunftsängsten gerecht zu werden. Arbeit in der einen oder anderen Art und Weise wird auf absehbare Dauer ein wichtiger Bestandteil unserer Gesellschaft und ein wichtiges individuelles Identifikationsmittel sein. Aber gerade deshalb müssen wir uns vor einem allzu starken Tunnelblick hüten.


Arntz, M., Gregory, T., & Zierahn, U. (2016). The risk of automation for jobs in OECD countries: A COMPARATIVE ANALYSIS. OECD Social, Employment, and Migration Working Papers, (189)

Autor, D. H. (2015). Why are there still so many jobs? the history and future of workplace automation. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3), 3-30.

Colantone, I., & Stanig, P. (2016, July 7). The Real Reasons the U.K. voted for Brexit: Jobs lost to Chinese Competition. Retrieved from The Washington Post Web Site:

Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2017). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114(January).

Kemmerling, A. (2016). The end of work or work without end? How people’s beliefs about labour markets shape retirement politics. Journal of Public Policy, 36(1), 109-138.

Kemmerling, A. (2017). Left without a choice? Economic ideas, frames, and the party politics of value-added taxation. Socio-Economic Review 15(4): 777-796.

Mokyr, J., Vickers, C., & Ziebarth, N. L. (2015). The history of technological anxiety and the future of economic growth: Is this time different? The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 29(3): 31-50.

Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. New York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company.

Schmid G. (2017) Transitional Labour Markets: Theoretical Foundations and Policy Strategies. In: Palgrave Macmillan (eds) The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. Palgrave Macmillan, London

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Interview mit der Haniel-Stiftung

Hier ist der Link.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leveling the Playing Field for International Students: How to Apply to WBS Public Policy Program

Every year I get a lot of inqueries how to apply to our program. Unfortunately, I cannot give individual advice for two reasons: first, there is simply too many potential applicants who seek advice; second, answering some of them would give an unfair advantage.  So please consult our websites to look at the official criteria.

However, I do see that especially overseas students lack some previous experience and a kind of subtle insider knowledge most European or North American students would possess. To level the playing field somewhat, here are some recommendations.

1.) The statement of purpose is very important. The more specific and concise you are the better. Generic statements such as ‘My dream is to serve in presidency of my country’ do not tell much. Give specific reasons why WBS, why this institution. The more you can link to specific courses offered, people at WBS the better. The more you can give us an idea about specific interests, future goals, the better.

2.) Formats of CVs vary dramatically across countries. At WBS we accept all major formats, but do remember: the better and easier it is for those selecting the students to get the relevant info, the better. Just imagine: we have to go through 100s of applications. The easier it is to get the most important info the higher you will end up on the pile.

3.) Some main interests of ours: describe your overall grade, if you have a GPA report it, quickly give us an idea what a good grade consists of in your country; don’t list endless numbers of minature events, activities, but focus on your most important ones (usually full-time, relevant for public policy etc.), putting other stuff into a minor category etc.; writing samples or links to publications etc. are an added bonus.

Do you like these hints? Let me know.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Your Professor’s Users’ Manual #HigherEducation #highered

Your Professor’s Users’ Manual

Achim Kemmerling, WBS, Erfurt University

As any complicated, supposedly high-tech instrument your university professor comes with an instruction sheet. Please read carefully to avoid malfunctions and unnecessary wear & tear.


1.) Make an appointment for an office hour (mail to

2.) Prepare yourself before coming to the office hour.

3.) If you want to ask for a Letter of Reference follow these instructions

4.) If you would like discuss your term paper/ MA thesis: send or bring as print input as specific as possible. What’s the research/ policy questions? What literature will you look at (examples)? What methods will you use? What could be relevant findings?

5.) If you need a signature on a form/ sheet/ etc. print out the sheet and put it in my mail box. We will come back to you, if there are problems.

6.) If you need to excuse yourself for an absence, pls. email to

7.) If you want to talk about a grade pls. be aware that changing grades can only happen if there has been a factual mistake/ clerical error, but for no other reasons.

8.) If you want to talk about internships etc. please bring your CV, list of organizations you were thinking about, etc.

9.) Avoid unnecessary emails. Your professor’s brain, like any natural resource, is of limited capacity and works optimally only under careful resource management.

10.) While flattery won’t work, being kind and considerate always pays off.







Achim Kemmerling

Prof. of Public Policy and International Development

Willy Brandt School of Public Policy

Erfurt University

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized