Coming from academia, I am sympathetic to the view that not everyone is productive, or has a productive job. And my ongoing series “Those new service sector jobs…” is in part reflecting the wonder of the market in providing so many obscure services, but also in part a genuine moral query as to how many of these activities actually are worthwhile. You are supposed to have mixed feelings when reading those entries, just as with “Markets in Everything.”
Still, I think Graeber too often confuses “tough jobs in negative- or zero-sum games” with “bullshit jobs.” I view those as two quite distinct categories. Overall he presents the five types of bullshit jobs as flunkies, goons, duct tapers, box tickers, and taskmasters, but he spends too much time trying to lower the status of these jobs and not enough time investigating what happens when those jobs go away.
He doubts whether Oxford University needs “a dozen-plus” PR specialists. I would be surprised if they can get by with so few. Consider their numerous summer programs, their need to advertise admissions, how they talk to the media and university rating services, their relations with China, the student lawsuits they face, their need to manage relations with Oxford the political unit, and the multiple independent schools within Oxford, just for a start. Overall, I fear that Graeber’s managerial intelligence is not up to par, or at the very least he rarely convinces me that he has a superior organizational understanding, compared to people who deal with these problems every day.
A simple experiment would vastly improve this book and make for a marvelous case study chapter: let him spend a year managing a mid-size organization, say 60-80 employees, but one which does not have an adequately staffed HR department, or perhaps does not have an HR department at all. Then let him report back to us.
At that point we’ll see who really has the bullshit job.