The Pandemic Proved Graeber’s BS Argument

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

I wish David Graeber were around to update his book Bullshit Jobs. From “essential worker” to “quiet quitting,” mainstream culture has found a way to underscore his thesis: a large percentage of jobs are bullshit, and the people performing them are aware of this fact (much to their psychic detriment).

Essential workers are non-BS jobs. Healthcare workers, garbage collectors, fast-food purveyors, delivery people, bread-factory employees, plumbers, line cooks, bus drivers, forklift operators… to name just some of the jobs my ESL students from the immigrant community in Cicero, Illinois are employed in and for which they risked their lives and those of their family members during the height of the pandemic. As Graeber points out, most non-BS jobs are poorly paid and offer little in the way of perks (i.e. paid sick days.) These workers, if they quit, cannot quit quietly. People tend to notice when their toilet won’t flush.

Those early pandemic days were a reckoning wherein society figured out whose work was important and who might just as well stay home. Those in BS jobs may, according to Graeber, ask themselves what would happen if their entire job-type disappeared tomorrow? The answer came, one presumes, for some in March 2020 when purveyors of team-building workshops or mind-mapping exercises or educational leadership camps or corporate diversity seminars suddenly canceled all of their activities. No one seemed to particularly notice. To the extent they did, it was to decry the utter pointlessness of attempting to do these activities over Zoom.

Quiet quitting probably just describes what modern workers have done for at least a century: decide that their life outside of work is more important and fulfilling than the BS they are currently engaged in. Graeber might see these workers as simply being honest with themselves and their employers: they are engaged in a monetary transaction of time for money. (Graeber points out that this kind of transaction is historically very odd.) There is something weirdly insidious about the American need to give work a fake importance and forced camaraderie that all workers must profess to believe in at retreats and meetings. Not only are workers required to toil in jobs that produce no social value, they also must profess to love these jobs and their workshopped corporate values. They may even be expected to volunteer to do extra work. Quiet quitting is simply refusing to participate in the pretense that one’s job is particularly meaningful or important.

A related phenomena that arose after the pandemic is that of workers taking on two or three full-time jobs at once without letting their employers know. If your 40 hr. a week job takes 10 hours a week to do remotely (stripped of the attendant BS of office culture) then it is reasonable to take another such job. Why not?

All of these trends underscore Graeber’s insight that much of our system is made up of pointless private bureaucracies that produce make-work employment for the educated class. Within the labyrinthine bowels of corporations are many workers with enough insight to realize that their jobs are neither essential nor adding anything of value to the economy. (As an aside, the idea that American-style capitalism is somehow “less-bureaucratic” than, say, Germany’s or the former USSR’s, can only be offered by someone who has never had to call a private health insurance company, phone/internet provider, bank, or airline.)