Personal development: How to find meaningful work


In our personal development article Gemma Rose wonders how to find meaning in the modern workplace.

For this magazine, I previously wrote about how we seem to be working harder than ever – despite technology supposedly making our lives easier – and yet are unhappy (The Task Ahead, Together Magazine issue 64). I also referred to a category of jobs called ‘bullshit jobs’. This category was identified by David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics. Graeber had first written the essay On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs for Strike! Magazine in August 2013. Needless to say, it chimed with many people: it went viral immediately, the huge amount of traffic to the article caused the Strike! website to crash repeatedly, and it was translated into a dozen languages including Turkish, Latvian and Korean. Graeber expanded on this theme in the book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory (Allen Lane, 2018).

According to Graeber, a ‘bullshit job’ is “a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that is not the case”. Some examples could be hedge fund managers, marketing gurus or corporate lawyers. Others could be a receptionist that is paid simply to front an office without actually having anything to do, or an administrator responsible for processing forms which could easily be automated (or may not even be necessary to do in the first place).

Many of these jobs are located in middle management, are usually well paid, and are common in both the public and private sectors. The jobs that provide real social value – cleaners, nurses, teachers, social care workers – are usually poorly paid and often derided or scrutinized. Graeber believes that the employee knows instinctively whether his job is bullshit or not. In his book, he delves into why people who do these types of jobs are so unhappy, why they put up with them, and why there has been a proliferation of such jobs.

To curb the amount of bullshit jobs, he argues for a universal basic income. The idea is that everyone gets the same amount of basic income, regardless of whether they are employed or not (e.g. an employed person would receive a basic income on top of their salary). It separates livelihood from work. Having this safety net (Graeber doesn’t enter into the specifics of how such an income programme would work) liberates people from their bullshit jobs to pursue a more meaningful life. It’s a wonderful idea that I strongly support, and Graeber notes a successful pilot in India (and there have been similar pilots or at least proposals in Canada, the Netherlands, Finland and Scotland). However, because our society places so much value on having a job, as well as the fear mongering placed upon giving people money for free (“It will make them lazy”), I can’t ever see a government actually implementing it nationally.