In recent years, research showed that many professionals consider their work to be socially useless. Various explanations have been proposed for the phenomenon. The much-discussed “bullshit jobs theory” by the American anthropologist David Graeber, for example, states that some jobs are objectively useless and that this occurs more frequently in certain occupations than others.
Other researchers suggested that the reason people felt their jobs were useless was solely because they were routine and lacked autonomy or good management rather than anything intrinsic to their work. However, this is only one part of the story, as a recent study by sociologist Simon Walo of the University of Zurich shows. It is the first to give quantitative support to the relevance of the occupations.
Office jobs twice as likely to feel socially useless
In his study, Walo analyzed survey data on 1,811 respondents in the USA working in 21 types of jobs, who were asked if their work gave them “a feeling of making a positive impact on community and society” and “the feeling of doing useful work”. The survey, carried out in 2015, found that 19 percent of respondents spread across a range of occupations answered “never” or “rarely” to the questions.
Walo adjusted the raw data to compare workers with the same degree of routine work, job autonomy and quality of management, and found that the nature of the job still had a large effect on their perceived pointlessness once working conditions were excluded as a factor. Employees in the occupations that Graeber deemed useless were more likely to reply in a negative fashion.
Those working in business and finance and sales were more than twice as likely to say their jobs were socially useless than others. Office assistants and managers were also more likely to say this, though less strongly (1.6 or 1.9 times more likely than others).
Private-sector jobs suffer from higher perceived pointlessness
“The original evidence presented by Graeber was mainly qualitative, which made it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem,” says Walo. “This study extends previous analyses by drawing on a rich, under-utilised dataset and provides new evidence. This paper is therefore the first to find quantitative evidence supporting the argument that the occupation can be decisive for the perceived pointlessness.” Walo also found that the share of workers who consider their jobs socially useless is higher in the private sector than in the non-profit or the public sector.
However, Walo’s study also confirms other factors that influence employees’ perceptions of their own work, including, e.g., alienation, unfavorable working conditions and social interaction. “Employees’ assessment of whether their work is perceived as socially useless is a very complex issue that needs to be approached from different angles,” the author therefore concludes. “It depends on various factors that do not necessarily have anything to do with the actual usefulness of work as claimed by Graeber. For example, people may also view their work as socially useless because unfavorable working conditions make it seem pointless.”