According to David Graeber:

They discovered that people in the UK, 37% agreed that if their job didn't exist either it would make no difference whatsoever or the world might be a slightly better place.

This leads Graeber to believe that those people are working in pointless jobs that provide no value as judged by the employee at all. Is that a reasonable interpretation of the state of affairs?

  • Found the article on yougov.co.uk. Plus poll results. I'll leave it to someone else to assess their methodology in an answer. @WeatherVane Jul 3, 2020 at 23:31
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    Impossible to answer, since words such as "pointless" and "value" are subjective. In fact, it's doubly-subjective, since Graeber is applying his subjective interpretation to a poll in which the people themselves have applied their subjective interpretation of their job, and even if some of these people do state that their job is meaningless, does not necessarily make it objectively meaningless (those people are getting paid by someone, so it certainly isn't a meaningless job to that person). But that being said, I don't think the number is completely useless. While people's opinions are subjec
    – Jaood
    Jul 3, 2020 at 23:59
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    There's a difference between the question in the title (Empirically, did 37% of people express this opinion about their own jobs?) and the body (Are the jobs actually objectively pointless?) I don't think the body is answerable, but the title is.
    – Oddthinking
    Jul 4, 2020 at 1:29
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    If the poll result linked in @Bitterdreggs comment is the "YouGov survey" mentioned in the video then the question title is misquoting it and jumping to a wrong conclusion. The poll results says the question was "Do you think that your job is or is not making a meaningful contribution to the world?" OP has taken that to mean "makes the world worse." David Graeber also misquotes it by saying "37% think that if their job did not exist the world will be a slighly better place". If that is the survey referred to, then NO to the question asked in OP's title and NO to what the linked video claims. Jul 4, 2020 at 15:08
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    I'd be careful of taking "if their job didn't exist [...] the world might be a slightly better place" to mean "their jobs actively make the world a worse place". My job involves collecting data about cancer patients - if my job stopped existing, it would likely be because nobody had cancer any more. I'd love to live in a world where cancer didn't exist! Jul 14, 2020 at 15:41

1 Answer 1


The first real source for this is an essay Graeber wrote in 2013:

"On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant" which he then reworked into a full book on the subject of

Bullshit Jobs. (Website)

A YouGov poll in 2015 then found that

37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless

enter image description here

He just quotes that actual number from that poll in the linked talk. He also could have used numbers for the same question from the Netherlands, where it was found to be 40% think of their job as 'meaningless'.

As it's 'a poll', different polls might turn up different numbers, but alienation from work is not a new phenomenon, so actual numbers might be higher or lower.

Criticism of this line of reasoning is then:

[Graeber's] five categories of Bullshit Jobs:

  1. flunkies, who serve to make their superiors feel important (e.g., receptionists, door attendants);
  2. goons, who act aggressively on behalf of their employers (e.g. corporate lawyers, lobbyists);
  3. duct tapers, who ameliorate preventable problems (e.g. airline desk staff who calm passengers whose bags don’t arrive);
  4. box tickers, who use paperwork or gestures as a proxy for action (e.g. performance managers, leisure coordinators) and
  5. taskmasters, who manage or create extra work for those who don’t need it (e.g. leadership professionals).

However, as Nick Irving puts it in his article Unpacking the Millennial Work Ethic: The book does almost no work to address the complexity of using self-reported, self-selecting sources, despite the enormous interdisciplinary literature on such topics. […] There’s no effort to address the contingent cultural (or even social) factors that might lead to a person thinking their job is pointless. – in other words – how can we be sure which jobs are bullshit jobs and which are not, when it’s based on a subjective perspective, which can be misleading? […]

Is there any objective way to measure the bullshitness of the job? The people surveyed by YouGov were asked about “meaningless”, those in the Netherlands about “meaningful contributions to the world”. That might be the key to our perception of a job being bullshit.
— Jędrzej Chrząstek : "'Is your job meaningless?' – if you answer “yes”, you’re probably right – a few words on bullshit jobs", SaleManagoBlog, December 30 2019

Although generally, the whole book was mainly praised for rigour in methods, and subjective self-reporting or not, the numbers from YouGov match those Graeber quoted in his earlier book. They are external corroboration, since Graeber might have inspired the later poll, but didn't conduct it.

enter image description here
(— Bullshit Jobs, p25)

And frankly:

Mark Buchanan , "Too Many Jobs Feel Meaningless Because They Are", Bloomber, August 01 2018.

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