Meaningful Work and the Creative Impulse


When David Graeber’s book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory was published in the late spring, it received considerable media attention. Writing for Salon, Erin Keane provided a fairly succinct summary of Graeber’s definition of such employment:

The first half of the book is devoted to building a clear understanding of what is and isn’t a bullshit job, why it matters, and what the nature of the “genuine scar across our collective soul” that they cause is. According to Graeber, a bullshit job is different from a “shit job,” though both are oppressive, he writes, in different ways. A shit job tends to be blue-collar and hourly, as opposed to many bullshit white-collar salaried jobs. Shit jobs are frequently disrespected, but most are actually crucial to a functioning society. The indignity comes not from the job itself but from cultural attitudes toward those who perform it.

 The bullshit job, on the other hand, 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 this is not the case.” Bullshit jobs can and often are prestigious, or at least aspirational. It’s just that if they ceased to exist tomorrow, the world around us could go on in much the same way as it did before

What I found most fascinating about Keane’s essay, however, are the following paragraphs, which point to a major, largely unaddressed issue related to both current employment within the gig economy—largely in “shit” jobs—and future employment in a largely automated economy that will increasingly free us from “work,” or create bullshit jobs for people to do:

Graeber writes with academic rigor and yet refreshingly accessible prose about the paradoxes and pitfalls of the bullshit job. Some of the most fascinating parts of the book are when he plays confessor for bullshit job-holders from around the globe eager to process how and why the charade of meaningless pretend-work has affected their mental and emotional health. . . .

You might be thinking right about now that an office job that uses only a fraction of your intellect and abilities and only asks that you play along would be the perfect cover for pursuing your side hustle or creative projects. Graeber explores that option, and it turns out not to be as easy as it sounds.

“[P]roper shirking does seem to require something real to shirk,” he writes. “In a truly bullshit job, it’s often entirely unclear what one is really supposed to be doing, what one can say about what one is and isn’t doing, who one can ask and what one can ask them, how much and within what parameters one is expected to pretend to be working, and what sorts of things it is or is not permissible to do instead.” Doing so much of nothing can be more taxing, then, on the creative spirit and intellect than devoting considerable energy toward meaningful work.


Erin Keane’s complete article is available at:


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