The spiritual crisis underneath our jobs.
Working The New Press, 2004. 640pp.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory Simon & Schuster, 2018. 368pp.
The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change Currency, 2018. 416pp.
“I had no concept of the horrible dread I would feel getting up in the morning to spend all day sitting in an office trying to waste time.”
Rachel grew up in a poor family yet graduated from a prestigious British university with a physics degree. Yet soon after graduation, student debt forced her to take a job as a “catastrophe risk analyst” at a big insurance company.
Rachel recalls the day she hit an existential tipping point at her new job:
The final straw came after months of complaining, when I met my friend Mindy for a drink after a week of peak bullshit. I had just been asked to color coordinate a mind map to show, “the nice-to-haves, must-haves, and would-like-to-have-in-the-futures.” (No, I have no ideas what that means, either.)
She ranted at me, and I ranted at her. I made a long, impassioned speech that ended with me shouting, “I cannot wait for the sea levels to rise and the apocalypse to come because I would rather be out hunting fish and cannibals with a spear I’d fashioned out of a fucking pole than doing this fucking bullocks! . . . We both laughed for a long time, and then I started crying. I quit the next day.
Rachel ended her tear-strewn reflection with a response to those who would call her experience of work just a “Millennial problem.” “So, yes, I am the queen crystal of Generation Snowflake melting in the heat of a pleasantly air-conditioned office,” she said, remembering her grandmother’s words to toughen up. “But good Lord, the working world is crap.”
Nearly five decades earlier, Nora Watson, a twenty-eight-year-old staff writer for an institution publishing health care literature, shared her own lament for her new career.
Jobs are not big enough for people. . . . A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has become so divorced from my job except, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.
Much has changed about the global workforce in fifty years, yet there are two feelings, felt deeply by millions of Rachels and Nora Watsons across the world, that have endured the test time: the feeling that the modern workplace is an assault on our human dignity, and that work ought to have some broader purpose than just a paycheque, but seems forever beyond our grasp.
In an age of abundance, we are better fed, housed, and cared for than at any time in world history. Yet three books on work—two new and one old—show that our core longing for our jobs is not fundamentally economic, social, or political in nature.
Purpose, Pain, and PR Researchers
In August 2013, American anthropologist David Graeber published an essay titled “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs.” After more than a million website views in seventeen different languages, stories came tumbling into Graeber’s inbox. A corporate lawyer who believes, “I contribute nothing to this world and am utterly miserable all the time.” An advertiser, whose job, by his own admission, “is a combination of manufacturing demand and then exaggerating the usefulness of products sold to fix it.” Judy, an HR assistant, whose job never requires more than one hour a day. “The other seven hours were spent playing 2048 or watching YouTube.”
Graeber had a hunch that many jobs don’t “really do much of anything: HR consultants, communications coordinators, PR researchers, financial strategists.” His book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory tells the stories of hordes of men and women who believe their very own jobs are just that—bullshit. Rachel, quoted above, is one of those people.
Lest we think Graeber is just cursing to sell books, he offers a technical definition: “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 this is not the case.”
Graeber even has a taxonomy to describe these largely white-collar workers: “flunkies” exist only to make others look important; “goons” are those whose work is to aggressively propagate their employer’s agenda; “duct tapers” exist to fix some kind of glitch in a large bureaucracy; “box tickers” do jobs that allow their companies to say they’re doing something that it is not, in fact, doing; and finally, “taskmasters” are those whose work consists purely of assigning more work to others.
And lest we think these are isolated incidences, one poll in Holland found that 40 percent of Dutch workers believe their jobs have no reason to exist. Graeber dedicates nearly a third of the book to describing these jobs as acts of “spiritual violence.”
Ellen Ruppel Shell, a journalist for The Atlantic and Boston University professor, takes a different approach in The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change. Shell zooms out to tell us the broad story of work in our time, told through the eyes of educators, technologists, manufacturers, and laundromat operators. The overarching story is one of middle-class jobs slipping away as the working class languishes, and the new global aristocracy holds ever more power.
There are plenty of jobs left, but they’re mainly bad ones. In 2016 the American unemployment rate sank to below 5 percent. “But many Americans had a reason to feel less gleeful. Fully 58 percent of the job growth was in occupations with a wage of $7.69 to $13.83 an hour, while 60 percent of jobs in the midrange—$13.84 to $21.13 per hour—had vanished.”
Shell’s odyssey for a solution to the growing divide—which extends far beyond the size of a paycheque—takes the reader from Finnish classrooms to small manufacturers in places like the Navy Yard of New York’s Lower East Side. Makershops, employee-owned co-ops, and universal basic income are all proposed as the balm for the wounds of a digital age.
Shell calls her readers to embrace the worker’s own ability to construct meaning for themselves. The source of that meaning floats somewhere between creativity, agency, relationship, and economic dignity. “Rather than credit employers with giving us the ‘gift’ of ‘meaningful’ work, let’s agree that the meaning we gain from our work is no gift, but very much a product of our own efforts,” Shell writes. In this story, it us up to each worker to make meaning for herself.
A half century ago, another journalist, Studs Terkel, took up his tape recorder to listen to the American worker in his book Working. A collection of oral history, Working records the knotted, unfiltered voices of farmers, switchboard operators, spot-welders, hair stylists, proofreaders, and industrial designers. (Nora Watson, quoted above, is one of Terkel’s interviewees.)
Terkel gives voice to near universal human experiences at work.
- We bemoan jobs we feel we can’t control. (“Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors . . . you can’t sock a system,” says Mike LeFevre, a steelworker.)
- We feel like our jobs make us into machines. (A receptionist says, “A monkey can do what I do.” A bank teller confesses, “I’m caged.” A fashion model bemoans, “I’m an object.”)
- And we often feel the need to defend our dignity in the face of “daily humiliations.” (Peggy Terry, a waitress, hears from a customer, “You don’t have to smile; I’m gonna give you a tip anyway.” She replies, “Keep it. I wasn’t smiling for a tip.”)
Terkel ends his introduction to the book with the insightful Tom Patrick, a banker turned fireman. “I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five and it’s just shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers,” Patrick remembers, as if to remind the ages that the phenomenon of bullshit jobs is nothing new. “But [as a fireman] I can look back and say ‘I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.’ It shows something I did on this earth.’”
Patrick hints at the sense of participating in a larger story through one’s work—a story that has, like a dream, been largely forgotten by a secular society.
Falling to Pieces
Spiritual atrophy is spreading amid many of the world’s workers. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes the case that work has become a religion for the college educated, and, as with all idols, is making its adherents miserable. Charles Duhigg of the New York Times seesthe same sickness plaguing his fellow Harvard-educated elites. Yet researchers like Princeton’s Angus Deaton and Anne Case believe that “deaths of despair” among white, middle-aged Americans—who are largely working class—are a part of the same “moral and spiritual crisis.”
Secular society is indeed beginning to crack.
Richard Rohr once said, “When people lose a meaningful storyline for their lives, they disintegrate both personally and culturally.” We rarely connect the spiritual and the cultural, but reading Working, The Job, and Bullshit Jobs side by side makes this connection hard to miss.
Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs may fall short in supporting many of its claims (I do actually know quite a few PR professionals and corporate lawyers who do good, important work), but it rises to the surface a vast and very real phenomenon: most people don’t like their work, and they spend the majority of their time doing something they’d rather not. And to those experiencing such a crisis of meaning, it feels something like spiritual death. And the spiritual consequences quickly become cultural. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute shows that loneliness is tearing America apart. And even though GDP has grown at a healthy 3.5 percent, evidence of social collapse is all around us.
“Only if a man works can he live,” wrote American theologian Landon Gilkey in 1966 about Japanese internment camps in World War II. “But only if the work he does seems productive and meaningful can he bear the life that his work makes possible.” The story of work in our secular age is increasingly about finding ways to make meaning in our lives and careers from activities that feel abjectly meaningless.
The Job is written with warmth and optimism. But what’s missing is also what’s telling. Ruppel doesn’t even consider religion or belief in God as a valid motivation for work, but instead forces people into a secular box that calls people to create meaning for themselves, apart from any religious sources. (She briefly mentions the idea of vocation in connection with Yale researcher Amy Wrzesniewski’s research in job, career, and calling, but the context is about calling as “passion”—not a response to the voice of God.)
Again, if our cultural problem is intrinsically moral and spiritual, can we expect a healthy labour market when the labourers in that market are feeling the effects of a deep spiritual sickness?
Terkel’s Working is perhaps the most honest book of the bunch. It suggests no solutions and allows humans to express their deep humanity. Yet it also shows us injustice, despair, envy, shame, and pride. To where should a secular world look for hope?
From Soul to System
The Anglican priest George Herbert (1593–1633) believed that the elixir for our work was found in Christian teachings of vocation: “Teach me, my God and King / In all things Thee to see, / And what I do in anything / To do it as for Thee.” Christianity teaches that work is not first a social phenomenon, a policy problem, or an economic activity. It is first a response to God, an act of obedience that makes manifest our freedom and reflects God’s love.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky adds in his classic The Brothers Karamazov, “So long as man remains free he strives for nothing so incessantly and so painfully as to find someone to worship.”
From the perspective of secular society, this instinct is often overlooked, but at other times we subsume it into a larger humanistic narrative of being the captain of our own souls. Yet from the perspective of Christianity, worshipping yourself, your company, your family, or your workplace identity creates chaos. It is idolatry. The only way to heal society is to first heal the soul.
The challenge with both Bullshit Jobs and The Job is that they suggest political policies to fix spiritual and moral problems. The two are related of course; policies are certainly worthwhile and important, and corporate structures can certainly make living dignified, meaningful lives either harder or easier. But cultural issues facing workers can’t be considered in isolation from our deepest beliefs about God, ourselves, others, and our place in the world.
Christianity sees the need for redemption for both individuals and powerful systems. It crowns workers considered lowly by society with unsurpassable worth and dignity. Hotel janitors, landscapers, HR consultants, and even goons, flunkies, duct-tapers, box-tickers, and taskmasters have deep value. They may have bullshit jobs. But there are no bullshit people.
Yet Christianity also casts a wide net of responsibility on the powerful, and calls for reform. Policy makers, entertainers, CEOs, nonprofit leaders, and unions—indeed workers themselves—are called to reorient systems toward what’s good for employees, customers, and communities as persons. To whom much is given, much will be required (Luke 12:48).
A recipe for healing cannot be found in policies alone, but must move from souls quickened by divine love to reforming systems designed for human flourishing. This is what Christianity can offer our global conversation about work.
The enduring value of all three of these books is that they clearly show a world that’s dreading Monday. Each of these books is worth an honest reading to hear the unedited (and often profanity-laced) anguish of so many of those whom God so dearly loves (John 3:16). Yet they also make clear a call for Christians and their neighbours to look squarely at the systems—and morally questionable jobs so many despise—in need of reform.
Christian faith offers a secular world a picture of a God who was crucified on the roughhewn beams of his own work, and offers hope to all people at all times and in all situations.
Even to those melting in the sweltering heat of pleasantly air-conditioned offices.
This essay first appeared in Comment Magazine.