Twitter & "Bullshit" Jobs

Silicon Valley is currently undergoing a dramatic and fairly unprecedented round of layoffs among blue-chip technology providers like Google, Meta, and Twitter. Elon Musk got the bloodbath started after his ill-starred acquisition of Twitter. Needing to dramatically improve its shaky balance sheet and profitability, he let go nearly half of the total staff – a remarkable reduction by almost any standard. This led to another round of faux handwringing in the punditry about Musk’s behavior and Twitter’s demise – though whether the cuts have had (or will have) any actual impact on Twitter operations is far from clear. The interesting question is whether it’s possible to reduce a technology workforce by half without having any or at least very little impact on operations. Given that these are all highly paid, high-skill technology workers it might seem that Musk’s actions will surely have a devastating impact.  On the other hand, a case can be made that it will have little or no impact and the reason is directly related to the phenomenon of “bullshit” jobs.

The term “bullshit” is used here in the technical sense coined by LSE Anthropologist David Graeber who describes such jobs as ones where even the people doing them know they’re pointless. Graeber’s contention, and it’s difficult to argue, is that there are LOTS of bullshit jobs. Just to be clear, he doesn’t mean shit (another term of art) jobs. Collecting garbage or slaughtering cows might be shit jobs, but they are manifestly useful. Bullshit jobs are white-collar and professional but are the sort of paper-pushing jobs that seem, perhaps most especially to the people who do them, pointless.

Having and keeping a bullshit job may well be remunerative and even respected, but it’s dispiriting and corrosive. He cites “Corporate Lawyer” as the sort of job that even those who do it largely know to be pointless and subtractive from social and human good.

It’s trenchant criticism, though Graeber’s diagnosis of how and why it happens is mostly absurd. He seems to think that rich people employ countless numbers of others in bullshit jobs whose primary purpose is to reflect glory on themselves. That some very rich people do this sort of thing is undeniable. But that it accounts for little more than an infinitesimal speck of mud in a vast barnyard should be equally obvious. Indeed, not a single one of the common careers Graeber cites as bullshit jobs have anything to do with reflecting glory on rich people. Corporate lawyers? Public relations consultants? Telemarketers? Not too many rich folks enjoy having a coterie of telemarketers following them around.

So why do bullshit jobs exist?

It’s not a conspiracy of rich people nor is it an inevitable outcome of capitalism. In startups and small business in general, bullshit jobs don’t exist. You can’t afford them. But there are four forces that drive the creation of bullshit jobs in advanced capitalist economies, three of the four are at least somewhat amenable to public policy, and one is directly related to Twitter.

The first great driver of bullshit jobs is, of course, government regulation. Graeber might hate that answer, but Corporate Lawyer is a perfect example of the phenomenon. Corporate lawyers exist because our society has created a morass of complex regulations to which large enterprises – having, as they must, large sums of money – are potentially vulnerable. Regulations like the EU’s GDPR are driven by and for attorneys and if they have residual benefit to consumers, it is mostly happenstance. Big companies must have corporate attorneys because that is how they protect themselves in an impossibly arcane regulatory environment.

Naturally, the fact that rich enterprises can protect themselves using their well-trained phalanx of bullshit job attorneys means that the potential benefit of a great deal of regulation is largely nullified and the burdens fall mainly on organizations too small to afford similar protection.

Government drives the second type of bullshit job as well. If you work for the government itself, anyone of the highly regulated utilities, or in industries where massive government intervention creates incentives to simply charge more (universities), then you’re familiar with the problem. Government loans and subsidies don’t make college cheaper, they simply allow colleges to charge more. As they charge more, they have to find ways to use the money and since they are non-profits, that typically means they hire people. They don’t need more useful people (teachers), so they hire administrators.

The administrative burden at a typical university has grown dramatically in the past forty years and is still climbing. Why? There’s been no fundamental change in the provision of educational services. We haven’t lost technologies or techniques that once allowed us to deliver an education more cheaply and efficiently. Nor have we improved, in any noticeable fashion, the actual education provided. It’s simply that hiring people is the only way for government and non-profit organizations to spend their money. The number and percentage of bullshit jobs in the regulated economy is staggering.

The third driver of bullshit jobs lives on the other end of the spectrum. Unrestrained capitalism will inevitably explore and exploit every potential niche for profit. Many of those niches are useful since people reward value delivered. But there are always niches that are targeted exploitations of our flaws. Telemarketing, herbal medicine, self-help, click-bait content, travel insurance and other border-line frauds make up a respectable percentage of our economy. These businesses are owned and run by hucksters and charlatans, but the people who work in these exploitative industries are just punching the clock doing a job they know is bullshit. It’s hard to have a good life when your work involves the casual exploitation of others.

Together, these three drivers account for a large majority of bullshit jobs. On the other hand, those jobs are easy to identify as bullshit and you should only wind up in one if you have no other choice. Jobs in the fourth class are less obviously bullshit and they are the easiest to be accidentally trapped in. When enterprises succeed in a free economy, they are usually delivering real value. Sometimes, that success is proportionate to the size of the company. A good chef develops a loyal clientele and has a successful restaurant. Every person working in that restaurant is essential to the functioning of the business. Occasionally, though, the nature of the business is such that it can grow much larger without any commensurate increase in people.

Visa is a great example of how this can happen.[1] The entire value of Visa (and it is huge) is driven by a tiny team of people who write and maintain the code that processes, clears and monitors transactions. The thousands of other people in the organization are just coasting on the success of that tiny group.

So why do all those people have jobs? Visa is a slightly peculiar case because it was (for much of its history) an association not a for-profit business, but similar dynamics exist at many large, successful companies. Online companies, in particular, are prone to the problem. Since they are not burdened by physical infrastructure, they experience none of the friction that comes with geography and physical plant. Once you’ve created an online service that works, you can scale it with extraordinary ease and without the necessity of much infrastructure or people.

Certainly, the simple existence of scale necessitates bullshit jobs of the sort necessary to handle regulation, but when profit dramatically exceeds need, people simply find ways to spend money. And not only do people like having other people around, but they will always find new things to try. Why not? The money is there. People like doing new stuff. They always have new dreams. Companies inevitably expand to fill the available dollars. This is neither sinister nor particularly surprising, but it does create a lot of bullshit jobs.

How many people are actually necessary to run Twitter on a daily basis? It’s certainly a lot less than the number of employees Twitter had. Probably it’s less than the number of employees Twitter has left. And the same dynamic is true for every big digital company.

Layoffs suck. For the people caught up in them, the experience can be devastating. But there’s a silver lining for the thousands of talented people caught up in the crossfire. Graeber is dead-on about how many jobs out there aren’t worth doing and the human cost of investing your life in one. You don’t have to buy into his thin, pseudo-Marxist explanations of why those jobs exist to take his main point to heart. A life is too valuable to spend doing a bullshit job. And of all the bullshit jobs, the easiest ones to fall into are at places like Twitter and Google.

[1] I call-out Visa only because I once worked there (and was one of the many parasites).