ZURICH, Switzerland — Waking up day in and day out to report to a job that feels absolutely pointless and redundant is hardly the recipe for a rewarding career – or life, for that matter. Troublingly, researchers at the University of Zurich report a significant portion of employees working in certain sectors can’t help but perceive their work as being socially useless.
The study found that workers in financial, sales, and management jobs are more likely to conclude that their work is of very little use to society.
Prior research conducted in recent years has pointed to a trend among many professionals nowadays in which they see their careers as being socially useless. Numerous explanations have been put forth to explain this phenomenon. One of the most prominent is the much-discussed “BS jobs theory” developed by American anthropologist David Graeber. That theory says certain jobs are objectively useless, and such positions tend to occur more frequently across certain occupations and fields than others.
Other scientists theorize that many see their jobs as being useless due to more administrative complaints (monotonous daily routine, lack of autonomy, poor management) than anything intrinsic to their work itself. However, this is only one part of the story, as a recent study put together by sociologist Simon Walo of the University of Zurich is the first to give quantitative support to the relevance of specific occupations.
To conduct this research, scientists analyzed a collection of survey data encompassing 1,811 respondents in the U.S. working 21 different types of jobs. Respondents 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.” That survey was carried out in 2015, finding that 19 percent of respondents spread across a wide variety of occupations answered “never” or “rarely” to those inquiries.
Next, the raw data was adjusted in order to compare workers with the same degree of routine work, job autonomy, and quality of management. This approach led to the finding that the nature of one’s job indeed has a large effect on perceived pointlessness even after working conditions are excluded as a factor. Moreover, employees in occupations that Graeber deemed “useless” were more likely to reply negatively.
Others working in business, finance, and sales were more than twice as likely to say their jobs were socially useless compared to other workers. Office assistants and managers were also more likely to say this, to a lesser extent (1.6 or 1.9 times more likely than others).
“The original evidence presented by Graeber was mainly qualitative, which made it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem,” says Walo in a university release. “This study extends previous analyses by drawing on a rich, under-utilized 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 both the non-profit and public sectors. However, Walo’s study also confirmed that other factors influence employees’ perceptions of their own work, such as alienation, unfavorable working conditions, and social interactions.
“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 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.”
The study is published in the journal Work Employment and Society.
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