Ever feel like your job is pointless?

A big part of the population feels just that way — that the jobs they do matter little to society.

And a Swiss study that delved into what’s been dubbed the “bullshit jobs theory” found that feeling was especially likely for folks in financial, sales and management jobs.

About 19% of employees found their work rarely or never gave them “a feeling of making a positive impact on community and society” and “the feeling of doing useful work,” the study found.

That finding is in line with the “bullshit jobs theory” espoused by the late American anthropologist David Graeber, who maintained that some jobs are socially useless.

“Employees’ assessment of whether their work is perceived as socially useless is a very complex issue that needs to be approached from different angles,” study leader Simon Walo, a sociologist at the University of Zurich, said in a university news release.

“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,” Walo explained.

In addition to Graeber’s theory, other researchers have suggested that people consider their jobs useless not because of the importance of their work but because it is routine and they lack autonomy or good management.

The new study confirmed other factors that influence employees’ perceptions of their own work, including alienation, unfavorable working conditions and social interaction.

Walo analyzed survey data from more than 1,800 people who were working in the United States in 21 types of jobs in 2015.

He adjusted the raw data to compare workers with the same degree of routine work, job autonomy and quality of management.

After excluding working conditions, Walo found that the nature of a person’s job still had a large effect on their perception of its usefulness.

People working in business, finance and sales were more than twice as likely to say their jobs were socially useless than others. Office assistants and managers were also more likely than others to agree, though their response was less strong.

Private-sector jobs had higher perceived pointlessness than those at a nonprofit or in the public sector.

“The original evidence presented by Graeber was mainly qualitative, which made it difficult to assess the magnitude of the problem,” Walo said. “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.”

The study findings were published online recently in the journal Work, Employment and Society.

More information

The University of Oxford has more on happy workers.

SOURCE: University of Zurich, news release, Aug. 2, 2023