Socially Useless Jobs*
ROBERT DUR and MAX VAN LENT
Recent research suggests that many workers in modern economies think that their job
is socially useless, i.e., that it makes no or a negative contribution to society. However,
the evidence so far is mainly anecdotal. We use a representative dataset comprising
100,000 workers from forty-seven countries at four points in time. We ﬁnd that
approximately 8 percent of workers perceive their job as socially useless, while
another 17 percent are doubtful about the usefulness of their job. There are sizeable
differences among countries, sectors, occupations, and age groups, but no trend over
time. A vast majority of workers cares about holding a socially useful job and we ﬁnd
that they suffer when they consider their job useless. We also explore possible causes
of socially useless jobs, including bad management, strict job protection legislation,
harmful economic activities, labor hoarding, and division of labor.
In a widely read essay, anthropologist David Graeber (2013: n.p.) has claimed
on the basis of anecdotal evidence that “Huge swathes of people, in Europe and
North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks
they secretly believe do not really need to be performed”(see also Graeber
2018). This claim, if true, is worrisome for at least three reasons. First, inasfar as
workers’beliefs reﬂect the true usefulness of their job, it would mean a huge
waste of resources. Second, experimental studies (Ariely, Kamenica, and Prelec
2008; Carpenter and Gong 2016; Grant 2008; Kosfeld, Neckerman, and Yang
2017) have shown that motivation and, hence, productivity, deteriorate when
workers consider their job to be useless or harmful, which is problematic when
jobs are actually useful. Third, and independent of the true usefulness of the job,
JEL: J2, J3, J4, J8, M5.
*The authors’afﬁliations are, respectively, Erasmus University Rotterdam, Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and
Tinbergen Institute, CESifo, and IZA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; and Leiden University, Leiden, the Nether-
lands. E-mail: email@example.com. The authors are grateful to Anne Boring, Josse Delfgaauw,
Sacha Kapoor, Arjan Non, Sandra Phlippen, Joeri Sol, Bauke Visser, Olaf van Vliet, and the editor and a
reviewer of this journal for useful comments. They also thank seminar participants at the LSE, Erasmus
University Rotterdam, and Leiden University as well as participants of the Reinhard Selten Institute Work-
shop “New Challenges, New Objectives and New Tools for Public Policy”in Cologne.
INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS, DOI: 10.1111/irel.12227. Vol. 58, No. 1 (January 2019). ©2018 The Regents of
the University of California Published by Wiley Periodicals, Inc., 350 Main Street, Malden,
MA 02148, USA, and 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK.
job satisfaction and well-being will be lower for those workers who care about
doing a useful job, but perceive their job as useless.
This paper studies socially useless jobs using a large representative dataset—
the International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Waves—covering
more than 100,000 workers from forty-seven countries in 1989, 1997, 2005, and
2015. We address the following issues: How many workers consider their job to
be socially useless? How does this differ among countries, sectors, occupations,
cohorts, age groups, and over time? Do workers suffer when they perceive their
job to be useless? What explains the existence of socially useless jobs? And,
ﬁnally, what can be done about the perceived social uselessness of jobs?
Our study is limited to workers’subjective assessment of the social useful-
ness of their job, which we measure by workers’response to the statement,
“My job is useful to society.”Ideally, we would also consider the true useful-
ness of jobs, as well as how that relates to workers’perceptions. However,
objective measures are hard to ﬁnd (cf. Lockwood, Nathanson, and Weyl
2017) or may not even exist (Graeber 2013). As a result, we will not be able
to speak to the issue of whether there is a substantial waste of human
resources. We are, however, in a good position to speak to the other major
issues mentioned above—workers’motivation, productivity, and satisfaction—
as these are affected by the workers’perceived social impact, not by the true
social impact of their work.
Our focus on the social usefulness of jobs differs from Dekker (2018), who—
independently from and concurrently with the present study—examined the
responses of workers to the more general question “I doubt the importance of my
work”using the European Working Conditions Survey 2015. Likewise, Hu and
Hirsh (2017) used a composite measure of “meaningful work,”which includes
whether the job is interesting and whether one can help other people on the job.
Closer to our deﬁnition, YouGov surveyed a sample of workers in the UK in
2015 asking whether their job is making a meaningful contribution to the world,
ﬁnding a higher percentage of workers who disagree than we do.
Our paper is structured as follows. In the next section, we will examine workers’
perceptions of the social usefulness of their jobs and how that differs across and
within countries and over time. We then study workers’desire for a socially useful
job and the consequences of holding a socially useless job for job satisfaction, the
pride workers take in their job, and workers’job search behavior. We then turn to
possible explanations for the existence of socially useless jobs. We explore the role
See also Steger, Dik, and Duffy (2012) for an extensive description of several dimensions of meaning-
ful work and Kaplan and Schulhofer-Wohl (2018) for an analysis of how meaningful U.S. workers ﬁnd their
4/ ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT
of bad management, strict job protection legislation, harmful economic activities,
labor hoarding, and division of labor. The last section concludes with a brief sum-
mary and a discussion of what governments, employers, and workers can do to pre-
vent socially useless jobs from emerging or persisting.
Who Considers Their Job to Be Socially Useless?
We assume a worker considers his job to be socially useless when he dis-
agrees or strongly disagrees with the statement “My job is useful to society.”
Using this classiﬁcation, we ﬁnd for the sample of workers in the 2015-wave
—which includes more than 27,000 workers in thirty-seven countries—that 8
percent perceive their job to be socially useless. In contrast, close to 75 per-
cent of workers agrees or strongly agrees with the statement. The remaining
17 percent neither agrees nor disagrees, and so they seem doubtful about the
usefulness of their job.
Figure 1 shows considerable differences between countries in the percentage
of workers perceiving their job as socially useless, with relatively high shares
in countries such as Poland, Japan, Israel, and India, and relatively low shares
in Norway, Switzerland, and Mexico. There is some variation over time in the
share of socially useless jobs, but no clear time trend: it moves from 6 percent
in 1989, to 10 percent in 1997, back to 6 percent in 2005.
The pattern over
time mirrors the business cycle, with lower shares during booms and higher
shares during recessions, an issue we will return to later, when we examine
possible explanations for socially useless jobs.
Table 1 reports the results of regressing whether a worker considers her job
to be socially useless on sector of employment, whether one holds a manage-
ment position, and a set of demographic characteristics.
In line with a rich lit-
erature in public administration and economics (Besley and Ghatak 2018;
Francois and Vlassopoulos 2008; Perry and Vandenabelee 2015), we ﬁnd that
workers in the public sector are much less likely to report having a socially
useless job than workers in the private sector (more than 6 percentage points
lower, which is large compared to the average of 8 percent in the full sample).
Further inspection of the data shows that this holds particularly for occupations
such as ﬁre ﬁghters, police ofﬁcers, social beneﬁts ofﬁcials, health workers,
Respondents could also choose “Can’t choose,”which was chosen by slightly more than 1 percent.
Countries included in the sample vary from wave to wave, but correcting for this does not change the
pattern over time in an important way, see Table S1 in the supporting information.
Throughout this paper we use ordinary least squares (OLS) regression models for ease of interpreta-
tion; logistic regressions give similar results.
Socially Useless Jobs /5
and teachers. For these occupations, we ﬁnd that the percentage of workers
reporting socially useless work is close to or equal to zero; see Table S2 in
supporting information. In contrast, for government clerks and the armed
forces we ﬁnd percentages closer to the sample average. Regarding the demo-
graphic variables, we ﬁnd no signiﬁcant gender difference and a weak, but sta-
tistically signiﬁcant, negative relation with years of education. In contrast to
what is sometimes thought (Graeber 2013), managers are not more likely to
report socially useless work than regular workers, and this holds for both mid-
dle managers and top managers. Last, we ﬁnd sizeable associations with cohort
and age; see the coefﬁcients plotted in Figure 2. Holding age constant, cohorts
born before World War II are less likely to perceive their job as socially use-
less, particularly the cohort born before 1921.
Holding constant the cohort,
older workers are much less likely to perceive their job as socially useless.
This age pattern may arise for a variety of reasons including “job shopping”
by young workers in search for a meaningful job and early retirement by old
workers who consider their job socially useless.
THE FRACTION OF WORKERS WHO CONSIDER THEIR JOB TO BESOCIALLY USELESS BY COUNTRY IN
SOURCE:International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015. [Color ﬁgure can
be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
When interpreting these coefﬁcients, it is important to keep in mind that the regression in Table 1 does
not include time ﬁxed effects, because of the linear dependency of age, cohort, and time effects.
6/ ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT
CHANGE IN THE PROPORTION OF WORKERS WHO CONSIDER THEIR JOB TO BESOCIALLY USELESS
IMPLIED BY THE COEFFICIENTS OF THE BIRTH COHORT AND AGE GROUP DUMMIES OF THE REGRESSION
REPORTED IN TABLE 1
NOTES:The dot depicts the coefﬁcient and the line the 95-percent conﬁdence interval of the
coefﬁcient estimated in the regression in Table 1. The reference categories are Birthyear 1941–
1960 and Age 41–50. [Color ﬁgure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
WHO CONSIDERS THEIR JOB TO BESOCIALLY USELESS?
Dependent Variable Socially Useless Job
Public sector 0.063
Top manager 0.024
Middle manager 0.001
Years of education 0.0001
Birth cohort and age group dummies Yes
Country ﬁxed effects Yes
NOTES: OLS regression. Mean of dependent variable is 0.079. Standard errors in parentheses *p<0.1; ***p<0.01.
Socially Useless Jobs /7
Do Workers Suffer When They Perceive Their Job to Be Socially
Having a job that is useful to society is considered an important job charac-
teristic by a vast majority of workers: Table 2 shows that close to 77 percent
of the 2015 wave ﬁnds this important or very important. Not all of these work-
ers manage to get a job they consider socially useful. Fifty percent of socially
useless jobs are occupied by workers who ﬁnd it important to have a socially
useful job. However, the data do suggest that there is some sorting of workers
to jobs on the basis of preferences, as workers who do not care about the use-
fulness of their job are clearly overrepresented among those who perceive their
job as socially useless. We ﬁnd similar results for the other waves.
Workers who care about holding a socially useful job report lower job satisfac-
tion when they perceive their job as useless. In the ﬁrst column of Table 3, we
WORKERS’PREFERENCE FOR SOCIALLY USEFUL JOBS AND PERCEIVED USEFULNESS OF THEIR JOB IN
Don’t Mind Having a Socially Useless Job
Considers Job Socially Useless No Yes Total
No 73% 19% 92%
Yes 4% 4% 8%
Total 77% 23% 100%
NOTES: Workers consider their job as socially useless when they do not agree with the following statement: “My job is use-
ful to society.”Workers do not mind having a socially useless job when they do not ﬁnd it important to have “a job that
is useful to society.”
SOCIALLY USELESS JOBS AND JOB SATISFACTION IN 2015
Dependent Variable Job Satisfaction
Socially useless job (SUJ) 0.77
(0.03) (0.03) (0.03)
Don’t mind having a SUJ 0.22
(0.02) (0.02) (0.02)
Don’t mind having a SUJ x SUJ 0.40
(0.05) (0.05) (0.05)
Demographic characteristics Yes Yes Yes
Country ﬁxed effects Yes Yes Yes
Other job characteristics No Yes Yes
Wage dummies per countries No No Yes
Observations 26.184 26.184 26.184
0.09 0.21 0.29
NOTES: Job satisfaction is measured using a 7-point scale; a higher value means more satisﬁed. The mean is 5.32 and the
standard deviation is 1.17. Standard errors in parentheses. ***p< 0.01.
8/ ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT
regress a worker’s job satisfaction (measured on a 7-point scale) on whether she
holds a socially useless job, whether she cares about holding a socially useless job,
and the interaction between these two variables. We also include a set of demo-
graphic characteristics (age, gender, and education) and country ﬁxed effects.
ﬁnd a strong negative relation between holding a socially useless job and job satis-
faction for those who care, while the relationship is much weaker for those who
indicate not caring about holding a socially useless job.
In the second column, we add a range of other job characteristics as controls,
resulting in a slightly weaker—but still highly signiﬁcant—relationship between
holding a socially useless job and job satisfaction for those who care.
in the coefﬁcient reﬂects that workers who hold a socially useless job often-
times also report that other job characteristics are less attractive, such as a lack
of opportunities for advancement and job insecurity. Not including these as
controls leads to a bias away from zero in the coefﬁcient of main interest.
In the ﬁnal column of Table 3, we add as a control the workers’wage,
which is measured in country-speciﬁc intervals. If the theory of compensating
wage differentials (Rosen 1974) holds, then we expect that socially useless jobs
pay higher wages to compensate for the disamenity. Not controlling for wages
in the job satisfaction regression then biases the estimate of the true nonpecu-
niary loss of holding a socially useless job toward zero. However, we ﬁnd that
the estimate hardly changes, suggesting that workers holding a socially useless
job are not ﬁnancially compensated for this disamenity. The estimated coefﬁ-
cient implies that, for those who care, holding a socially useless job is associ-
ated with a drop in job satisfaction by 45 percent of a standard deviation,
which is comparable to the association of job satisfaction with other important
job characteristics, such as job security, opportunities for advancement, and
being able to work independently; see the ﬁrst column in Table 4.
We ran the same regressions for other important outcome variables, and ﬁnd
results in line with those for job satisfaction; see the second, third, and fourth
column in Table 4. Workers who hold a socially useless job and care about
this feel less proud of the type of work they do. They are signiﬁcantly more
Table S3 in supporting information provides a version of Table 3 that also reports the coefﬁcients for
the demographic characteristics. The coefﬁcients for the country ﬁxed effects are available upon request.
Both the dependent and the main independent variable in the regressions in Table 3 and 4 are respon-
dent’s subjective assessments, which may give rise to biases, for instance due to omitted variables such as
the respondent’s personality and mood. While this argument may have some merit, we believe it is not quite
so compelling here, because the worker’s assessment of the usefulness of his job (the main independent vari-
able) is not so much a statement about his overall feeling of happiness with work. We thank a reviewer for
bringing up this point.
Table S3 provides a description of the job characteristics we control for and the resulting regression
Socially Useless Jobs /9
likely to indicate that, given the chance, they would change their type of work.
Likewise, they ﬁnd it more likely that they will try to ﬁnd another job within
the next 12 months.
What Explains the Existence of Socially Useless Jobs?
What might explain that about 8 percent of workers perceive their job to be
socially useless? We can think of ﬁve plausible reasons, for which we provide
tentative empirical evidence in what follows.
First, it has been widely recognized that some economic activities harm
rather than help people. Think, for instance, of ﬁrms that exploit our psycho-
logical weaknesses and ignorance to make us buy products that we actually do
SOCIALLY USELESS JOBS AND OTHER IMPORTANT OUTCOME VARIABLES IN 2015
Dependent Variable (1) (2) (3) (4)
Socially useless job (SUJ) 0.52
(0.03) (0.03) (0.04) (0.03)
Don’t mind having a SUJ 0.15
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.02)
Don’t mind having a SUJ x SUJ 0.28
(0.05) (0.04) (0.06) (0.04)
Demographic characteristics Yes Yes Yes Yes
Country ﬁxed effects Yes Yes Yes Yes
Other job characteristics
My job is secure 0.38
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
My opportunities for advancement are high 0.40
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
I can work independently 0.35
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.02)
I often have to do hard physical work 0.11
(0.02) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
I often ﬁnd my work stressful 0.36
(0.01) (0.01) (0.02) (0.01)
Wage dummies per countries Yes Yes Yes Yes
Observations 26.184 25.858 25.500 25.002
0.29 0.29 0.23 0.23
NOTES: The dependent variables are (1) job satisfaction (on a 7-point scale); (2) I am proud of the type of work I do (on a 5-
point scale); (3) given the chance, I would change my present type of work (on a 5-point scale); (4) how likely is it that
you will try to ﬁnd a job with another ﬁrm within the next 12 months (on a 4-point scale). Standard errors are in parenthe-
ses. **p<0.05; ***p<0.01.
Earlier research has found that workers who ﬁnd their job useless more likely suffer from emotional
exhaustion, a distinctive feature of burnout (Grant and Sonnentag 2010).
10 / ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT
not need or that harm us (Akerlof and Shiller 2015; Thaler 2018). As a con-
crete example, it has been argued that ﬁnancial advice by bankers and insur-
ance agents can be “a curse rather than a blessing”for consumers (Inderst and
Ottaviani 2012). Similarly, workers in so-called “sin industries”such as
tobacco and gambling and those involved in rent-seeking and lobbying may
not be convinced that they make a positive contribution to society (Brun, Sch-
neider, and Weber 2017; Murphy, Shleifer, and Vishny 1991).
Our data provide some support for this explanation. Indeed, among the
top-20 occupations with the highest share of workers reporting a socially
useless job, we ﬁnd “sales, marketing, and public relations professionals,”
“ﬁnance managers,”and “sales and purchasing agents and brokers”(which
include insurance representatives) scoring percentages higher than 14 per-
cent; see Table S4 in supporting information. This is in line with the
empirical evidence in Lockwood, Nathanson, and Weyl (2017)—reporting
negative economy-wide externalities for jobs in ﬁnance and law—and in
Ashraf and Bandiera (2017)—reporting particularly low values of perceived
social impact of bankers engaged in marketing and legal ofﬁces, ﬁnance,
and investment banking. Interestingly, economists also make it into the top
20. For workers in “sin industries”such as tobacco and gambling, we
unfortunately lack a sufﬁcient number of observations.
A second explanation relies on Marx’s (1844) theory of alienation, which
argues, among other things, that division of labor into highly specialized parts
can make meaningful work look meaningless. We ﬁnd some support for this
idea in our data. In the top-20 occupations with the highest share of workers
reporting to have a socially useless job, we ﬁnd three occupations for which
Marx’s theory may be particularly relevant: “stationary plant and machine
operators,”“assemblers,”and “labourers in mining, construction, manufactur-
ing, and transport performing simple and routine manual tasks”with percent-
ages close to 14 percent; see Table S4.
The third explanation relies on the fact that decisions on job creation and
job destruction are typically taken by managers. If managers do a bad job,
socially useless jobs may emerge or persist. We use data from Bloom et al.
(2014) about the average quality of management in the manufacturing industry
for fourteen countries and ﬁnd no support for this prediction: management
quality is not negatively associated with the share of socially useless jobs
among workers (see Figure 3). We ﬁnd a similar result when replacing the
average quality of management by the percentage of companies that is badly
managed. Unfortunately, we lack data on management quality for more coun-
tries and other industries.
Our fourth explanation is that strict job protection legislation may force
organizations into retaining workers, even when work has disappeared (e.g.,
Socially Useless Jobs /11
due to technological shocks or changing market circumstances), leaving work-
ers with little to do on the job. Using data from the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) about job protection legislation in
thirty-one different countries for several years, we ﬁnd no evidence for this
prediction: job protection does not correlate signiﬁcantly with the share of
socially useless jobs; see Figure 4.
Our ﬁfth and last explanation is labor hoarding, i.e., the tendency of organi-
zations to hold on to more workers than necessary during economic downturns
in anticipation of better times, resulting in “on-the-job underemployment”
(Okun 1962). Using data from the OECD on the economies’output gap in
twenty-seven countries for several years, we ﬁnd some support for this idea:
the share of socially useless jobs is signiﬁcantly higher when the economic sit-
uation gets worse (a one standard deviation increase in the output gap is asso-
ciated with a 0.5 percentage points increase in the share of socially useless
THE AVERAGE MANAGEMENT QUALITY IN THE MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY (HORIZONTAL AXIS)AND
THE SHARE OF WORKERS REPORTING A SOCIALLY USELESS JOB IN THE MANUFACTURING INDUSTRY
(VERTICAL AXIS)FOR THE AVAILABLE COUNTRIES IN 2015
Source: International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015 and Bloom et al.
=0.02, coefﬁcient: 0.04 (p=0.672). [Color ﬁgure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.
12 / ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT
jobs; see Figure 5). However, it also appears clearly from the data that socially
useless jobs are not merely observed during recessions.
We have found that about 8 percent of workers consider their job to be
socially useless. An additional 17 percent seem doubtful about the social useful-
ness of their job. While these numbers are much lower than has been suggested
on the basis of anecdotal evidence in Graeber (2013, 2018), the share of workers
perceiving their job to be socially useless is clearly not negligible either. In line
with earlier studies in public administration and economics, we found a big dif-
ference between workers in the public sector and workers in business, with 11
percent of the latter considering their job to be socially useless, while only 3
JOB PROTECTION INDEX (HORIZONTAL AXIS)AND THE SHARE OF SOCIALLY USELESS JOBS (VERTICAL
AXIS)FOR AVAILABLE COUNTRIES AND WAVES
Source: International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015 and the OECD
Indicators of Employment Protection, “Strictness of employment protection—individual and
collective dismissals (regular contracts)”; https://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx?DataSetCode=EPL_
=0.00, coefﬁcient: 0.00 (p=0.882). [Color ﬁgure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.
Socially Useless Jobs /13
percent of public sector workers think about their job in that way. Within busi-
ness, the share of workers considering their job to be socially useless is particu-
larly high in jobs involving simple and routine tasks as well as jobs in ﬁnance,
sales, marketing, and public relations. Within the public sector, jobs in educa-
tion, health, and the police force are rarely perceived to be socially useless. Fur-
ther, we have seen that managers and workers do not differ much in how they
evaluate the usefulness of their job, in contrast to what is sometimes thought. Of
the potential causes of socially useless jobs, we found some evidence consistent
with the ideas that division of labor, labor hoarding, and harmful economic
activities may be partly responsible for the existence of socially useless work.
We found no evidence for the hypotheses that bad managers and strict job pro-
tection legislation give rise to socially useless jobs. However, we cannot draw
ﬁrm conclusions, as our analysis is correlational in nature.
What can be done to reduce socially useless jobs? We see a role for govern-
ments, employers, and workers. Governments may use taxation to discourage
employers from creating or retaining pointless and harmful jobs and encourage
OUTPUT GAP (HORIZONTAL AXIS)AND THE SHARE OF SOCIALLY USELESS JOBS (VERTICAL AXIS)FOR
AVAILABLE COUNTRIES AND WAVES.
Source: International Social Survey Program, Work Orientations Wave 2015 and the OECD
Economic Outlook No. 102—November 2017, “Output gap of the total economy”; https://sta
=0.05, coefﬁcient: –0.004 (p=0.071). Lower values mean larger output gap. [Color
ﬁgure can be viewed at wileyonlinelibrary.com]
14 / ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT
them to create socially useful jobs, an idea recently explored in Lockwood,
Nathanson, and Weyl (2017). Stricter regulation of harmful economic activities
(e.g., through consumer protection laws) may, of course, also contribute to reduc-
ing the number of socially useless jobs. Moreover, even though our preliminary
evidence does not convincingly point in this direction, it seems wise to avoid
unnecessarily strict job protection legislation. Employers can help by removing or
improving bad management (although our tentative empirical evidence on this
does not suggest that management quality plays a big role). When the social use-
lessness of jobs is a matter of perception rather than reality, employers may use
nudging or adapt job design. Last, Valcour (2013) and Coleman (2017) suggest a
role for workers as well in making their job more meaningful.
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Additional Supporting Information may be found in the online version of this
Table S1: The fraction of workers who consider their job to be socially useless
Table S2: Top 20 occupations with the smallest share of workers considering
their job to be socially useless in 2015.
Table S3: Socially useless jobs and job satisfaction in 2015.
Table S4: Top 20 occupations with the largest share of workers considering
their job to be socially useless in 2015.
16 / ROBERT DUR AND MAX VAN LENT