SISYPHUS, king of Corinth, was condemned for all eternity to push a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll down again. David Graeber, an anthropologist, thinks that many modern workers face the same fate today, forced to perform pointless tasks, or “bullshit jobs”, as his new book* calls them.

Mr Graeber defines a bullshit job as one “that is so completely pointless, unnecessary or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence”, though they may have to pretend that they believe in it. This definition, and indeed much of the book, combines two categories of roles. In the first are jobs that Mr Graeber tends to think are socially worthless, such as corporate lawyers or investment bankers. (Some of those workers may take an equally dim view of the utility of anthropologists.) In the second group are jobs where employees find themselves with little or nothing to do and, worse, must still look as if they are frantically busy.

What is his evidence? The author places a lot of faith in anecdotes and a couple of opinion surveys which found that only 37-40% of workers in Britain and the Netherlands felt they “made a meaningful contribution to the world.” He doesn’t seem to allow for the possibility that modesty might govern their answers.

In any case, the contention that many of us are wasting much of our time at work is hardly a new one. C. Northcote Parkinson coined the idea that “work expands to fill the time available” in an essay in The Economist in 1955, adding that “there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned.” The futility of many middle-class jobs is also an old theme, being the plot driver of the 1970s British sitcom “The Good Life”.

Nor are feelings of boredom and pointless activity confined to the arena of work. Anyone who has been a schoolchild can remember being forced to write essays, or take tests, about subjects that seemed neither interesting nor likely to be of any use in later life. Indeed, many teachers are probably as bored marking the schoolwork as pupils are producing it.

Nevertheless, some workers will feel that Mr Graeber’s analysis is timely. Both meaningless job titles and mindless tasks seem to have proliferated. A study† by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, two management theorists, estimated that there are nearly 24m corporate “bureaucrats” in America, or about one for every 4.7 workers. Reassigning them to more productive tasks could give the American economy a $3trn boost, they reckon.

Mr Graeber constructs some elaborate theories as to why this problem has arisen. He suggests that automation in recent decades did cause mass unemployment but that society conspired to create a bunch of illusory jobs to disguise the fact. He also argues that while executives in the Reagan/Thatcher era prided themselves on how many low-level workers they could lay off, they then hired lots of management flunkies to enhance their status. And he postulates that it is all part of a system of social control, in which young people are loaded up with debt and then pushed into meaningless jobs in order to pay it off, thereby keeping them docile.

But these explanations seem inherently unlikely. Modern executives are motivated by share options which usually require them to meet profit targets. They are pursued by activist investors, who may get them fired if they underperform. Given those threats, bosses would hardly employ lots of useless, profit-sapping staff.

Instead, the problem lies in the nature of a services company. In a factory, you can count the widgets made each day, which limits the scope for bullshit. In a service business, it is harder to monitor the quality and quantity of output. Like the old quip about advertising, executives may know that half of their workers’ time is wasted, but not which half.

In response to this lack of knowledge, executives create a host of targets, and hold a lot of meetings to try to understand what is going on. As Messrs Hamel and Zanini put it, “A growing percentage of employee time gets consumed in efforts to keep the organisation from collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.”

In other words, there is no need for Mr Graeber to construct elaborate theories about neoliberal conspiracies to explain the phenomenon of wasted effort. Parkinson nailed the issue six decades ago: “Officials make work for each other.”

Economist.com/blogs/bartleby

* “Bullshit Jobs: A Theory”, published by Allen Lane

† “The $3 Trillion Prize for Busting Bureaucracy (And How to Claim It)”