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A Brief Cultural History of Work Sucking

We live in a work-obsessed country that, at least according to the film and television we binge, hates work more than anything.

Courtesy of Hulu

In Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, the late David Graeber laments the proliferation of meaningless sectors and jobs that are not productive but seem to exist solely to keep people working. Plenty of jobs have been automated out of existence, he argues, but rather than allowing us more leisure time, the fear of unemployment and threat to the Great American Work Ethic has led to the explosion of useless work. 

The thing about bullshit jobs is, the people working them know they’re bullshit. “This is a profound psychological violence here,” Graeber writes. “How can one even begin to speak of dignity in labor when one secretly feels one’s job should not exist? How can it not create a sense of deep rage and resentment?” While many of us in real life may justify these jobs by either projecting value where there is none or just accepting that it’s a paycheck, our culture largely sees them for what they are and treats them accordingly. 

In Broad City, Ilana’s open and aggressive disdain for her job at a company called Deals, Deals, Deals is a recurring bit—she sleeps at her desk, wears clothes wildly inappropriate for a workplace setting, or doesn’t show up at all. And honestly, her uninhibited and flagrant ridicule of corporate protocol is aspirational—mostly because the viewer is brought into the conspiracy and understands her job is pointless anyway.

On the other hand, part of why Emily in Paris, a pandemic-era Netflix offering about a young marketing professional trying to find her way in the city of light, left such a bizarrely bad taste in so many viewers’ mouths (aside from the French caricatures, clunky gender politics, and unrealistic and uninspired embrace of the basic bitch) was because no one actually wants to watch fictional characters find success and personal growth at their bullshit corporate job.

Characters are never really defined by their work—the interesting ones, anyway. More often, they are defined by the job they leave behind. It’s why quitting scenes are so satisfying. In The Family Man, after choosing his Wall Street job over love, Jack Campbell realizes the mistake he made (by experiencing an alternate timeline, in which he chooses love and New Jersey). He ends up sacrificing a big merger to right his wrongs. 

In movies and TV, work is never just that. It helps indicate a character’s personality: the teetotaling bartender, the serial-killing investment banker, the determined wedding planner. It’s a quick way to establish the status quo—how many heroes kick off their journey working a “dead-end job”? It’s thinly veiled commentary on the American condition (Mad Men, Up in the Air, Repo Man). 

Work is often shorthand for what a protagonist must overcome. It’s a sacrifice. (In The Devil Wears Prada, Andy puts up with abuse from her boss, Miranda Priestly, for the express purpose of padding her résumé, although she’s eventually consumed by the industry, becoming the shallow, manipulative, and overworked employee she once abhorred.) 

Work is the type of numbing stability that discourages a character from their potential, from their desire. (The depressing, soul-sucking cubicle Neo works in before stumbling upon the Matrix is a microcosm of the depressing, soul-sucking reality of the world, but better the cubicle than the unknown.) 

A closer look at mainstream films and TV shows reveals a pattern of cultural contempt for work and what it deprives us of. There are specific instances of our culture critiquing the workplace, but it could also be argued that embedded in much of our culture is a critique of work. 

The myth of the American dream has taught us that hard work is what makes us human, what makes us virtuous, and ideally, what makes us successful. And yet we hate it. Perhaps it’s the fact that we work shockingly longer hours than our European counterparts; perhaps it’s the appalling existence of the “working homeless” (let alone homelessness at all); perhaps it’s the centuries of conflating the free market with God, only to find our prayers went unheard.

American culture, from the top 40 to the screen, has always documented this country’s love-hate relationship with work. These critiques and manners of representation evolved as our work did, tracing the explosion of factory jobs with deadly working conditions or the battles between miners’ unions and the ownership class–state alliance that sought to crush them. 

The emergence of white-collar work gave us new cultural responses that addressed existential issues with the nature of the office and ideas of work for its own sake, so much of which, as Graeber wrote, felt absolutely pointless. 

Representations of elite drudgery go back decades, but the 1990s gave my generation some of the most pointed critiques of white-collar work in the genre. While the comic strip Dilbert found success in highlighting the absurdities of cubicles and micromanagement, the film Clockwatchers (1997) added the lens of sexism in the workplace in its commentary on office monotony and politics. 

But the form found something like its perfect expression in Office Space (1999), which remains a gold standard of corporate satire, lambasting everything from management to the strict regimen that is office culture, uprooting the tentpoles of corporate expectations of labor. Office Space has maintained cult classic status for over 20 years, in large part because of its frustratingly spot-on reenactment of office tedium, politics and personalities included. Watching the movie feels like venting about work with a friend. 

But it also provides a satisfying catharsis for its protagonist, whether it’s by gutting a fish at his desk without a care in the world, stealing money from the company, or, of course, bashing a faulty printer in with a bat. As Roger Ebert wrote at the time, “Reader, who has not felt the same?” Protagonists in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Apartment opted to take the higher road when faced with corporate depravity—Office Space couldn’t afford to, instead taking our actual, suppressed feelings toward white-collar work and giving us a revenge fantasy.

The two decades since Office Space have given us more workplace comedies that make shier or clumsier digs at corporate culture, such as The Office and Corporate. But we may be seeing a refreshing new era for American anti-work comedies. 

In 2018, Sorry to Bother You broke through the standard corporate fare: an ambitious, surreal instigator made by an actual Communist. The same year saw the worldwide launch of Aggretsuko, the Japanese anime about a disgruntled office worker who releases her pent-up work frustrations by singing-screaming death metal karaoke. While specifically addressing Japanese work culture, the show, its relatable characters, excellent satire of white-collar culture, and poignant and cleansing ode to pure work-induced rage found widespread acclaim in the United States.

In his 2017 book, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible, Kevin Van Meter explores how a broad working class has been claiming autonomy through a wide variety of refusal of work: “Theft of time and materials, feigned illness, sabotage, arson, murder, exodus, and the myriad of other forms this refusal takes—as well as the process of creating counter-communities—can be found in everyday life.”

We see glimpses of these acts in pop culture all the time, probably because work is often a backdrop to plot, not the driver of it. While maybe not the most revolutionary critique of corporate culture, The Office consists of office workers trying to find moments of joy during work—not through it but in spite of it. Given that their shenanigans occur on the clock, they technically constitute theft of time. 

Homer Simpson constantly sleeps at the power plant; Barry Berkman takes acting classes, avoiding his job of killing people; and Jake Peralta spends as much time formulating “Title of Your Sex Tape” jokes as he does perpetrating state violence as a member of the NYPD. Work is never the point in these shows. It’s the thing in the way of the point. Much of our pop culture treats work, particularly white-collar corporate work, the way it deserves: as something between a glorified chore and an impediment to fulfillment. (This could be because artists and culturemakers have experienced the tiresome and frustrating necessity of working solely to support their art themselves.) Dolly Parton’s iconic “9 to 5,” and the film of the same name, wasn’t about loving your job, after all. Pop culture has always reminded us that work sucks. We’ve known. 

Before my first job, before I truly understood the necessity of working or the strange oscillation between fulfillment and the utter despair that comes with having a career, I knew that work was not fun. I may have even assumed that adulthood was largely defined by a disciplined tolerance for work. After all, countless kids’ shows dedicated at least one episode to teaching children who wished they could either be adults or be rid of them—from Rugrats having adult versions of Tommy and Chuckie literally push paper around with brooms before getting fired to Fairly Oddparents’ Timmy Turner wishing that “the kids were in charge,” inadvertently transforming the world into a boring dystopia—that the freedom of adulthood is not actually freedom. It is toil. 

I have a distinct memory of being in my friend’s house, dancing to Blink-182’s “All the Small Things.” I don’t know how old I was: young enough to hit the light switch when Tom DeLonge sang “Turn the lights off” and laugh hysterically; old enough to cross my arms and faux-indignantly sing, “Work sucks, I know.” I was, at the time, gleefully unaware of how much the song would still resonate 20 years later. Or that it was an idea I would encounter, both in my own life and in the television I binged, again and again.