When The Office premiered in Britain on July 9, 2001, I'd just quit the last in a series of summer jobs that I secured through an Orange County, California temp agency. Every June, starting prior to my senior year of high school and ending prior to my senior year of college, I dressed myself in "business casual attire," drove to a series of mostly indistinguishable office parks and corporate headquarters, and earned between $9 and $20 an hour performing tasks that gave the impression that white-collar work is mindless drudgery. One assignment at the Huntington Beach headquarters of Quicksilver literally required no more than sitting at a desk in Accounts Payable & Receivable, separating pink, white and yellow pieces of carbon paper into three piles.
All day, every day.
My favorite companies were the ones that didn't enforce the California labor law that required a maddening 30-minute lunch break. Obligated to work 8 hours, I wanted to show up at 9 am and to leave precisely at 5 pm, maximizing my precious minutes of post-work, pre-sunset surfing.
But some supervisors forced me to take the 30-minutes of unpaid lunch, so I'd sit alone in a charmless cafeteria, reading Los Angeles Times articles about the Lakers' latest playoff run and swearing to myself that I'd somehow find a way to avoid ending up like the middle-aged people around me. It wasn't that I was bad at the work. Doing things quickly and competently was the best way to pass the time, and I always received positive evaluations. But before I ever had a fulfilling white-collar desk job, I couldn't quite conceive of one, and assumed that everyone around me was also doing banal, mindless work. Spend a month filing forms in a windowless room, two weeks calling homeowners whose refinances didn't go through because your employer messed up the paperwork, and a month in a wobbly chair with a cubicle mate who listens to Dr. Laura Schlesinger aloud. You'd dread a lifetime of office jobs too, even if deep down you knew that you were lucky to be employed, and not in a coal mine or a slaughterhouse.
Under fluorescent lights nothing looks as good as it ought to.
Today, I know lots of people at white-collar desk jobs who find their work meaningful, fulfilling, or remunerative enough that it isn't quite unpleasant. I get lost in my own work in a way I couldn't have imagined at 19 or 20. But I know from experience that a lot of U.S. office jobs are existentially terrible.
And I know I'm not alone in thinking so, for The Office came to America in 2005, and like the film Office Space before it, it immediately resonated with a broad cross-section of the U.S. mainstream who knew "that kind of job" -- due to a past stint, if they were lucky, or because they faced something resembling it every day. Michael Scott, as played by Steve Carrell, may have been the comedic anchor of the show. But Jim Halpert was its everyman. Confronted with the crazy antics of the boss or the absurdity of a co-worker, he'd turn to the camera and raise his eyebrows as if to say, "Seriously?" With good humor, Jim survived each day at Dunder Mifflin. And if he could, so could we: even the worst job held out the opportunity for moments of levity, unexpected connections with co-workers, even love, if the right person came along.
On Thursday, when The Office broadcast its final episode, it had long since become something different. The office mates had ceased being mere co-workers. With time and proximity, they'd begun to interact like a family. Frustrations were tolerated out of loyalty and tender affection as much as collegiality. As that happened, it no longer seemed as if it would be so existentially awful to work at Dunder Mifflin. During some episodes, it almost seemed fun. There may be a poignant lesson in that arc: that ultimately, it's people that matter and give life meaning. But it holds out a false promise for many office workers for whom finding a family at work is fantasy.
They need a reminder that they aren't alone in thinking work sucks. Stanley has assured them of that every week for 9 years.
Who'll remind them now?
Perhaps we can get the unlucky office workers of this moment through one more week by offering what the early seasons of The Office did: a glimpse into a world that resonates with their own.
Misery loves company.
So what's the worst job that you've ever had, whether white collar or otherwise? What's the most absurd office situation to which you've ever been party? Who is the most colorful character you've encountered at work? How did you make it through every day, or how are you still making it? Does it get better, like it did on The Office? Email your stories to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'll publish the very best, without your name unless you ask me to include it.
I may even get in on the fun myself*.
*That's what she said.
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