When Office Space premiered in 1999, I was still revolving through a series of low-stakes retail jobs on campus where I called in sick at least once a month due to a hangover-related ailment. I finally watched the cult classic a few years later with some Gen X friends who were determined to work their way up in industries that were going extinct even then. We laughed with tears in our eyes about Gary Cole’s smarm-laden request to “go ahead and come in” to work on Saturday.
The movie was spot on about so many things that remain relevant. Cubicles are the worst; women are still being reduced to their sexual desirability and ability to perform happiness on the job for the privilege of being paid less than their male counterparts; tech culture still lacks a moral center; white people are still microaggressing people of color about their names. And above all, corporate executives continue to believe that firing human beings is the only way to maximize profits.
To recap the film, Peter Gibbons—played by Ron Livingston as a breathing approximation of Marx’s theory of alienation—is unmotivated by his boring job at a tech company in one of those indistinguishable suburban office parks that’s adjacent to mid-range chain restaurants. He gets hypnotized one evening and returns to work giving even fewer fucks than ever before. He doesn’t go to work, doesn’t call in, and guts a whole fish on his desk after an impromptu fishing trip. For this he fails upward into a promotion, given by the consultants hired to lay off his co-workers. Peter and his newly unemployed friends use a computer virus to embezzle funds from the company. Mild hijinks ensue. Along the way, the audience is treated to the banality and inanity of white collar and food service work through now-memed phrases about TPS reports, a “case of the Mondays,” and counting flair. Corporate banners that could have been ripped from any number of dystopian flicks posted around the office trumpet “Is it Good for the Company?” and “Planning to Plan.” It’s the late 1990s, so racist, sexist and homophobic jokes abound, though in the present-day, those parts of the movie read less as comedy and more as matter-of-fact documentary about working in predominantly white and male environments.
Looking back on the movie today on its 20th anniversary, it’s clear that the post-WWII labor model skewered so darkly by director Mike Judge (Idiocracy, King of the Hill) was not destroyed solely by the Great Recession and Silicon Valley. Technology simply blurred the lines of pre-existing exploitation, and of work and personal space until they were indistinguishable. The increase of technological advancements into all labor sectors met weakened unions to create a perpetual state of precarity. Fewer jobs have permanence or the health insurance benefits that the Greatest Generation offered as incentive during the war to retain employees when an Executive Order froze pay raises.
Anyone with a phone or internet connection can be a brand that makes money, or join the gig economy, which promises people freedom to make money on their own time by offering up their homes or cars or personal items for use. On the other side of that, people have to use their homes or vehicles to make money, and use them a lot in order to make the kind of money that keeps food on the table. Not to mention that even when you are at rest, those apps are gathering data on you to further monetize your person and figure out what you’re more likely to buy. Also, the gig economy is rife with inhumane output expectations that can lead to serious health ramifications.
At his lowest point, Peter opines that “human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles looking at computers all day.” But in the 20 years since the movie came out, that is increasingly how human beings spend their days—sitting in front of computers, or using their phones, not just to make a living but also because it's become an integral part of living. There exists a deep, rich irony when you consider Peter’s phrase in light of the fact that The Matrix also came out that same year. We could envision ourselves as alienated enough from our labor to flip off our boss or we could choose the blue pill and continue living in a virtual reality while AI harvests our soft, hairless bodies like human-formed Duracell batteries. The movie’s focus on Peter’s developer job and on Joanna’s (Jennifer Aniston) waitress job at the fictional TGIFridays-esque Chotchkie’s in hindsight seemed to foreshadow tech and the service industries as the jobs experiencing strong growth in an economy marked by its deep divide between the 1 percent and everyone else. One industry pays its engineers so well they have negatively altered the social ecosystems in large cities, displacing low-income workers outside of the metropolitan areas. Workers in the other industry are still lobbying elected officials to reach $15 an hour as a minimum wage.
Office Space actually ends on a hopeful note, with Peter in a new construction job enjoying fresh air and physical labor after a truly disaffected worker literally burns the company to the ground. In the real world, people are flexing worker muscle to make things happen. Last year saw the highest number of worker strikes on record. Six states saw teacher union strikes in 2018; media companies, including VICE, are unionizing, as are workers in academia as a result of the increasing numbers of temporary workers hired to teach. Most recently, the flight attendants union and the air traffic controllers (who called in sick but could not strike as government employees) were credited for helping end the longest government shutdown in history.
The lasting legacy of the movie isn’t just that jobs can be horrible; it’s that individuals can pull together collectively and create the jobs and working environments that we want to have. We can create working environments that integrate care-based ethics, that offer men and women equal paid time off to start or care for their families, that have livable wages, that value people enough to pay them fairly for a hard day’s work, and jobs that value the labor of maintenance and understand systems need to be cared for over a long period of time. Unless it’s the printer with a PC Load Letter message. That can fuck right off.
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