It's summer, and there are a lot of recent graduates floating around who are on the lookout for work. Maybe it's you: stood there, diploma in hand, ready to launch yourself into the career of your dreams. But here's a quick update on your dreams: they are dead now. They have been killed. You are not going to be a philosopher or an art historian. You are not going to be a human rights activist or a charity fund manager. Your dreams died. Your dreams were drowned on the banks of the river in the weak blue light of the morning sun.
And so you find yourself like so many others in summer 2015: the wrong side of three-plus years of jumping through bureaucratic uni hoops like a Crufts agility champion, finding that the only going job you're qualified for is low-level admin. Admin, in case you are unfamiliar, is essentially the fine art of "sorting unimportant things out", and there is swathes of it – rivers, oceans, entire distant water planets of it – that needs doing. And guess who is going to do it?
So you've been to a temping agency and your mum made you dress slightly too smartly for what was an informal chat with some dude with a haircut called Craig, and you have submitted your single sheet of A4 CV that still has your GCSE grades on them and your Duke of Edinburgh Award classification, and you have put a tie on and you have got a job where you basically just have to look at a computer for a bit. Cool. Here's what's going to happen there:
YOU WILL HAVE TO ENDURE BAD KITCHEN BANTER
No office kitchen on earth was ever designed to be a kitchen: it was just designed as a spare space that someone arbitrarily decided to put a big fridge and a tiny sink in. So, because of that, every single time you go there to make a cup of coffee, someone is going to come in, squeeze past you to get to the fridge and make some fucking joke about it. "So badly designed in here!" they are joking, a fun joke. "Who made this kitchen!" An avalanche of carefully marked tupperware filled with shit pasta barrels out of the fridge and onto the floor. A stack of teabags crumbles into the sink. And then they spot the only clean teaspoon, in a tiny crevice of the kitchen between you and them, and then say this immortal office kitchen portmanteau: canijust—?
Canijust is a question without an answer. Canijust is a question without weight. It's not a question, it just has the inflection of one. "Sorry, canijust—?" It says: I just need to nudge past you. It says: there is a very slight chance our elbows will touch in the next second and a half. There is urgency to canijust. It says: you are taking too long to drain that teabag. Office kitchen banter. The worst.
SOMEONE WILL GET REALLY AGGY ABOUT TIMEKEEPING, AS THOUGH ANY OF THIS MATTERS
"Oh, long lunch, was it?" someone will say. It's probably Sandra. Fucking Sandra: Sandra, how many fucking pictures of your kids do you need on your desk? If anything, it's insulting to your children that they are only deemed inspirational enough to inspire, say, a cost-keeping spreadsheet, or a complex HR form to request new and less brittle plastic yoghurt spoons. Do you hate your children, Sandra?
Anyway, Sandra's clucking like a hen because you're ten minutes late back from lunch. What can you say: you ended up at Boots doing a big shop. "Must be nice not to have anything pressing at work." This is a woman who, you know, is trying to sell her house at the moment from the comfort of her desk. She hasn't taken a non-property related phone call or sent a non-property related email for weeks. Until: 1 unread message. "Hi," Sandra is saying, to the entire office. "Just a punctuality reminder: we're meant to be in at 9.30AM and we have an hour for lunch. All of your colleagues respect these rules: please be mindful." This is the woman who keeps making complex excuses to go pick her kids up at school. This is the woman who starts slowly and fussily packing her handbag at ten minutes to six and leaves as soon as the second hand clicks around. Be mindful.
Thing is: once you care about the precise amount of time you are giving to your job, you are caring too much. We have a finite number of hours, minutes and seconds on this earth. Should we really waste ten or 12 of them sitting at our desks refreshing our emails and giving an impression of doing work? Should we really care if we're stealing a tiny sliver of time out from the infinite and under our bosses and back unto ourselves? We all live and we all die. Our hearts only have a certain number of beats in them. Fuck good timekeeping, and fuck you, Sandra.
YOU LEARN HOW TO TURN A LUNCH HOUR INTO A LUNCH AFTERNOON
That said, you know you can turn a lunch hour into a three-hour break, right? Here's the thing: nobody does any work in that precious, golden hour after they've had their lunch. Everybody goes out, eats a meal deal, then has a bit of an hour-long food coma and a little look at popular websites such as VICE dot com. You do this. And you think you're the only one, but you're not – your boss is doing it, your colleagues are doing it, and Fucking Sandra is doing it.
So here's how you turn your lunch hour into a three-hour break: you take it at 12PM. You have a sandwich, trawl some shops, then settle back at your desk at 1PM, when everyone else goes on lunch. With them out the way, you can doss off to your heart's content for an hour, and then when they come back and do their hour-long doss, you can also doss because you're not being policed. By 3PM the working day is basically over anyway, so you can just coast your way to 6PM. "Why is Britain dying, Joel?" people ask me. "Why is the economy dying?" I do not know.
YOU DEVELOP A COMPLEX RELATIONSHIP WITH THE TESCO MEAL DEAL BECAUSE IT'S THE ONLY THING YOU CAN CONSISTENTLY AFFORD ON YOUR SHITTY, SHITTY WAGES
At some point, you will lose your shit because the Tesco that you walk to every day stops doing the chicken and chorizo square wrap and instead does the "Meat Feast" baguette instead. You'll lose your mind. You got married to that chorizo-chicken square wrap. You made promises to it of unsavoury things. And now look at you: on your knees, crying in the side snack section, hoping a tuna cucumber sandwich is going to fill the yawning void, knowing that it won't. Try and run away from the dark and simple love of the £3 Tesco Meal Deal. You can't.
THERE WILL BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE NOTES IN THE KITCHEN THAT RAPIDLY AND NEAR-INSTANTLY ESCALATE TO ALL-OFFICE EMAIL CHAINS ABOUT THE KITCHEN, BECAUSE THAT ONE PERSON WHO BRINGS THEIR LUNCH IN FROM HOME EVERY DAY – WITH A FUCKING NOTE ON THE TUPPERWARE, WITH A FUCKING BOILED EGG IN THE MIX – HAS MISPLACED THEIR LUNCH, AND THEY ASSUME SOMEONE ELSE STOLE THEIR SWEATY-ASS TUPPERWARE HOME LUNCH, AND THEY LEAVE A LAMINATED A4 SHEET ON THE FRIDGE LIKE, 'GUYS, PLEASE RESPECT OTHER PEOPLE'S LUNCHES,' OR, WORSE, THEY WILL LEAVE A LAMINATED A4 IN THE SINK – THUS RENDERING THE SINK, A SHARED SINK, UNUSABLE, BECAUSE THEY HAVE FUCKING FIXED IT IN PLACE WITH A VAST WEB OF SELLOTAPE – BECAUSE THERE ARE EXACTLY THREE SPOONS WITH PEANUT BUTTER IN THERE, AS THOUGH PEANUT BUTTER ABSOLUTELY CANNOT EASILY BE RINSED OFF A SPOON
I mean, I guess what I'm saying is that everyone who works in offices for more than five years goes deranged and mad and becomes a boring turd-person and thinks that anything like this even matters.
YOU HAVE TO ANSWER THE PHONE LIKE A NORMAL PERSON
Don't know about you, but having grown up as an Internet Baby, I basically find any communication more complex than MSN Messenger to be wholly unnecessary and appalling. But do you know how often the phones go in offices? These people are just asking questions that could be done over email, but instead, no: they call you, all forceful perk, and you kind of mess up saying your own name, and you have that panicky moment when it's near to 12PM and you don't know whether to say "good morning" or "good afternoon", and you start sweating, and the phone is slipping in your hands, and it's not even for you anyway, and you write a note saying who it was and what it was about, and the person it was for comes back from lunch and says, "Ew, what, phone them? Yuk. No. I'll just email them instead." Ban phones.
YOU WILL PARTICIPATE IN SHIT OFFICE JOKES THAT GO ON FOR TOO LONG AND BECOME THESE SORT OF AWFUL REAL LIFE MEMES
Thing about working in an office – four grey walls and some partitions, the minimum amount of fluorescent lights and some weak desk fans, a hundred gunmetal grey computers that run Citrix because you cannot apparently be trusted with a normal version of Windows so you have to use some hamstrung OS expressly designed to prevent you from downloading porn – thing about working in an office is it's about the bleakest existence that can possibly be thrust upon you, and so those few small cracks of daylight in your horrible working day/existence grow huge and sun-like in hindsight, and so every time someone falls over while holding two cardboard cups of tea and spills it all down themselves becomes about the funniest thing in the world, a thing you will collectively still joke about eight months later, a thing that will dominate your post-work pub chat.
Here are some office jokes I have shared, which – when you squint at them in the cold light of day – aren't actually funny, but that I have repeatedly enjoyed over the years because there has been nothing better to do:
— There was a dude who pissed himself once at a Christmas party while doing an impression of Apocalypse Now, an impression that saw him lie on a bench – pissing himself, remember – while twirling one finger in the air and pretending to be a helicopter, and so we kept mentioning that.
— Someone in the office said he played Bungle on Rainbow but did not actually play Bungle on Rainbow, but we called him Bungle as a nickname anyway even though it was a joke.
— Someone in the office, who I want it on record that I hated, had a stupid cartoon idiot voice and kept saying these stupid catchphrases and everyone repeated his stupid Muppet voice back to him whenever he said his stupid catchphrases. Goddammit Josh I hated you so much.
— I once got a verbal warning for asking sarcastically where I might get a lanyard, which became a bit of a thing;
— [Various PCC cases against me that it is not legally advisable to reopen but we had some laughs about at the time];
So, essentially, offices are where jokes go to die, and then be revived by desperate paramedics, and then die again, forever, for years at a time.
YOU STOP CARING EVEN REMOTELY
Did you ever? Not especially. But in your first week you at least came in wearing the full and exact office uniform as detailed in your HR intro, before you noticed nobody else dressed smart and ditched the tie and undid a few buttons. And now you shuffle in hungover and basically play Minesweeper on the sly until 5PM. And then you are stuck: too unmotivated to give even one atom of a shit about the job, stuck doing nothing because you're not impressing enough to get ahead. A purgatory of waste paper baskets and people who are really obsessed with hand sanitiser. An infinity of inexplicably broken printers and people opening Jiffy Bags really carefully so they can reuse them in future. That's the world of entry-level office work. Welcome.
SOMEONE WHOSE MAIN PERSONALITY TRAIT IS THE FACT THAT THEY LIKE COFFEE AND/OR TEA IN A VERY PARTICULAR WAY, AND IF YOU DEVIATE FROM THAT IN ANY WAY WHEN YOU ARE DOING A TEA AND/OR COFFEE ROUND THEN THEY WILL TALK TO YOU FOR A FULL FIVE MINUTES ABOUT HOW THEIR TEA AND OR COFFEE IS WRONG
I blame Starbucks for this, because ever since Starbucks happened – with all its choice, with all its frothed milk and tax loopholes and infinite choice – since that happened, every office fucker is like: "Oh no, but can you take this little thing of soy milk?" Everyone is like: "I need this brewed very carefully in a special see-through teapot mug, and then I need you to add the agave."
You only offered to do the tea run as an excuse to get up from your desk and use your legs, and now you're weighed down like a pack mule with sweeteners and rooibos and a special portable milk frother. And now some dickhead with an "I [COFFEE BEAN ALMOST IN THE SHAPE OF A LOVE HEART] COFFEE" mug is asking you to do something complicated with his weekly Pact sachet because "I can't get a thing done without my coffee!"
Essentially: if you take anything other than grey depressing tea or terrible instant coffee at your desk, then your opinion of yourself is too high and you need to peg it down a bit.
There is always a whiteboard and you are never allowed to draw a dick on it.
SOMEONE ACCIDENTALLY DOES AN ALL-OFFICE AND YOU REPLY TO THE ALL-OFFICE WITH A JOKE, AND THEN THE ALL-OFFICE POLICE SEND AN ALL-OFFICE TELLING YOU NOT TO ABUSE THE ALL-OFFICE, AND YOUR MANAGER HOOKS YOU INTO A SIDE ROOM AND GIVES YOU A FORMAL VERBAL WARNING FOR ABUSING THE ALL-OFFICE
Because it is sacred, the all-office, a sacred email chain for flagging up lost items found in the pissy work bathrooms ("One gold necklace, please claim at reception"; "Entire wedding ring found in toilet pan. No questions asked, just collect at reception"; "For some reason there was a holdall full of toilet paper in the gents', please collect at reception") and telling people that two assessors from a local gym are coming in on Tuesday and can someone please come and at least meet them. The all-office email chain is not for jokes. It is not for banter. Do not abuse the all-office email chain.
YOU GET INVOLVED IN SOME AFTER-WORK FOOTBALL LEAGUE OR SOME SHIT AND YOU REALISE THAT YOU SPEND THE MAJORITY OF THE HOURS AND MINUTES OF THE DAY WITH THE EXACT SAME PEOPLE
I mean, this can be any sleeper post-office activity designed to get you to hang out with the people you work with for just a little bit longer – wordless drinks down the pub, weirdly organised trip to the theatre, silent house warming – but football is the most common one. Because football is fun, isn't it? Bit of banter, bit of five-a-side. Not for that lad who got his legs broken by Ian from accounts, obviously. But otherwise, it's alright, isn't it?
There's always one hyper-organised bloke – always a utility defender, always has an extensive collection of pristine football kits from the 90s, a pair of prescription goggles so his glasses don't get damaged when he's artlessly heading a ball – who sends a big email at the start of the week ("Need a steer on numbers, lads. One white shirt, one coloured alternate. Bring your astro boots, it's £6 each for the pitch.") to get it all going, and then before you know it you're there week after week. And there are pints after, of course, and then someone suggests a pizza, and then you all go for pizza, and then you find yourself at the tube station at 12AM going: "Yeah, see you again in... eight-and-a-half hours?"
And then you know: you've been suckered in, suckered by the casual threat of fun extra-curricular activity, that you've actually made friends at work, that you've organised to see one of them on a Saturday, that your life is now ruled by interacting with the same six people on a loop that HR decided you should sit and work with, that you have no friends or personality of your own. Football is the needle that pumps your withered arm full of workplace heroin. Do not fall for this scam. Do not get involved with the football.
SOMEONE GAINS A TINY AMOUNT OF POWER AT WORK AND IMMEDIATELY GOES FULL STALIN
"Hi Joel, I noticed you printed that document three times there, because the first time it somehow came out on A3, and then the second it came out A5 size but printed on A4, and as you know, I was bumped up to paper and recycling monitor at my recent pay review – no, there's no salary increase involved, but it's more responsibility, and as part of my 15-year plan to actually get a promotion here that is very important – and anyway, yes, just a verbal to say that I will have to flag this up to HR and, combined with your lates, this could turn into a formal warning, so sorry to do this to you."
Fuck off, Tim. I helped you move, you dick.
YOU WILL HAVE A VERY SHIT AWAY DAY
Once a year, someone in some lofty upper management echelon will decide you all need to do a work away day on scientifically the least convenient day for you to be out of the office, so you all turn up to some hotel seminar room where two actors-turned-personnel-gurus perkily tell you about "thinking outside the box", before enacting some horrible activity where you all have to stride around the room in bare feet making silent eye contact with each other and smiling.
Then someone you vaguely remember from a disciplinary meeting will come in and read a 20-minute speech about the future of the company, before you all get to wrestle over a wilting tray of Pret sandwiches. You do get to bunk off at 4PM, though, so on the whole this is one of the greatest working days of your life.
Never thought it'd turn out like this, did you? Genuine excitement at the threat of getting home in time for Hollyoaks. Turns out being an adult is actually quite underwhelming.
THAT ONE OTHER PERSON WITH DREAMS MAKES YOU SPEND SOME OF YOUR PRECIOUS NON-OFFICE TIME SUPPORTING THEM
Because you have dreams, don't you? You want to be someone or do something. I don't know, a... I don't know. I don't know what dreams people have. Guitar? Guitarist? Something about a guitar. "How's the guitar thing going?" people ask you in the office, because you mentioned in the interview that this job was just a stop-gap until the guitar thing took off. "Yeah," you say. "Good." You haven't touched a guitar in a calendar year. Actually, where is your guitar? Did you... fuck, did you leave it at the old flat?
Irrelevant now, because you're not the only young buck in the office with dreams: there, in the corner, younger and sharper than you, is Michael, who's in a band. "My band's playing tonight," he says, sheepishly, with those heartthrob good looks of his. He's rubbing the back of his hair and looking at the floor. "If anyone fancies it. Free entry." So you find yourself in some dive bar with Sheila from accounts ("Had to get my neighbour in to look after the kid," she says, "I love bopping, me. Love a bop."), sat there in your fucking shirt and slacks, watching as Michael the Fucking Temp warms up. And his band are really good. They are the exact kind of music you like and hoped to one day play professionally. They even do a sort of mixed up cover of one of your favourite obscure white label dance songs. And you suck down beer after beer, Sheila's warm bobbing body winding ever closer to yours, wondering where it all went wrong. Fuck you, Michael. Fuck you and your dreams.
YOU FINALLY GET ANOTHER JOB
I mean, caveat: this might never happen. You might be locked in the tomb-like office that you are currently reading this in on the sly forever. You could die here. Do you know how many people die at their desks? It's way more than you think. Just slump over head first into their keyboard. And, with the work you do and the amount of it you actually get done, how long will it be before anyone notices? An hour? A day? It's possible, if you sit low and in a corner, that you could die and be there for up to a week before someone notices your post piling up. The person who discovers you will have to check your pass card because they do not know your name. IT is angry because your dead face planting into the computer somehow managed to log you out, and they don't have access to the password database so they just straight up have to throw the hardware out. This is your legacy. A Dell in a skip. That's you.
But no, you'll find another job, definitely. Thing is, it's quite hard to look for stuff when the day-to-day tedium of your shitty office job is grinding you down smooth like a pebble, isn't it? And it's harder still if they bump up your hourly rate and you're in this weird purgatory – hating your job, yes, utterly unfulfilled, always on the precipice of infinite boredom – but also stuck, because you're just about making £20,000 and you're scared to jump in case you fall and drown. This is how they get you, a weight around your neck – a 50p-per-hour pay bump and you're suddenly there for another year, then another, then you actually wake up one morning and think, 'Oh, I've got to send that email today.' Then, before you know it, you're getting in early and leaving late, checking your work inbox on the bus, then you wake up, slap bang in the middle of your twenties, actually caring about your shitty job. No. This can't happen. No.
How do you find a real job? I don't know. But I do know that every semi-decent career jump I've ever had has been through knowing people and talking to them and subtly moaning about how I don't like my job and I'm looking for something else, and not by filling in infinitely long and horrible-to-complete e-applications for jobs I don't fully want, and then pinging them into the digital abyss. LinkedIn is fundamentally for wankers and estate agents, yes, but the central idea behind it – actual people are better for making career connections that just fumbling around blindly in the alleyways of Monster.co.uk – is pretty sound.
So make some friends, I guess. Make some friends and drop hints about how good you are at photocopying to-do lists. Make some friends and say things like, "Oof, can't get a round in today: I've been on the same shitty salary for three fucking years and could really do with switching it up a bit." They'll get the hint. Maybe ceremonially murder a temp agency support worker, something like that. A message of intent, you know. Pin their head on a spike and put one of those sandwich boards on your body and go to a train station and scream, "I REALLY FUCKING MEAN IT, I COULD DO WITH A DECENT SECOND JOB NOW." Be creative. Think outside the box. Do it for you.
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