From The Office to Severance: How the fictional workplace went from bad to worse | Culture
In the final minutes of the final episode of the genre-defining mockumentary Office, our favorite disenchanted worker, Tim (Martin Freeman), sums up the mundane work rhythms of the early 2000s well. “The people you work with are the people you just found yourself with,” he muses, noting that he spends more time with his colleagues than with his own friends or family. “But all you probably have in common,” he adds, rubbing his nose, “is the fact that you walk on the same piece of carpet for eight hours a day.”
Ricky Gervais’ sitcom has been rightly celebrated for its unvarnished depiction of the mundane, tedious, and often destructive reality of office life, but — wait. Eight hours a day? Rug? To go for a walk? Twenty years and two recessions later, the monotonies of Tim’s office environment almost feel like upside. Cozy carpets have been replaced by smooth, characterless hard floors. In 2021, office workers were working two overtime hours a day, regularly logging off at 8 p.m. And the monitoring software means that overworked and underpaid employees barely have time to stop for a chat, let alone put their colleague’s stapler in jelly (for the third time).
Today, on the 136th International Workers’ Day, we can see how recent cultural representations of the workplace reflect these new realities and arguably reveal an even greater disillusionment with life. Office. The science fiction series Breakup, which debuted on Apple TV in February, follows the employees of a mysterious and gigantic corporation who have had their work and home surgically separated so that the former have no memory of the latter’s lives (and vice versa). While Tim lamented seeing his co-workers more often than his loved ones, the “separated” employees of Lumon Industries lost all of their intimate memories – they know nothing of their family and friends outside of the office. Arriving at their office with no memory of the previous night gives the disturbing feeling that they have been permanently at work.
And then there’s HBO’s dark comedy Successiona grim portrait of life atop a ruthless family empire – and the BBC Industry, which conversely depicts life at rock bottom, as graduates forgo sleep as they vie for jobs at an investment bank. There is a precariousness in both that was not so present in pre-recession workplace dramas; a feeling that at any moment all could be lost.
“There’s a feeling captured in the pre-crash media of the 90s and 2000s, that feeling that you were bored and stuck at work,” says Amelia Horgan, a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Essex and author of a review of modern employment, lost at work“whereas the prevailing feeling now is the fear that the rug will be ripped from you without you realizing it, very quickly.”
Ash Atalla is an expert on how fictional workplaces have evolved over the years – he produced both Office and mid-2000s IT department comedy The computer crowdand more recently, the real estate agent sitcom Stath rents apartments. “I think the trend is to go deeper into the world of work,” he says, noting that shows today focus on multinationals, not small paper companies like The offices Wernham Hogg. “Now it would be like, ‘Who owns Wernham Hogg? Where are they based? Are they based in Holland? You would like to see the superstructure of it.
Perhaps it’s because small businesses are increasingly disappearing from our monopolized world – perhaps it reflects a growing awareness that our boss has a boss. While Office focused on the random misadventures of small-town jester David Brent, Succession focuses on Murdoch-proxy Logan Roy, who eats small towns for breakfast. Rising inequality has led to greater scrutiny of billionaire bosses at the top; you’re unlikely to end your daily newspaper without reading something about Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. “We’ve seen in the pandemic a massive transfer of wealth upwards, and we have a concentration of power and wealth,” says Horgan, “You can see the reflection of that.”
It’s no wonder that powerlessness pervades representations of the modern office – Severance pay memory-blind employees have no idea what the data they’re working on really is, and the redundancy process means they can’t expose the company’s dark secrets to the light of the outside world. Mark Scout, the show’s protagonist, is played by Adam Scott – previously most recognizable as local government worker Ben Wyatt in NBC’s Parks and recreation. Wyatt worked in a place that had a tangible impact on the local community, a place where employees believed in “working hard to make the work worthwhile”. In episode two of BreakupScout’s date observes, “So you don’t know who you work with, or what you do, or anything?”
In Breakup, evasion is nearly impossible – employees file complaints that go nowhere and “code sleuths” set off alarms when they try to deliver written messages to the outside world. Horgan notes that the theme of escapism is present in many modern workplace books; “There is a surrealism in some of the new work literature,” she says, “The way a desire for freedom is expressed is much more surreal.” She quotes Kikuko Tsumura There’s no such thing as an easy jobin which an unnamed narrator scours bizarre jobs in search of “virtually substanceless” work, and that of Lara Williams The Odysseyabout an alcoholic cruise line who participates in a cult employee mentorship program.
At Ottessa Moshfegh My year of rest and relaxation, another unnamed narrator takes potent drugs in her quest to sleep for a year after becoming disillusioned with her gallery job. “The art world has turned out to be like the stock market, a reflection of the political leanings and beliefs of capitalism, fueled by greed, gossip and cocaine,” laments the protagonist. Even work that is supposed to be creative and fulfilling is ultimately empty. “I was perfectly happy to erase all that garbage from my mind.”
Of course, the workers of Office also felt trapped and cynical – but at least they had an hour lunch break. (According to a recent survey by pickle brand Branston, the average worker now takes a 29-minute break, during which time they regularly check their email.) Atalla laughs when I mention this. “You’re absolutely right – the other day my PA went out for about an hour for lunch, and I remember being like, ‘For the fuck sake…’!” I remember when I was young and doing a work experience, people would go out to restaurants… I think it’s gone.
by Rebecca Watson small scratch perfectly illustrates the indignities of eating at your desk; a colleague who sexually assaulted the narrator asks, “Does it taste good?” while she is eating, and she is suddenly “struck” by the “phallic” nature of her breakfast. In fragmented, poetic prose, our anonymous protagonist (noticing a pattern?) later pleads, “maybe someday/I’ll leave!/(please)/of course I will/ good”.
Taken together, these books and TV shows reflect how employees feel like nameless, personalityless cogs in increasingly centralized machines. Over the past year the so-called Great Resignation has meant many workers have seemingly escaped their dreary jobs – but questions have already arisen over whether there is a better place to escape .
Despite all its banality, Office has never gone completely dark (one co-worker might ask you, “Will there ever be a boy born that can swim faster than a shark?”, but another might turn out to be the love of your life ). But that hope and humanity may be missing from the next wave of pop culture workplaces. Grueling jobs in the gig economy, timed bathroom breaks, forced commutes after months of working from home, rising bills, closing businesses, the looming threat of layoffs – the despairs of 21st century capitalism are perfectly reflected in korean dramas such as squid game and Parasite, and the performances are unlikely to end there. There is brutality at the heart of the new workplace drama, as is often the case in the modern workplace itself.