When Did Our Jobs Turn into a Joke?

White Collared

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

This article is part of a package on work culture. For more, read  Are We Having Fun Yet? .

Remember Laverne & Shirley? Archie Bunker? Louie De Palma on Taxi? Norm and Cliff on Cheers? As these working-class characters live on in late-night reruns, a very different sort of everyperson is dominating the airwaves: the charmingly disengaged, sometimes bungling, always put-upon white-collar worker.

It’s a logical trend. Since 1984, the number of U.S. workers has increased by more than 30 million, and 90 percent of that growth has been in the white-collar and service sectors. More citizens work at non-manual labor than ever before, and as technology, outsourcing, and offshoring continue to eliminate blue-collar jobs, pop culture has turned its attention to the office dweller.

The most popular and pointed TV treatment of this phenomenon is a biting satire more or less hijacked from Britain. In The Office, the interactions between big boss Michael Scott, played by comedian Steve Carell, and his underlings at Dunder-Mifflin are governed by a rubric under which each character is reduced to his or her fundamental office identity. Dwight, assistant (to the) regional manager, is the guy guzzling the Kool-Aid. Sales rep Jim is smart, but often slacking. Pam, meekly poised behind the front desk, hopes to become an illustrator someday, because “no little girl ever dreams about becoming a receptionist.”

The show’s lead characters cleave into two groups: those who “get it” and those who don’t. The latter class is represented by the clownish, not-so-lovable nerd Dwight who gullibly fawns over his foolish manager and mercilessly pursues advancement. He and his kind are the show’s jesters. The better half, employees in the know, are its heroes.

They immediately spot the stupidity in empty managerial parables, sigh as they play along (for now, of course), and fend off lunacy by playing mostly harmless tricks on their naive officemates. They also demonstrate their superior grasp of the situation by casting incredulous glances at the camera, pained conspiratorial gazes that say: Can you even believe this? You see that this is all B.S., right?

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