When Did Our Jobs Turn into a Joke?

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image by Stephanie Glaros & Corey McNally

This article is part of a package on work culture. For more, readAre 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?

For NBC, the formula has proven to be comedic gold. Lurking just below the public’s laughter, though, is a grim reminder of what it means to be a modern-day worker bee.

The white-collar workspace hasn’t always conjured up visions of monkeylike morons shuffling papers and wasting time on the Internet. When the United States began shifting to a postindustrial society in the aftermath of World War II, writes Nikil Saval in the Winter 2008 issue of the culture journal n+1, corporations like General Electric and IBM offered a new breed of white-collar workers highly secure, salaried work, along with decent benefits and abundant vacation time. What’s more, working meant something.

By the 1980s, however, economic instability had prompted companies to spread resources thin–to cut pay, slash benefits, and eliminate good jobs in favor of low-pay positions–in order to beef up profit margins. Swaths of Generation X watched their boomer parents get dropkicked in return for decades of good, hard work. Perhaps most notably, those who were affected responded by doing very little to protest–and white-collar workers have been rolling over ever since.

 “Young technical and professional workers are as bewildered by the ‘new economy’ as manufacturing workers have been for a generation,” labor activist Jim Grossfeld writes in the January 2007 issue of the online political journal the Democratic Strategist. However, in “White Collar Perspectives on Workplace Issues,” Grossfeld’s study for the Center for American Progress, an important difference between the two groups is revealed. Whereas blue-collar laborers organized to protest workplace issues such as unsatisfactory wages and benefits, white-collar workers have gone on the defensive with a disillusioned attitude. Believing instability and declining workplace conditions are “unavoidable in today’s economy,” and that corporations are too formidable, they’ve concluded that nothing can be done but to lower expectations and dodge disappointment. Reject loyalty and avoid betrayal.

The standards slid, unchecked. These days, U.S. workers put in longer hours than workers in any other developed country and take the least vacation. If they’re actually insured, the benefits are often astronomically expensive. There’s no stability, either; white-collar workers hold an average of nine jobs before the age of 35. Instead of getting angry, they turn a scorned cheek to their employers, defiantly laughing along with The Office heroes at the absurdity of it all.

Assistant (to the) regional manager Dwight isn’t mocked because he’s an insufferable suck-up; he’s ridiculed because he fails to recognize that it’s all a waste of energy.

When the cartoon strip Dilbert first appeared in 1989, it depicted employees who knew better than their buzzword-slinging managers. In that two-dimensional universe, the people making things inefficient were the ones who were portrayed as fools; the evolving workplace was problematic, but the work had potential for value. Now the work itself is what’s mocked, which, given the fact that most people spend a bulk of their lives at work, can’t help but threaten the collective psyche and further damage the domestic workplace.

White-collar workers already report more occupational stress than their blue-collar counterparts and suffer twice as much from severe depression. Job satisfaction is falling, dropping from 60 percent in the mid-’90s to about 50 percent in 2005, according to a report from the Conference Board, a business-research organization. Forty percent of workers feel disconnected from their employers, and a quarter admit to showing up just to collect a check. In other words, some 35 million workers are either content to not care or have bought into the idea that there’s no reason to. (Managers know it, too. Why else would they grit their teeth and bring in “fun” consultants who promise to boost sagging employee morale?)

This culturally sanctioned slacking that results from job insecurity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over the past few years, technology has made it possible for work once done in U.S. offices to be performed just as easily anywhere in the world. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition recently likened the current threat to white-collar jobs to steelworkers’ complaints of a generation past. “Fewer and fewer jobs are safe,” said Ethan Kapstein, a guest expert in international economic relations. “It means that all of us, people like myself as well, have to continually upscale, we have to continually invest in our skills to maintain our productivity levels.”

“What [white-collar workers] need is a new model of unionism that focuses on assuring their employability, mobility, and earning power rather than protecting specific jobs or compensation packages,” Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, writes in the January 2007 issue of the Democratic Strategist. He echoes Kapstein, arguing that if U.S. white-collar workers want to keep their jobs, they’ll have to focus on company productivity as much as on their own needs: “Modern labor associations . . . could operate, in short, like a back-to-the-future update on the old craft unions, which were defenders of quality workmanship as well as workers’ interests.”

To avert crisis, Kapstein and Marshall both call on the redeeming power of doing good work, of investing in skills and focusing on craftsmanship–which would require believing in the value of labor and the value of the laborer. Such a shift in mind-set could protect white-collar jobs, even transform domestic white-collar work. After all, the same technology that produced an outsourcing threat could just as easily make widespread telecommuting a reality. As Matt Bai writes in a November 2007 issue of the New York Times, “Why shouldn’t more middle-class workers whose jobs can now be done remotely have the option to structure their own hours and still enjoy the security of a safety net? Why shouldn’t . . . anyone who spends his day staring at a terminal in some sterile environment straight out of Office Space be able to work in shorts and spend more time around the kids?”

It’s a lovely vision, shedding all those vestiges of cliché office work (the inflexible hours, the fluorescent-lit cubicles, the impossible work-home balance), but it can’t happen if this generation of workers continue to find validation in checking out, backhandedly assuring themselves that they’re better than their disappointing jobs and, in the process, proving to their employers that they’re utterly replaceable and entirely outsourceable.

If white-collar workers seized this moment to check in, to believe in the value of their work and in themselves as workers, they might do more than save their jobs or even kick open the door for a reinvention of the workspace. They might remember what it feels like to care about what they do–or find out for the first time.

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