There’s a reason why people buy red staplers, Dwight Schrute bobbleheads and stuffed Dilberts: It’s because many Americans are disenchanted with their jobs, and those items – pop culture icons that symbolize the worst in office culture – affirm that others view the workplace with the same disregard.
“I think it helps people to know they are not alone in their frustrations,” said Scott Adams, who created his “Dilbert” comic strip nearly two decades ago.
In a sense, then, pop culture has become therapeutic for the disheartened American worker. And while many books (think anything by Kafka) and movies (“Fight Club”) have dealt with jobs that can suck the life out of their employees, three sources have stood out as the ultimate symbols for everything wrong about the office: “Dilbert” the movie “Office Space”; and the TV show “The Office,” whose fifth season premiered Sept. 25.
“Dilbert,” of course, started it all. In 1989, Adams debuted his strip about an engineer who deals daily with the frustrations of his workplace. It was a huge success, prompting readers to buy stuffed dolls, calendars and books.
“People like to see me mock the things they can’t mock themselves without losing their job,” Adams said in an e-mail interview. “I am sort of a surrogate voice for them.”
“Office Space,” a cult favorite from 1999, features a trio of software employees trying to fight back against impending layoffs and a numbing office environment.
As film critic Roger Ebert wrote, the movie is about work that crushes the spirit: “Office cubicles are cells, supervisors are the wardens, and modern management theory is skewed to employ as many managers and as few workers as possible.”
That “The Office” started out as a British TV show suggests that the view of the office as a dysfunctional family is not merely an American perception. The U. S. version of this sitcom takes place in a Pennsylvania paper company, where workers confront the boss’ boneheaded decisions, and the awkward scenarios they foster, on a daily basis.
With all that in mind, we decided to look at how the office is viewed by the Big Three – “Dilbert,” “The Office” and “Office Space.”
Dilbert calls his workplace The Land of Cubicles, where workers file into a maze of partitions. Artwork comes from low-cost Dogbert Corporate Art Source, which boasts the motto: “If it’s in a frame, it will look like art to you.”
In “Office Space,” the gray and mostly windowless Initech building is also filled with cubicles. When consultants are brought in to recommend layoffs, a large banner is erected, asking workers: “Is This Good For the Company?”
While the cubicles in “Dilbert” and “Office Space” belong to lower-end workers, “The Office’s” Michael Scott has a room with window blinds that allow him to hide from employees when he makes unpopular decisions.
In the Big Three, no one wants to be at the office.
In “The Office,” Jim Halpert resists promotion, saying, “Because right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”
In “Office Space,” Peter Gibbons is even less positive. As he tells his therapist: “Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life.”
In “Dilbert,” it’s Dogbert who acts as the therapist, telling Dilbert, “You suffer from the dull ache of insignificance.”
In short, the Big Three view managers as clueless schmucks who thrive on minutiae and couldn’t make an important decision if their lives depended on it.
In “Office Space,” Bill Lumbergh is a condescending boss who has no life outside the office. When faced with a difficult task – like firing an employee named Milton Waddams – he has someone else do it.
Michael Scott, meanwhile, is ignorant of the fact that none of his employees respect him. (He owns a “World’s Best Boss” mug he bought for himself.) When asked how he views himself as a supervisor, he says, “I guess the atmosphere that I’ve tried to create here is that I’m a friend first and a boss second, and probably an entertainer third.”
While Michael is quick to do things unrelated to work, he delegates serious duties – like announcing cuts in health care benefits – to others.
Dilbert’s “pointy-headed boss,” meanwhile, is a micro-manager who doesn’t listen to employees. In one meeting, the boss announces, “That’s the plan. Now I will listen to your irrational concerns” before putting headphones on.
In the Big Three, work functions are perceived as nonsensical, work for the sake of work and frustratingly bureaucratic. “Office Space” best illustrates this when Lumbergh and other bosses repeatedly remind Peter that he must include cover sheets on his TPS reports.
In “Dilbert,” meetings are seen as a waste of time where confusing jargon makes presentations pointless. In one meeting, Dilbert says, “The next transparency is an incomprehensible jumble of complexity and undefined acronyms … you might wonder why I’m going to show it to you since the only possible result is to lower your opinion of my communication skills.”
In “The Office,” employees often run personal errands for the boss or attend special meeting – about diversity, office safety or women in the workplace, for example – that are necessitated by something their boss Michael did.
Distributed by MCT