In 2009, I flew to Boston for my first client project at a management consulting firm. I was 23, in my first job out of college, and had been brought in for an urgent, mysterious task. But when I arrived at the windowless basement inside what we called “the client site,” no one was able to tell me what that was. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do,” said a colleague, “but it would probably take the managers too long to explain to you, rather than just doing it, so just sit and watch me.”
The next day, I was finally charged with the ever-important job of creating a project calendar, but everyone was too busy to tell me what they were working on or what their deadlines were. After an entire week, I still did not understand what the project was or my role in it, but somehow I was there until 10 p.m. every night.
On Friday evening, things became even less clear; the partner managing the project told me and the other analysts to cancel our Monday morning flights. We’d have to come up Sunday. “It doesn’t matter how much it costs, just do it,” he said. We estimated that Sunday’s work, whatever it was, would cost an additional $10,000 to the client. It turns out the urgent task was something that an eighth grader could do: adjusting font sizes, colors, adding lines, and adjusting spacing to graphs in Excel.
I quit that job less than two years later, first bouncing around from a media start-up run by a woman who did not want to pay her staff, then to copywriting for a flailing ad agency so desperate that one time, when prospective renters were looking at the office space, my colleagues and I were instructed to take frequent laps around the office to make it look busier. Whenever I thought I was going insane, I told myself: “This is just like a scene from Office Space.”
A decade later, technological advancements have transformed the way companies run businesses, but our culture’s obsession with prioritizing work over personal well-being has remained the same. Even in 2019, corporate parks across America still look like the sprawling, anodyne Initech campus, furnished with cell-like gray cubicles and grating co-workers who slowly turn into caricatures. (I abstained from company gift exchanges after a former co-worker once requested a rhinoceros-themed Christmas gift. “I’m really into rhinos,” he told me.) While pretty much anyone who has worked in an office can relate to Office Space, the 1999 cult classic has a particular resonance with people my age. I was 12 when Office Space came out, but I am part of the most economically depressed generation since the Great Depression.
Growing up, adults, teachers and professors all reinforced the same positive message: If you study hard, get good grades, graduate from college, then you will get a job doing something you love and earn a good living. Chase your dreams! Do something that makes you happy! A job, I was told, would lead to lifelong financial security and would also be spiritually fulfilling. But job security turned out to be a huge myth for my generation, which was fucked over by baby boomers, predatory housing lenders, and the government. We inherited a pile of debt, student loans, and a recession (which hit the year before I graduated college).
Office Space, a progenitor of workplace satires like The Office, Corporate, and Sorry to Bother You, exposed the lie that America is told: Working for a corporation fucking sucks, it’s not fulfilling, and we’re not stupid for feeling cheated. At the heart of the movie is a question central to our experience: When you’re raised to believe your job is your highest purpose, what do you do when you end up hating it? Office Space creator Mike Judge has said that “People quit their jobs because of this movie,” and I’m among those who were at least partially inspired to leave a white-collar job in search of work that felt more meaningful.
But, as Office Space illustrates, even quitting a bad job is almost Sisyphean; even if your company goes down in a literal fire, like Initech does, there are million others just like it. You can find another job that’s pretty much the same shit, like Samir and Michael do; you can change industries, hoping it’ll be better, like Peter does; or you can hope that you’ll miraculously discover a wad of cash, like Milton, and spend the rest of your days on a beach in Mexico.
At the end of the movie, a disillusioned Peter says to his girlfriend Joanna, “I don’t know why I can’t just go to work and be happy, like I’m supposed to, like everybody else.”
“Peter, most people don’t like their jobs,” she says. “But you go out there, and you find something that makes you happy.” This is the compelling, honest, and enduring message of Office Space, the one that I wished I had been told as a kid: for most of us, there is no exit or escape from corporate doldrum, but if you try to find meaning—whether through relationships, hobbies, or something else that gives you purpose—maybe you have a shot at being happy. Or at least not hating your life.