Strange Planet: Office Space and the Hell of Work Experience in the Downsizing Age

illustration by Tom Ralston

A curriculum vitae is an odd document. While it demands a record of individual employment, it precludes the writer from saying anything about what it felt like to spend time in any of those places for hours, days, weeks, months, or even years. It affords no space under the rubric of “Work Experience for work experience. It is personal work history minus point of view, an act of repression the writer takes for granted as part of the job of being employable. 

This makes it appealing to HR, but it’s precisely its limitations that make the CV feel mostly fraudulent to its creator. For the CV writer, the psychological and emotional reality of employment is the meaningful part. 

Minus the vital omissions of individual thoughts and feelings, the CV is a barely useful outline for the story of a working life. 

You can’t tell the full story, however. You wouldn’t get a job—or hope to keep it—if you admitted that, in addition to your formal education and practical knowledge of certain useful software programs, you were also a master in the art of appearing busy, a skilled practitioner in miming attention, and an old hand at behaving as if working in a contracting industry run exclusively for the benefit of shareholders was OK, fine, great even. 

All of this to say that work culture asks the employee to concede official spokesperson status to employers, a dynamic that means workers do a lot of repressing how they really feel and pretending to be something they’re not as a function of getting and staying employed. This necessary pretending represents a peculiar kind of job performance all its own, and one that’s implied within any official job description. 

Mike Judge’s corporate culture satire Office Space tells the repressed story of employment. A comic portrait of one man’s work-related mental health crisis within the downsizing age, it turns the rubric of the CV inside out to depict work experience and job performance as absurdly draining psychological and emotional burdens that exact an unhealthy toll on human beings. 

It’s a clarifying bizarro-world twist that reclaims work experience as personal. This is what makes it such an unreserved pleasure to watch. 

i.

‘Ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it.’

Peter Gibbons (Ron Livingston) is a 20-something white-collar worker employed at Initech, a software company that’s just pressed start on a restructuring cycle which will see Peter’s friends and colleagues laid off in service of a share price boost. 

Peter’s job at Initech is sitting at a desk and retyping bank software in preparation for the Y2K switch: “I go through these thousands of lines of code. And uh, it doesn’t really matter.”  The mumbling apologetic job description is a subtle comic rebuke to the fantasy of human progress as the new millennium dawns. For Peter, the future isn’t space suits and flying cars: it’s a keyboard and a cubicle. 

It’s data entry. 

Initech’s workday is a Rube Goldberg machine of misery that delivers repeated shocks to Peter’s system—quite literally: he gets an electric shock from the company’s metal door handle each morning as he arrives. Once inside, office life continues its assault. There’s no privacy in cubicle-world, which means the nearby receptionist’s chirpy ‘Corporate accounts payable, Nina speaking’ burrows into his brain, popping up later as an auditory feature in his nightmares. 

Work even finds Peter on the weekends, the days he’s supposed to own for himself. His boss, Bill Lumbergh (Gary Cole), claims them for Initech, declaring Saturday and Sunday newly minted office hours by passive-aggressive fiat: “I’m gonna need you to go ahead and come in tomorrow…oh and I almost forgot I’m also going to need you to go ahead and come in on Sunday too, OK?”

The arrival of the consultants adds the fear of getting fired or laid off to the mix. 

The film’s first act reveals corporate culture to be a petty, bullying species of employment that invades every part of a person’s life while simultaneously reserving the right to cut you loose at any point, so long as it guarantees a boost in the share price of the company stock. 

This was 1999, but the portrait of corporate culture hasn’t aged a day. 

You would think Peter would be angry, but he’s too enervated by the conditions of work to rage. Ron Livingston’s face fills the screen as a boyish blank, de-animated by unhappiness—even his pupils seem to wince.

The combination of invasive intimacy and insecurity is a powerful management strategy, however—the corporate equivalent of negging. As such, it keeps Peter anxiously on the hook, hoping for approval and hating himself for it simultaneously: “I’m a big pussy. That’s why I work at Initech to begin with.”

Peter recognizes he’s outgunned—he has eight bosses for god’s sake!—and it’s easier to surrender. Peter goes to an “occupational hypnotherapist” in the hopes that he can be anesthetized into compliance. 

“Is there any way that you could sort of just zonk me out so that, like, I don’t know that I’m at work?” he asks the therapist. 

ii.

‘A case of the Mondays’ 

Office Space originated as an animated short Mike Judge made in the early 90s, eventually airing on Comedy Central and which—if some YouTube clips are to be taken on faith—appeared in miniature bursts on Saturday Night Live. 

The short centered on Milton, a pathologically anxious desk-goblin who mumbles endlessly about his ill-treatment. Milton is in a chronic state of distress because his boss Bill Lumbergh keeps moving his desk, pushing it and him further and further out of the center of the office. They also keep taking his beloved Swingline stapler. 

Milton doesn’t know why this is happening to him, but he interprets the moves as a threat and reacts accordingly: “I’ll set the building on fire.”

It’s easy to see Milton’s ridiculousness. But when considered part of the DNA of the later film, it’s also easy to see how his implied arc—how Milton may have become Milton—plays out through Peter’s work-related mental health crisis. Moreover, when Milton, as played by Stephen Root, is placed in the context of the film’s ensemble, it’s easier to see him as part of the spectrum of psychological responses to the predatory and invasive reality of office life. 

In his book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream Became Temporary, historian Louis Hyman lays out the ways in which the labor market, which stabilized after WWII, radically changed starting around the 1970s. 

The shift severed the hard-fought relationship that had grown up between employer and employee (white male workers, especially), ditching New Deal and post-war inventions of job security for insecure temporary work. Long-term investment was devalued in favor of risk and short-term profit. Downsizing and layoffs became characteristics of employment rather than a last resort. In this new paradigm, employees are necessarily pushed to the margins of concern, their status undermined in favor of the shareholder. 

The impact of that change is not solely economic. It’s emotional and psychological for the worker who finds that fear and anxiety are now essential features of his work experience and concealing their effects upon his body and mind necessary to his job performance. (See, Milton clutching his stapler; see, Peter hiding from Lumbergh on Friday afternoon.) 

The onset of the age of precarious work, as Hyman explains, may have been felt as more of a shock to the white male worker than women or racialized workers who never really enjoyed cultural validation of their labor or the protections that came with it in the same way. 

“The experiences of the people who were left out of the good postwar job became the rehearsal for most jobs today,” he writes.

Not surprisingly, in the movie it’s Samir (Ajay Naidu), who is Arabic (Naidu is Indian in real life), and Joanna (Jennifer Aniston), the movie’s only semi-fleshed out working woman, who don’t need a coming-of-age arc to face the realities of the contemporary labor market. 

Samir can’t even get people to say his last name. They simply trail off and stare as if unable to face the symbolic reality of a multi-syllabic surname. He’s never real to anyone and is laid off with more ease and humor as a result.

Joanna’s low-expectations are baked into her overall view of work. 

“Peter, most people don’t like their jobs. But you go out there and find something that makes you happy.”

iii.

‘I wouldn’t say I’ve been missing it, Bob.’

Peter is saved from Milton’s fate by a darkly comic stroke of luck: the occupational hypnotherapist dies during their session and, as a result, Peter isn’t zonked out but woken up. He’s epiphanic.

“I don’t like my job. I don’t think I’m gonna go anymore,” he tells Joanna. 

The hypnotherapy took him so “down deep,” he’s excavated that part of him that Initech hasn’t penetrated yet. He’s rediscovered his own point of view and can recognize the root cause of his chronic case of the Mondays. It’s the insanely high human cost its employees pay to work at Initech.  

He explains this to the consultants, Bob and Bob. “It’s a problem of motivation, all right. If I work my ass off and Initech ships a few extra units I don’t see another dime. So, where’s the motivation?” 

He doesn’t wait for them to reply but answers his own question. The only motivation to work is fear: fear of being hassled by management and fear of losing your job. 

“But you know, Bob, that only makes someone work just hard enough not to get fired,” he says.

Peter’s transformation is funny, but the joke is how well it plays for the consultants. They’re delighted by Peter’s candor about “real actual work” because it affirms their seek-and-destroy mission. In return for validating their suspicion that the office is filled with dead weight, Peter is promoted to management. 

This is the irony of job performance in the downsizing era: value is determined not by your skills or your insights—the former can be cheaply outsourced; the latter is easily ignored because you have no power—but by how you mirror corporate values. How you take the abuse and turn it to your advantage. 

Peter isn’t management material, though. And despite the gangster-rap suffused heist plot that kicks into high gear, it’s clear he isn’t a credible badass either. He’s just a regular guy who doesn’t want to be both bored and exploited by work. 

Peter never gets his revenge on Initech (that was Milton’s to own). He just gets another job. One that feels less horrible, that lets him feel human. Peter is excited to be a construction worker because it means he can move his body and feel the sunshine too. 

Trading cubicle life for the privations of manual labor is hardly the stuff of fairy tales, but it’s a comic compromise between the necessity of work and the necessity of feeling human simultaneously. This was the dream in 1999. It’s still the dream in 2024. 

It’s work culture reclaimed by the people doing the work.

An interview Judge gave to The New Yorker in 2022 also holds some clue as to what appealed to him about Peter’s new gig. “You can daydream while doing it,” he says of construction work. In short, there’s no employer in your head. You’re free to dream. Maybe even free to write an animated short or a screenplay. 

iv.

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day…so Bill Lumbergh’s stock will go up a quarter of a point.” 

Office Space wasn’t a box-office hit when it opened in theaters. Despite air-dropping a Friends-era Jennifer Aniston into its mostly male ensemble of largely unknown or quietly known actors, the film was a box-office failure. When it began airing on TV, it built an audience and a lifespan. 

That second life for a nearly 90-minute comedy about hating your boss and your job isn’t surprising. TV in the early Noughties was to the miserably employed what streaming is today—a tourniquet to staunch the psychic wounds inflicted by spending eight to ten hours a day empaneled in a cubicle or locked in back-to-back Zoom calls. The precariousness of work is work now, and anxiety and fear are baked into the unspoken job description. Under these worsening conditions, work can feel very much like the thing you hate and the thing that appears to hate you, too. 

The pandemic has generated its own Peter Gibbons–like epiphanies, with many walking out of the labor market entirely or leaving miserable industries for slightly less miserable ones. That human response to forces that would downsize them into compliance with a dehumanizing grind has been characterized as laziness by some commentators. But that’s just the employer in them talking. Resistance to the invasion of a predatory work culture is essential, humanizing. Even if it’s just in your head. 

Maybe that’s why, 25 years later, you can buy an Initech mug on Etsy or a handmade print of Milton Waddams for your desk. As a symbol of what you are intrinsically—a human being—and a memento mori about what corporate culture would have you become when you forget it.