Opinion

the work issue | Meta Wagner

The cubicle, for millennials, is where dreams go to die

Philip Giordano for the Boston Globe

Top-10 lists of people’s greatest fears normally include public speaking, death, and snakes (not necessarily in that order). But, many of today’s college students and recent grads would add a new item: the cubicle. In fact, when a creative writing student of mine recently acknowledged that being confined to an office cubicle was one of her greatest fears, everyone in class solemnly nodded as if it were a universal truth.

Another student wrote about the time he was electrocuted at the ice cream shop where he works summers. (He also showed the class the seven-second security video as proof. Shocking!) Yet, despite rude customers, uncertain hours, and, apparently, risk of electrocution, many millennials would rather test coffee temperatures or fold sweaters than set foot in an office.

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We’ve all heard the usual reasons why: a shrinking job market, the boomers’ desire to see their children “follow their bliss,” and the fact that young, educated people are moving back home and delaying marriage and children and thus the need for a higher income. Also, according to a 2011 MTV “No Collar Workers” study, half of millennials “would rather have no job than a job they hate.”

This brings us back to the cubicle. When young people think about a job they’d hate, it seems they’re thinking about an office job. And the reason why they believe they’d hate an office job is because they watch TV.

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Nothing has shaped 20-somethings’ perceptions of the workplace more than the sitcoms they’ve been watching for the past two decades. And you’d be hard pressed to find a show that hasn’t portrayed the office as the place where dreams go to die.

“Seinfeld,” which just turned 25, got the ball rolling. There’s Jerry enjoying la dolcé vita as a stand-up comedian and Kramer deriving joy from . . . whatever it is Kramer does. And there’s Elaine putting the ridiculous “urban sombrero” on the cover of the J. Peterman catalog and George napping in a sleep space under his desk with a shelf for an alarm clock, a drawer for a quilt, and a cupholder.

In a classic “Friends” episode, Monica and Rachel have to give up their luxe apartment to Joey and Chandler after losing to them in a game-show-like competition where they couldn’t answer, “What is Chandler Bing’s job?” While Chandler wears a suit and tie and gets slapped on the behind regularly by his boss, the other friends are pursuing their dreams: acting, cooking, or performing “Smelly Cat.” They have scads of free time and great clothes (for the 1990s) and enviable haircuts. The real mystery isn’t what Chandler did for a living, but why he bothered doing it.

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Along came the British and American versions of “The Office” (and the cult classic film, “Office Space”) which all lampooned office life so expertly, it’s never recovered. From the moment Ricky Gervais’s David Brent described himself as “a friend first and a boss second, probably entertainer third” and then faux fired Dawn for stealing Post-Its, the office as a place of outright buffoonery was permanently etched into the minds of a generation.

These shows live on through syndication, DVDs, DVR, On Demand, and streaming, so millennials have had endless opportunities to hear David say, “You grow up, you work half a century, you get a golden handshake, you rest a couple of years, and you’re dead.” Is it any wonder they’re afraid of the cubicle?

Meta Wagner teaches writing at Emerson College and is writing a book on creative personality types. Follow her on Twitter at @creativitytypes.
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