A Brief Cultural History of Work Sucking


In his 2017 book, Guerrillas of Desire: Notes on Everyday Resistance and Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible, Kevin Van Meter explores how a broad working class has been claiming autonomy through a wide variety of refusal of work: “Theft of time and materials, feigned illness, sabotage, arson, murder, exodus, and the myriad of other forms this refusal takes—as well as the process of creating counter-communities—can be found in everyday life.”

We see glimpses of these acts in pop culture all the time, probably because work is often a backdrop to plot, not the driver of it. While maybe not the most revolutionary critique of corporate culture, The Office consists of office workers trying to find moments of joy during work—not through it but in spite of it. Given that their shenanigans occur on the clock, they technically constitute theft of time. 

Homer Simpson constantly sleeps at the power plant; Barry Berkman takes acting classes, avoiding his job of killing people; and Jake Peralta spends as much time formulating “Title of Your Sex Tape” jokes as he does perpetrating state violence as a member of the NYPD. Work is never the point in these shows. It’s the thing in the way of the point. Much of our pop culture treats work, particularly white-collar corporate work, the way it deserves: as something between a glorified chore and an impediment to fulfillment. (This could be because artists and culturemakers have experienced the tiresome and frustrating necessity of working solely to support their art themselves.) Dolly Parton’s iconic “9 to 5,” and the film of the same name, wasn’t about loving your job, after all. Pop culture has always reminded us that work sucks. We’ve known. 

Before my first job, before I truly understood the necessity of working or the strange oscillation between fulfillment and the utter despair that comes with having a career, I knew that work was not fun. I may have even assumed that adulthood was largely defined by a disciplined tolerance for work. After all, countless kids’ shows dedicated at least one episode to teaching children who wished they could either be adults or be rid of them—from Rugrats having adult versions of Tommy and Chuckie literally push paper around with brooms before getting fired to Fairly Oddparents’ Timmy Turner wishing that “the kids were in charge,” inadvertently transforming the world into a boring dystopia—that the freedom of adulthood is not actually freedom. It is toil. 


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