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Gloom and doom in America

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, February 28, 2007

“I’m a Sales Rep … which means that my job is to speak to clients on the phone about, uh, quantity and type of paper, whether we can supply it for them, and whether they can pay … for it … and I’m boring myself, talking about it.” Thus spoke Tim Canterbury, the self-deprecating everyman from the British comedy “The Office.” Tim perfectly summarizes a common attitude toward the modern workplace: it’s dull, boring and unfulfilling. And it’s not just the paper merchants who feel that way.

The show was British, but workers on our side of The Pond share this gloomy sentiment (although the show’s American counterpart tones down the dark humor). A survey conducted by The Conference Board – the marketing information company that puts out the Consumer Confidence Index – found that fewer than half of Americans feel satisfied with their jobs. This marks a low in the 20-year history of the survey. Workers under 25 have the lowest job satisfaction rating – something to look forward to after you leave the shadow of the Golden Dome.

You would think, as easy as we have it, that we would find more satisfaction in our work life. In an age of unsurpassed wealth, we have more freedom than ever to pursue a livelihood of our choosing. You would expect our pride in work to reach new heights, paralleling our financial luxury – but instead, we have effectively trapped ourselves. We have a consumer’s market that thrives on the possession and consumption of property and material goods. Mass media controls our collective fancies, all our desires align and we all want the same things. More “things” must be produced to meet our demands, and this whole process requires an economic infrastructure to support it.

Enter our depressing modern economy, an indisputable force of powerful sway and infinite reach. Its army is the workforce, soldiers sporting slacks and white shirts and ties. As we dread our impending future of dark grey business suits and cold white office walls, where only water-cooler small talk breaks the monotony of boring days, that future has already arrived. All the tech-sector commercials you see on television advertising an exciting and hip world of innovation and excitement merely paint a pretty face on the unencouraging reality underneath. Those jobs aren’t hip and young and exciting; they dull your senses, stifle your creativity and suppress your originality.

Our jobs fail to interest us because they lack human interaction, a problem in turn stemming from our decadent affluence and unchecked consumption of material goods. The cultural zeitgeist reflects this by spawning such dark art as “The Office” or the also aptly-named 1999 movie “Office Space.” That film’s anti-hero, Peter Gibbons, has an awakening and realizes his job is boring and his life meaningless.

“Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statements,” he moans.

Peter finds true happiness in the film only when he stops caring about work and starts enjoying himself by getting a girlfriend, going fishing and sleeping in.

“Office Space” took aim at the tech sector’s zombie-like stupor, and succeeded because that niche’s “hip” advertisements stray so far from reality that they become easy targets for mockery. People like Peter Gibbons – and all Americans, these days – hate their jobs. We’re so sundered from work creating objects for a real purpose, so far removed from jobs with a real connection to the service procured, that we can’t possibly take pride in our work. We never see the faces of the people we serve. When the service-consumption equation lacks human interaction, when all we do is produce goods to be consumed and placate our materialist desires, when we’re constantly reduced to cogs in the corporate machine, we can never expect satisfaction from our jobs and we can’t help but be depressed.

I’m not saying factory workers, paper merchants or software engineers are evil. People need money and jobs to support their families. The economy is a created structure, and those are the jobs it offers. To break out of this cycle of work-consume-repeat, we must end our fixation on the acquisition of material goods. If we do that, the need for so many faceless jobs declines, and the economy shifts to adapt. Just imagine if every factory job was turned into a humanitarian effort dedicated toward providing medical aid to the sick or food to the hungry. Fewer DVD players, sure, but much happier workers.

Why should we care about this here at Notre Dame? Because factory workers aren’t the ones hoarding those material goods – they often don’t have the option. That sin lies at the feet of the upper class, the wealthy, the privileged. We hate to admit it, but at Notre Dame, that means us. We are the ones that must use our gifts for others’ benefit, with the responsibility to change our ways and curb our material desires. This change can filter from the top economical strata of society all the way down to the lower fringes – and maybe then we would start seeing more humanitarian work.

When you walk around campus, note all the iPods and fancy phones, the designer clothes and keys to deluxe cars. Imagine how the economy would change if we checked our luxury desires. Jobs could focus more on human interaction instead of production of mass goods. People could find more happiness and more interpersonal connection in their work. It won’t be easy – but as David Brent of “The Office” said, quoting another famous philosopher: “If you want the rainbow, you’ve gotta put up with the rain.”

James Dechant is a junior studying abroad in Rome this semester. Questions, complaints and rude remarks can be sent to jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.