The Office took viewers on an amusing ride through the lives of employees at mid-sized paper company, but behind Michael’s quirks, Jim’s pranks and the various office romances are valuables lessons about the US labor market.
Here are some of those moments.
A Not So Happy Halloween for Devon
Early in the series, when viewers didn’t know the Dunder Mifflin employees that well, Michael Scott faced the difficult decision of letting someone go. His visible angst, which would become a staple of his character, soon filtered through Jim, Pam, and anyone who listened.
“I mean you hear about layoffs in the news, but when you actually have to do it yourself, it is heavy stuff. It’s… these are people’s lives you’re talking about,” says Michael.
He responded as many managers do. Layoffs jeopardize whether someone can pay rent or put food on the table, and if the decision is not performance-related, the harbinger of bad news can feel terrible. But sometimes there is no other option.
“No. It was all the stuff that I said. It was the business downturn, the cutbacks, and, and…” Michael later explains as Devon contests his termination.
When the economy enters a downturn, most companies will reduce their headcount to offset the inevitable drop in demand. The impact of these cuts is what economists call cyclical unemployment.
With the country in lockdown, much of the country has faced this harsh reality. About 40 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the weeks after the initial outbreak ravaged major cities. That number has since improved as parts of the country reopen, and furloughed workers return to work, but cyclical unemployment still sits at historic levels. In October, it was about 3.5 percent.
That One Night Jan got Fired
A few seasons later, Jan meets a similar fate but for a different reason. Her indifference towards Dunder Mifflin, marked by extended periods of online shopping and in-office smoke breaks, frustrated CFO David Wallace enough to hire a new manager. When he finally confronted Jan and then fired her for misconduct, David steered the conversation to job-specific issues rather than cosmetic enhancements. That way, Jan couldn’t claim discrimination or wrongful termination, even though she did anyway.
In the real world, this seems a like straightforward case of U3 unemployment, or the headline unemployment number printed each month.
The Most Qualified Temp Returns
After a brief scare, in which a toaster fire forces everyone to evacuate the building, Michael and Dwight learn that Ryan is studying for his MBA. The frequent target of Michael’s affection had always been portrayed as somewhat unambitious, so this news came as a welcome surprise to some in the office.
Earnings an MBA opens up several promising career paths—none of which involve temping at a mid-sized paper company. But Ryan finds himself in that unfortunate position throughout the show; overqualified and underpaid. Millions of Americans, not unlike Ryan, are underemployed, working jobs below their educational attainment or experience. The most common measure of this alarming trend is U-6 unemployment, which equals the headline number (U3) plus discouraged workers, marginally attached workers, and part-time workers who prefer to work full time.
Michael Scott Paper Company is Born
The disgruntled Dunder Mifflin manager, still resentful about Holly’s transfer, let out a deep breath before telling David Wallace, “I Quit.” His storied 14-year career as a salesman and manager was over, but Michael had more to offer the paper industry. So a few days later, he launched the Michael Scott Paper Company. Like many Americans, who voluntarily leave their job to start a business, Michael saw an opportunity to disrupt an industry he knew all too well. The upstart paper company would siphon clients from Dunder Mifflin by cutting their prices to unsustainable levels.
But the issue is not whether Michael could upend Big Paper. What matters, at least to me, is the monthly jobs numbers. When Michael initially uttered the two words, “I Quit,” he joined a small group of the US labor force who voluntarily leave their jobs each month. In normal times, no more than 1000 people meet this criteria, but economic uncertainty will often force workers to stay in undesirable situations.
An Unlikely Winner Emerges from the Warehouse
The concept of entrepreneurship becomes a recurring theme later in the show. After a brief on-screen tenure in the warehouse, Roy starts a successful gravel company that draws the envy of his former colleagues. Jim, in particular, uses this as motivation to launch a sports marketing company, Athlead. The new company would be the focus of the remaining seasons, with Jim and Pam struggling to balance running a small business and life at home.