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When work-life balance seems impossible …

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Courtesy Apple TV+

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While Econ Extra Credit typically selects a documentary film to watch and dissect, this month we’re doing something a little different — a prestige television series.

“Severance,” which streams on Apple TV+, tells the story of employees at Lumon Industries who have undergone a surgical procedure that separates their memories and experiences at work from those at home. When they go to work, they have no recollection of their preferences, relationships or memories outside the workplace. When they clock out, they don’t remember anything they did at the office. Their “innie,” a term the characters use to describe themselves at work, and their “outie,” the part of them that exists outside of the office, are complete strangers.

During the workday at Lumon, severed employees in the “macro data refinement department” search for patterns in sets of data, removing numbers that don’t belong. It’s a seemingly mundane task that doesn’t make much sense. Their bosses repeatedly tell them the work is “mysterious and important.”

Choosing “severance,” in theory, removes the need to create work-life balance. That might sound promising to some of our readers, especially those who haven’t yet watched the show.

Some employees choose to sever to escape trauma they experienced in their personal lives. Others choose it because they think it’s cool. For Lumon, which pioneered the severance procedure, there are also benefits, including a reduced risk of leaked top-secret information and a workforce that can focus on the job without distractions from the outside world.

But for the “innies,” reality is as if they never get a break from the office. Their entire existence is essentially trapped at work. Season one explores what happens when some of the severed employees start to question the meaning of their work, rather than blindly believe what the company tells them.

It would be so easy to paint Lumon as the enemy, and perhaps it is (no spoilers here), but, as New York Times television critic James Poniewozik duly notes, the far more interesting question is to what extent are we as individuals willing to sacrifice a part of ourselves to get work done?

Poniewozik writes: “‘Severance’ asks whether, given an incentive, you would subjugate a part of yourself, outsourcing your drudgery to another you, like Homer Simpson deferring his problems to ‘Future Homer.’”

Would you choose to sever?

We hope you will join us this month to watch “Severance” and use this fictional realm to explore what it can teach us about corporate values, organized labor and finding purpose at work.

Once you’ve watched, as always, we’d love to hear from you. Send us your stories about work-life balance, your theories about the show and any questions you’d like us to answer. We’re at extracredit@marketplace.org. 

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