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David’s thoughts on meaningful work, forced merriment and corporate swag

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For Econ Extra Credit, we usually draw our economic lessons from the nonfiction side of things by watching documentaries. This month, in the spirit of summer fun, we are watching a streaming TV show dramatizing a dilemma many of us have faced: how the “real” you and the “work” you may not mix.

“Severance,” which secured 14 Emmy nominations this week, is the weirdest thing (in a good way) that I have seen on the small screen since the first season of “Twin Peaks.” Also, who could miss a show that has out-there actors John Turturro and Christopher Walken working together? In the show, a corporation with a bad vibe invites employees to surgically rig their brains so they have no idea who they are outside of work. Plus, when they are away from work, they have no idea what they did all day at the office. “Severance” is a satire about a dystopia that maybe you would like to embrace.

Imagine at the end of every workday having the ability to slam the door on the frustrations of work deadlines or co-workers who would not have been your first choice if it were up to you. Imagine the ability to block upsetting situations in your personal life as you swipe in at work. And yet, imagine working in a toxic, prison-like workplace where you could never report abuses because you remember nothing when you leave. It seems to me this draconian form of work-life balance would best serve a malevolent employer than it would help a person live a more balanced life.

The workplace of Lumon Industries is deliciously well-observed, even though we, the viewers, don’t know what Lumon does or makes. That is a key point in the series: the mystery of Lumon, with its slogan “Illumination Above All.” Even the workers have no idea about the purpose of their work, which in some cases involves lassoing evil-seeming numbers drifting down a screen all day. Real-life management experts warn that employees without a sense of why they do what they do become unproductive drones. I appreciate there are those who think it’s unhealthy to seek affirmation of their values or identity from work. For them, maybe it’s OK not to know why they do what they do that their work doesn’t hold a lot of meaning for them. The purpose of work is the paycheck they receive. My view is that so many of my waking hours are devoted to my professional life that I prefer to know the end goal is trying to make the world better, even in a small way.

The series is full of other on-the-nose work situations that may be all too familiar: forced merriment when the boss tells you to have fun, or else; the little bits of corporate swag that drift down to you if you’re good; the entrenched rivalries between different departments of a company, when C Division thinks B Division is out to get them. (Don’t misunderstand my interest in this: Kai Ryssdal, who hosts our evening program, doesn’t have a David Brancaccio dart board, as far as I know, nor do I have a Kai-shaped piñata. We pull in the same direction, and if you’ve heard our voices side by side, you can tell).

Our New York bureau does have a closet-sized booth my colleagues have dubbed “the crying room,” and it has nothing to do with interoffice rivalry. The cramped space is designed so people working in the open newsroom have a place to go to make phone calls too sensitive or personal for the rest of the operation to hear. Too bad it’s not soundproofed. But the closet is an acknowledgement that we do need to cut personal from professional in awkward ways. Maybe we’ll call it the “Severance room” from now on.

Have you watched “Severence” yet? While we write this newsletter without giving away spoilers, we’d love to hear your thoughts and theories about the show, plus how you find meaning and purpose in your work. We’re at extracredit@marketplace.org. 

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