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Severance pay captures work/life imbalance

Breakup ended its first season last week. The Apple TV+ drama is one of the best new TV shows of the year and offers compelling sci-fi satire of contemporary corporate culture.

Breakup is driven by an intelligent high concept. It takes place in a world where employees can undergo a process known as “firing”. The surgery effectively cuts a person in half, separating their work memories from their personal memories, ensuring that work memories (and only work memories) are only accessible on company premises. The result is that employees effectively become two distinct people: the “innie” in the office and the “outie” outside.

Apparently, a person who is “separated” enjoys the cleanest possible work/life balance. They are literally a different person inside and outside the office, with neither half having any awareness of the other. In reality, the situation is decidedly more complicated. The “outie” enjoys a regular salary with no work experience, but the “innie” lives a life that is nothing but work. For an innie, there is no work/life balance; there is only work.

Like all great sci-fi ideas, it’s an escalation of a facet of modern culture. Breakup puts a sci-fi veneer on recognizable trends in contemporary American popular culture. To be fair, some of this resonance is entirely coincidental. The show was already in production when it was cut short by the pandemic, but the show’s recurring fascination with isolation and disconnection resonates differently than it would have when the show was originally conceived.

The show’s concerns about corporate culture are heightened at a time when big corporations are trying to bring employees back into the office. The minimalism and retro-futurism of the series, inspired by films like Jacques Tati’s Break, don’t seem so absurd in a world where Google offers employees robot-controlled inflatable walls in the office. The promise of a “waffle party” as a reward isn’t far off from companies trying to bring staff back with beer and popcorn.

However, the pandemic is not responsible for the current debate between companies and employees over office culture. The stress of the pandemic, during which major corporations made record profits while many of their employees struggled to make ends meet, simply boiled over a simmering tension. The pandemic has forced workers to question whether the office and the culture around it are meeting their needs.

The “innies” in Breakup have no frame of reference for life outside of the basement office they share. They can sometimes get snippets of information about life beyond headquarters, but that information is often distorted and nonsensical. Instead, their entire existence is shaped by corporate culture, overseen by supervisor Seth Milchick (Tramell Tillman) and boss Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette).

As such, Lumon Industries has grown to meet any needs it imagines its staff might have. As nothing exists for staff members outside of the common working environment, this space has become a world unto itself. There are “wellness” sessions, where employees are refreshed and relaxed. There is the “rest room”, where employees are ritually punished. Benefits are distributed as a sign of status, even if they have no material value.

“The erasers are mostly decorative, since we don’t have pencils,” Dylan (Zach Cherry) explains of the awards he’s racked up. “The finger trap is fun, as long as you know how to use it safely. But it’s really more about what they stand for, how far you’ve gone in the file. None of the employees even know what what he does or what “the dossier” is. Showrunner Dan Erickson reportedly drew on his own experience entering data into “temporary jobs within a company” for the show.

This is only a slight exaggeration of current trends in corporate life. It’s especially prevalent at tech companies like Google, which often (unofficially) seem to encourage workers to live in the office. A worker named Matthew Weaver lived in an RV in the company parking lot for a year. It was practically luxury; another employee named Brandon lived in a truck in the company parking lot while using company facilities to shower and groom.

Many modern companies offer their employees gourmet food and “sleep pods,” as if asking why anyone would want to leave. “Why not just live at work? columnist Michael Moran joked in 2014. Aaron Levie, CEO of Box, recalled his office life: “And for the first two and a half years, I slept on a mattress in the office. It was like living in a submarine – I got out of bed and started working. I would spend more than two days without ever leaving the building.

In Breakup, Lumon Industries is not so much a culture as a cult. Milchick stops to admire the sculpture of the company founder on the reception wall. “I love seeing the sunrise on his face. Do you know he used to drink three raw eggs in milk every morning?” Burt (Christopher Walken) of Optics and Design insists that this ancestor “does not speak to us only through the manual or the paintings. He finds other means.

Severance pay captures the work-life imbalance Apple TV+

Irv (John Turturro) treats the company manual like a religious text, warning Dylan, “Don’t pervert any part of the manual for me, okay? All other reading material is “idolatrous text.” The office space is decorated with classic paintings illustrating key moments like “Kier’s Juvenile Recovery”, bringing a “manual passage” to life. New hires often take a guided tour of the Perpetuity Wing to give them a sense of the company’s sacred mission.

Again, none of this seems too far removed from the excesses of modern corporate culture. Former employees have described Facebook as “bigoted”. There is a “moral and religious significance” in the choice of words in Google’s slogan, “Don’t be mean.” In 2012, David Segal wrote about how Apple fostered “an employee culture that tries to turn every job into an exalted mission.” Over the past decade, observers have written about the sectarian sensitivities that permeate corporate culture.

After all, Kier Eagan’s cult isn’t too far removed from the reverence of modern CEOs in some quarters. While Americans distrust billionaires as a social class, they are more fond of individuals. Steve Jobs is an almost religious figure. Elon Musk is greeted by fans with “a passion that better befits a mega-church pastor than a tech mogul.” Jeff Bezos considers himself a trailblazer who is not just a business leader, but a visionary who will take humanity to the stars.

The smiling face that Lumon Industries presents to its employees will resonate with anyone who has worked in modern corporate culture. He presents himself as friendly and welcoming, adopting a strange and uncomfortable imitation of empathy reflected in processes such as “happiness training”. Employees are indoctrinated and guided through carefully curated materials that offer ruthless capitalist pretenses of humanity and intimacy.

Severance pay captures the work-life imbalance Apple TV+

This concern for the well-being of its employees is only a facade. Lumon exercises intense surveillance over its employees, similar to Facebook’s “catch-up” teams. Just as Amazon reportedly intends to carefully regulate speech on its chat app to censor phrases like “pay raise,” “living wage,” and even “that’s stupid,” Lumon limits staff’s ability to communicate. with the outside world. Just as companies like Starbucks or Amazon fight against unionization, Lumon sows division between teams to prevent them from organizing.

Breakup imagine a world in which large corporations have grown to dominate the lives of their employees so that they are not just a place of work, but perform every social and personal function imaginable. Lumon treats his estranged employees like children, patronizing and manipulating them. It provides a moral and religious framework, a sense of purpose and identity. It’s obviously a heightened sci-fi premise, but its dystopia uncannily evokes the modern world.

As the characters repeatedly point out, when an “outie” quits their job, the “innie” ceases to exist. After all, the “innie” only exists on company property, so once the “outie” stops visiting, that’s really it. This small detail reaches the true horror of Breakup: a world where there is literally no life beyond work.

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