One day when my oldest son was about 12 years old, I put on my best Pa Walton impression and said, “Boy, there are two things you need to know in the big, ugly world out there. One—it’s all about those standardized tests that come down from New Jersey. And two—for any adult with a job, real life is exactly like “Dilbert.”
For daily readers of The New York Times (which has no comics) , I’ll note that “Dilbert,” named for its pear-shaped protagonist, is set in the engineering department of some sort of computer company. It features the conventional comic strip gimmick of talking animals. For instance, a cat with glasses is the human resources director. But it also depicts the absurdity of life in any bureaucracy—the meetings for their own sake, the pointless training sessions, the petty corruption and pettier tyranny, and the barely-suppressed state of impotent rage that is the lot of the cubicle drone. In short, “Dilbert” may be the great American novel of white-collar life in the information age.
I’ve been a daily reader of the strip, created by Scott Adams, for as long as it’s been around. But it took a while for me to realize how fully it expresses the spirit of our age. From my earliest reading, I had a fondness for Wally, the character who sometimes goes around with a tank of coffee strapped to his back, and who uttered the timeless proverb, “Sadness is just another word for not enough coffee.” But when I started reading “Dilbert,” I was a freelancer, juggling as many part-time and contract jobs as I could scrounge, along with the care of small children. If I had really identified with a comic strip character back then, it probably would have been Lois in “Hi and Lois,” or the father in “Family Circus,” trying to tend his art with a small army of short people running around his knees.
But then I got a full-time job in an academic bureaucracy, and I really began to feel Dilbert’s pain. It wasn’t long before I started running into incarnations of Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. I soon realized that even in a university, a great deal of the power and glory flows to preening administrators who spout the jargon of the latest management fad.
OF COURSE, I can’t really complain like the characters in “Dilbert.” Academic life is a piece of cake compared to their lot. No bosses follow me into the classroom, and I do get some paid time to think and write with some independence. But then, at semester break last year, interior renovation began on the building in which I worked. We were all moved out of our tiny, but private, offices and into a massive cubicle farm installed over an old swimming pool in a windowless basement beneath the intramural gym.
Then my children, unaware of my new work conditions, bought me a 2007 daily “Dilbert” calendar for Christmas. And the whole month of January was about the indignity and constant interruptions of cubicle servitude. That kind of “coincidence” has become increasingly common. And as I’ve lived in Dilbert’s world, I’ve begun to see some of its follies in myself, too. I’ve also come to see that, like all the great novels, part of “Dilbert’s” appeal is that it shows us how to live.
One day recently, Dilbert visited a school to tell the students what life was like as an engineer. While the teacher seethed, he laid out the reality of impossible projects, unrealistic deadlines, meddling managers, and insufficient funding. Later that same day, in another conversation with my oldest son (now 15), I noted that I had always made a point of sending news of my academic appointments to the alumni site of my graduate school. “It makes the school look good when a graduate actually gets a teaching job,” I explained. “But there really aren’t many of us who do.”
“Oh,” the boy said, “so you’re giving false hope to young people.”
And so I was. From now on, in matters professional, I’ll have to ask myself, “What would Dilbert do?”
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.