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Hollywood Takes on Work-Life Conflict

If you won the lottery today, would you go to work tomorrow?  Would you buy a business, become your own boss, or do anything resembling work if you didn’t have to?

If there’s one thing that most work movies have in common, it’s the tug of war between fulfillment and obligation.  Are we working because work is a necessary evil, or is work the source of our identity?

In honor of the Oscars, here’s a list of work-life conflict movies.  Pop some popcorn and imagine your job as a movie. Are you the central character or an extra?

9 to 5 (1980): Arguably THE classic movie about the trials and tribulations of office life. When administrative assistants Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton manage to keep their pig of a boss away from the office, productivity soars.

The women introduce flexible hours, job-sharing program, a daycare center, and a whole lot of respect to Consolidated Companies.  9 to 5 shone a spotlight on work-life benefits long before corporate America realized it was operating in the dark.

Baby Boom (1987): Shoulder pads rule in this late 80s exploration of “having it all.” Diane Keaton has no time for anything but her high profile career, until a deceased family member leaves a baby in her care. Her coworkers are less than thrilled with the distraction, and Keaton gets the boot.

Victory is sweet, though, when Keaton launches a multi-million dollar baby food business and proves she can be a success without sacrificing a personal life. Count it as an early influencer on Gex X entrepreneurial philosophies—live first, work second.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946): A young man gives up his dreams to take over the family business and then nearly commits suicide after a business catastrophe. This plot has Christmas classic written all over it.

George Bailey was the boss and yet he still felt trapped by job commitments—commitments to his family and the community.  In the end, he found a way to count his blessings and be satisfied with his career.

The subtext here is relevant for anyone who’s ever punched a time clock OR signed a paycheck.  Wonderful Life explores career choice, feeling stuck, and finding fulfillment outside the workplace.

Office Space (1999):  If 9 to 5 is the classic that can’t be left off any work movie list, Office Space is its contemporary equivalent. Ditch the TPS reports and shrink the layers of management before your valued employees go gonzo on the copy machine (or worse).  Oh, and how about adding a few red Swingline staplers to the next supply order?

Norma Rae (1979): Norma Rae is a minimum wage mill worker who risks her job and her family as she fights for better working conditions. Based on the true story of a North Carolina textile worker Crystal Sutton who helped to unionize her workplace.  Celebrates grassroots movements and having the courage to change your workplace by finding your voice.

I Don’t Know How She Does It (2011): Something of a modern day Baby Boom in which Sarah Jessica Parker balances a high demand financial career with family life.  Critics panned it for an “outdated view of gender” but working moms everywhere could still relate.

Monsters Inc. (2002):  This animated flick from Pixar features two working-class guys who find a new way to reach the company’s business goals—one that generates even greater results and doesn’t involve scaring children. This one’s all about challenging the status quo and finding ways to work smarter.

Mr. Mom (1983): Talk about déjà vu. Mom goes back to work and becomes the sole breadwinner when a recession hits and dad gets fired from his automotive job.  Another example of workplace angst from Gen X view-shaper John Hughes.

Other great work movies: I asked my network to help brainstorm the “greatest movies about work,” many of which didn’t fit my work-life conflict theme.  Here’s a few of their recommendations. Do you think these should make the list?

Horrible Bosses, Glengarry Glen Ross, Working Girl, Two Weeks Notice, The Devil Wears Prada, The Pursuit of Happyness, Mrs. Doubtfire, Up in the Air, The Firm, Desk Set, Clerks, Wall Street, The Hudsucker Proxy, The Secret of My Success, Jerry McGuire, Outsourced.

Jaime Leick
LMW Content Editor

Image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG /