“Downsizing Is About Saving Yourself”: The Paradoxical Nature of Work and Career Success in Downsizing


In this clip from the 2017 film Downsizing, as in director Alexander Payne’s body of work more broadly (e.g., Election, Sideways, About Schmidt), we see a contemplation of the American success myth: the idea that “the opportunity for material attainment and spiritual fulfillment is every individual’s birthright and is within each person’s power, as Levinson puts it. The clip shows a fictional near-future in which scientific advancements allow humans to “downsize” their bodies and then be transported to an alternate, parallel environment in which money is not a worry and leisure and happiness rule. Freed from the financial pressures of their former lives, those who are downsized can pursue their passions, indulge in leisure activities, and generally live as they wish. The clip connects in several important ways to themes of career development, professional identity, motivation, and the meaning of work. The film satirically probes the assumption that material values and personal contentment are connected, thus allowing for a rich discussion of the tradeoffs between objective and subjective career success (i.e., that money cannot always buy happiness). It also allows a discussion of what motivates employees—intrinsic and/or extrinsic factors—as well as their orientation toward the ideal place of work in one’s life: as a job, career, or calling. One of the assumptions when work is a source of deep meaning and fulfillment is that one would continue to work even if making money were not an object. The lure of Leisureland in the film indicates a cultural confusion about the meaning of and motivation for work.

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