Big Tuna In An Even Bigger Pond: Aimless 20-Something Year-Old Everyman Jim Halpert

NBC’s The Office began as a series with plots as simple as its title.  Each episode focused on the simple drudgery of working in an office that you’re not too found of.  While Steve Carrel’s Michael Scott is playbilled as the lead, the reason viewers began to tune in wasn’t for the boss’s crazy antics, but rather for the simple pranks of everyman Jim Halpert.  Jim Halpert starts the series as a mid to late twenty something year-old paper sales representative at paper supplier Dunder Mifflin.  He is bored, uninterested, and apathetic towards his job.  He dreams of a life better than the one he has; yet he does little to change it.  He has no higher ambitions for his life other than one ending up with the secretary he spends all his free time flirting with.  He is for all intents and purposes, a fictional representative of the recent phenomena that has taken over twenty something year-olds today.

The previous few generations had developed a steady course for how adolescence were suppose to move into the real world.  According to an article in the New York Times entitled “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” the so-called transition to adulthood traditionally consists of roughly five milestones:

“completing school, leaving home, becoming financially independent, marrying, and having a child.”

Fewer and fewer twenty year-olds are completing these objectives in this order, or even completing some at all.  Rather they use the twenties as a phase to put off growing up and instead use it to coast by and just experience life.  Jim Halpert works perfectly as a prime example of this. At the start of the series he has only fully completed one of the markers, finishing school.  Jim has already graduated both high school and college, but it appears shortly after college he got what he thought would be a temporary job at Dundler Mifflin.  Unsure of what he wanted to do Jim took an easy job that he could do effortlessly.  Jim’s a talented people person and he can sell paper with little effort. Instead he spends most of his time working on elaborate pranks to pull on annoying co-worker Dwight Schrute.  He wastes his talent on activities such as placing Dwight’s stapler into Jell-O (“Pilot”) or moving Dwight’s desk into the bathroom (“The Fight”).

Jim does appear to be somewhat financially stable though as in the season two episode “Email Surveillance” he is shown living in a house he rents out with a friend.  Many twenty year olds find themselves moving back in with their parents after college, as they don’t know exactly where they plan on going next.  In the New York Times article they point out that forty percent of people in their twenties move back home with their parents at least once.  While Jim avoids moving back in with his parents, he does end up moving back into his childhood home as in the season five episode “Frame Toby” he buys it from his mother due to getting a good deal from her.  He wants to buy his own home as he moves into his early thirties, but due to his income can only afford it with help from his mom.

Jim does attempt to begin a progression towards adulthood as the series moves on, starting with the penultimate episode of season two, “Conflict Resolution”.  Dwight has finally had enough of Jim’s pranks and Michael brings them both in the conference room and reads through every complaint Dwight has filed for the past few years.  Jim starts off amused as he explains in an interview how he pulled off each prank that is listed.  But as the list continues to go on and on, his smile slowly fades as all the time he’s wasted begins to settle in.  “These don’t actually sound that funny one after another,” explains Jim with a disappointed face.  Dwight ends things with an ultimatum: either Jim or himself will have to transfer to Stamford.  And after he ruins things with Pam, the secretary he’s in love with, Jim decides to take the transfer and attempt to do something with his life.

Jim transfers to Stamford by the time season three premiere “Gay Witch Hunt” comes about, complete with a new promotion.  There he’s shown to take his job more seriously, and sometimes more so then the others around him as he questions the point of playing Call of Duty as a team building excise (“The Coup”).  Though he’s still shown to not be above the occasional joke, repeating his trademark office item in jell-o prank but this time on new co-worker Andy Bernard.  Though he soon learns he can’t get away with pranks as often as he once could with Dwight as Andy reacts completely different by having a blown-up anger attack.

When the branch closes and Jim is forced to return back to Scranton and face his old life, but finds himself in a different position this time being the number two-man in the office as Assistant Regional Manager of Dunder Mifflin Northeast (“The Merger”).  In “A Benihana Christmas” Pam presents Jim the gift of choosing the final stage of an elaborate prank on Dwight in which he believes he’s being recruited by the CIA and Jim can decide his first mission, while Jim appreciates the idea he turns it down stating that with his new position he can no longer participate in his old behavior.  Jim confesses to the camera, “I feel like there’s a chance for me to start over and if I fall back into the same kind of things I use to do then what am I doing.”  In the end of the episode he does cave in and tell Pam to order Dwight a CIA helicopter, but he keeps the prank at a low profile, not wanting to be seen publicly as the funny guy that he use to be.  It’s not until the fourteenth episode in season three, “The Return”, that he pulls a large-scale prank by hiding Andy’s phone in the ceiling and calling it throughout the day.  That’s a seven episode run from “The Merger” till “The Return” that Jim avoided high-profile pranks, a massive feat when it comes to the joke master.  From then on he continues to do pranks occasionally, but they tend to be more subdued and less frequent than his from earlier in the show’s run.

The fact that Jim returns to pranks and making jokes shows the current generation’s obsession with entertainment.  While Jim typically struggles to get through a workday without pulling a prank on someone, older co-workers such as Phyllis and Oscar can and would prefer to spend a day just doing their job without too many interruptions.  Other than the occasional brainteaser for Oscar, or crossword puzzle for other co-worker Stanley, these employees are here to do their job and get it done; the less interruptions the better.  But for young 20 something year-old Jim, he finds himself far too bored with work to just sit there and sell paper.  An article in The Huffington Post entitled “Ten Trends of 20-Somethings” discuses the generation’s fixation on entertainment, placing it number five on their list.  They point out how the generation grew up with Sesame Street as a main means of education, talking about how kids no longer accept pure learning; rather it needs to be infused with entertainment to become fun.  This same type of mentally has carried over to their adult life and affects their work discipline.  If Jim were to just sit and do work it would be excessively boring for him to handle.  He creates pranks as a way to keep himself entertained to avoid the mundane employment of selling paper.  Living in the age of smart phones, Netflix, instant gratification, and the merger of all three in the form of Netflix Instant apps, traditional work is just too boring in comparison.

The next noticeable game changer for Jim comes in the season three final “The Job” when he competes with several of his co-workers for a position in Dundler Mifflin management.  Jim’s first appearance in the episode comes as a shock for viewers as he has a completely different haircut.  Up until this point Jim’s shaggy, messy, long hair was a distinctive part of his character and his attitude towards his job.  This episode marks a vastly different change in his appearance as for the first time Jim actually wants to make a career move.  He knows he’s overqualified for his current job and could be so much more, so tries out for a top-level position within corporate.  This time he’s serious about the position and finally gets a proper haircut.  In the end of the episode he surprisingly turns down the position and instead asks out his long running love interest Pam.  Jim looked at what was most important in his life, deciding to put his career on hold in an attempt to fulfill a different milestone.

Season 2

Season 3 Finale (“The Job”)

By the opening of season four Jim and Pam are in a relationship, something that becomes publicly official in “Dunder Mifflin Infinity”.  Jim soon asks Pam to move in with him (“Chair Model”) and jokes that a proposal isn’t far off too.  He reveals to the camera that he is entirely serious, showing off a diamond ring and responds, “Got it the week after we started dating.”  The two are married in season five (“Niagara”) and even have a child in season six (“The Delivery”).  Jim is part of a generation that generally marries much later than people once did.  He is in his early thirties by the time he’s married, a few years over 28, the median age for men to get married in 2009 (the same year he got married) as stated in The New York Times article.  Jim is married almost ten years later than the median age for men in the early 1970s, which the New York Times states was placed at 23 years-old.  While Jim does eventually reach two important milestones in both marriage and having a child, he does so much later than what was once accepted as the norm.

The milestone Jim struggles most in is career success, as although he is always said to be a good salesman, he never successfully breaks free from this position despite being overqualified for it.  While he is given the title Assistant Manager in season three, his day-to-day routine doesn’t change much and he’s typically considered more of a salesman, than second in command.  His first significant taste in power comes in the fourth season episode “Survivor Man” when Michael takes the day off and leaves Jim in charge.  When Jim is presented with the party planning committee’s ideas for Birthday Month (a month that includes four office birthdays) he decides to do away with separate birthdays and instead combine them into one single party in an attempt to cut back costs and save time.  This change leads to large complications, as each birthday boy/girl wants a different cake or even a pie.  The co-workers become restless as the spotlight becomes shared rather than singularly focused on one worker.  The party planning grows out of hand and Jim has to step in to squash the plans and do damage control.  He attempts to settle things down as he addresses the angry office.  It’s then that one worker accidentally refers to him as Michael and horror overcomes Jim.  He sees what the position has made him, and relishes his lower position when Michael returns in time for the party.  In the episode’s end tag the two sit together eating cake as Jim describes to Michael his mistake in combining the birthdays, to which Michael states he attempted to once in his early days as manager.  Michael then offers Jim the following advice:

Michael: “Just wait.  Ten years, you’ll figure it out.”

Jim: “Well I don’t think I’ll be here in ten years.”

Michael: “That’s what I said”

Jim’s face is of pure terror as he realizes the trap he’s fallen in.  Jim always thought Dundler Mifflin was just a rest stop on the highway of his career, but in this moment he sees that it might actually be the destination.

In season six things change drastically for Jim as he gets promoted to co-manager (“The Meeting”), sharing the position Michael once had to himself.  But it’s quickly revealed that Jim isn’t that good at being a manager as he struggles constantly throughout its run.  In the episode “Koi Pond”, he becomes jealous of Michael’s sale skills and purposely lets Michael fall into the titular koi pond, embarrassing himself in front of the office when he returns soaking wet.  In the episode “Murder” it’s revealed that Dundler Mifflin is in financial danger and in threat of being shut down.  Michael decides to distract the office with a role-playing murder mystery game, but Jim is annoyed at his silly antics and tells him enough is enough.  But Michael combats at Jim pointing out that the office needs the game.  He’s not doing it to be silly and avoid working, but rather he’s doing it because they need something to get their mind off the horrible situation that is about to overcome them all.  They can’t focus on the colossal problem at hand, so if the office needs to play a game of make-believe for one day then so be it.  While much of his actions may be unorthodox, much of Michael’s actions come out of love and concern for his work family.  Jim just doesn’t have it in him to act the same.  Almost all of his ideas end up backfiring on himself such as an attempt to create a cash prize employee of month (“Scott’s Tots”), but Dwight tricks him into setting up a performance system that leads to naming Jim himself as the winner and his wife Pam as the runner-up.

The co-manager team comes to an end as printer company Sabre buys out Dundler Mifflin, and the CEO decides there can only be one manager.  At first Jim is selected as the singular manager when Michael finds out a sales representative can actually make more money due to increased commission.  But both Michael and Jim struggle to fit in their positions and by the episode’s end decide to switch things back.  Michael is once again the sole manager, and Jim is nothing more than a sales representative.  While Jim experienced a sixteen episode run as manager, he learned the position wasn’t a role he’s cut out for and is much better suited to lower positioned sales role.  Just like many other 20 something year-olds, Jim never took the time to really invest into his career and figure out if it’s something he’s talented at.  Rather than find a job that suits him, he just took something that seemed easy as a temporary fix, and accidentally ended up trapped there.

The Office in ways works as a warning to those twenty year-olds who are unsure with their life and attempt to simply coast by.  While things worked out for Jim with a wife and baby, he still finds himself in a job he doesn’t enjoy and care about with nowhere to go.  Early on in season one Jim points out:

“Right now this is just a job.  If I advance any higher in this company, then this would be my career. And well if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train,” (“Health Care”)

Yet despite saying that, it’s exactly what came true. He moved to the highest he could within the office in management and failed, moving back down to the very same position where he began.  Jim never truly gets the opportunity to realize what he’s really good at career wise, as he’s already wasted too much time goofing off and pulling pranks.  Just like so many others in their twenties who have such promise coming out of college, Jim finds himself due to his poor decisions stuck as a sales rep at an often-failing paper company.  And potentially for the rest of his life.

________________________________________________________________________

References

Henig, Robin Marantz. “What Is It About 20-Somethings?” The New York Times 22 Aug. 2010

Salzman, Marian. “Ten Trends of 20-Somethings” The Huffington Post 7 Feb. 2010

“Pilot,” The Office, NBC, 24 Mar. 2005.

“The Fight,” The Office, NBC, 1 Nov. 2005.

“Email Surveillance,” The Office, NBC, 22 Nov. 2005.

“Frame Toby,” The Office, NBC, 20 Nov. 2008.

“Conflict Resolution,” The Office, NBC, 24 May. 2006.

“Gay Witch Hunt,” The Office, NBC, 21 Sep. 2006.

“The Coup,” The Office, NBC, 5 Oct. 2006.

“The Merger,” The Office, NBC, 16 Nov. 2006.

“A Benihana Christmas,” The Office, NBC, 14 Dec. 2006.

“The Return,” The Office, NBC, 18 Jan. 2007.

“The Job,” The Office, NBC, 17 May. 2007.

“Dunder Mifflin Infinity,” The Office, NBC, 4 Oct. 2007.

“Niagara,” The Office, NBC, 8 Oct. 2009.

“The Delivery,” The Office, NBC, 4 Mar. 2010.

“The Meeting,” The Office, NBC, 24 Sep. 2009.

“Scott’s Tots,” The Office, NBC, 3 Dec. 2009.

“The Manager and the Salesman,” The Office, NBC, 11 Feb. 2010.

“Health Care,” The Office, NBC, 5 Apr. 2005.

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3 thoughts on “Big Tuna In An Even Bigger Pond: Aimless 20-Something Year-Old Everyman Jim Halpert

  1. Jim is not some immature man with no ambitions. He doesn’t believe that he should base his whole life around having a successful job, and that’s what makes him great. Jim spends his time doing what he loves: pulling pranks on Dwight and flirting with Pam. He moved to Stamford not to be successful as you said, but because he was heartbroken over Pam. He couldn’t care less if it made more money.

    Additionally, the haircut you marked as an important milestone was the result of a controlling relationship with Karen. Karen wanted him to be something he wasn’t. She wanted him to stop pulling pranks and act more serious. So when he lost his shaggy hair, he was also losing his care-free character. That hair cut and attitude Karen was enforcing was not good.

    Jim stepped down from the manager position because he is better at sales and could make more money as a salesman. Nothing wrong with that. Also, having roommates or buying your parents house is a smart decision. Why would you spend more when you can find living arrangement for less and still be content and happy?

    Jim does not make poor decisions just because he works at Dunder Mifflin and he is in no way a criticism of the young adults of this generation. He is one of the most prosperous characters in the office. In the end, he takes a job at the marketing company he helped create called Athlead. He followed his passion and ended up where he wanted. Even if he didn’t end up at Athlead, I would still consider him to be successful, because success should not be defined through monetary or materialistic gains. He has so many great personality attributes, is well-liked by others, is intelligent, and has a great wife and kids.

    Stop criticizing what people in their twenties are doing. If someone spends their twenties having great experiences but not doing much for their career, that’s awesome. They can figure it out later like Jim did. Our lives should not be about submitting yourself to soul-sucking job just because it’ll make you money or make you successful.

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