When I saw the movie, “Up in the Air,” I expected to be entertained but I wasn’t prepared for a powerful, multi-layered allegory about work+life fit.
Jason Reitman’s symbolism packed commentary puts up a mirror and challenges us to question key assumptions about work and life in today’s reality. But it also offers insights into what we can do differently as we move into an era where greater work+life flexibility will be the norm.
Here are a few of my takeaways. I would love to hear what you think if you’ve seen the movie.
(Spoiler alert—Stop here if you don’t want key points of the movie’s plot revealed.)
Insight #1: Some people really do like working all of the time. But we need to stop celebrating their work+life fit as the bar against which we are measured (and fail), and respectfully see their choices as the aberration that happens to work for them…for now.
At the beginning of the movie, George Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, genuinely loves his work+life fit. And it’s a fit that’s all work and no life. In fact, he likes it so much that he develops a series of motivational speeches extolling the virtue of the “baggage free” life to others.
The movie did a great job of showing how we collectively as a culture tend to romanticize Bingham’s fit. It’s glamorous—fancy hotels, honors clubs, first class seats. In fact, his speeches are so successful that by the end of the movie he’s asked to present at a large, prestigious venue. We want that life, but do we?
The role of work+life fit foil is played by Bingham’s junior-level colleague, Natalie. Initially when we meet Natalie, she seems to hold many of the same values as her more senior, experienced colleague. So it’s surprising when she begins to actively and forcefully challenge his work+life fit choices as she comes to terms, often painfully, with what she really wants personally and professionally.
First, she tries to get him to agree with and embrace her vision of a work+life fit that includes a partner and a family. Then, she attempts to take on his values and change herself to conform. But, it’s like watching someone put on a suit that doesn’t fit. Very uncomfortable.
In the end, she’s made him think differently, but he hasn’t fundamentally changed. Instead, she realizes that she needs to make herself happy and finds another job in another city.
Insight #2: Life eventually creeps in for even the most hard core “all work/no life” person, whether by choice or by force.
As was the case with Bingham, circumstances converged that made the lack of human relationships in his life suddenly untenable. He needed to change his previously very satisfying fit.
Yet, I find employers search in vain for the Ryan Binghams of the world. They fantasize about the all- work- forever employee, “I know it’s that next hire.” But even if they do find him or her, ultimately work will not be enough.
Employers need to let go of the fantasy that Ryan Binghams will fill their halls. Instead, they should create cultures and operating models in which real employees can be creative, innovative and productive while managing their fit that will contain both work and life.
Insight#3: Because even the most satisfying work+life fit will change, we need to do a better job preparing while maintaining the links to what really matters.
Relationships on the job and in your personal life will change. Industries and businesses that used to thrive and grow won’t anymore and jobs will be lost or altered. Yet most of the characters in the movie seem to be thrown by change when it happens, as if they never saw it coming.
When without warning Ryan Bingham finds himself dissatisfied with his frequent flier mile status, type of work, and no-strings-attached liaisons, he’s stunned and unprepared. The same is true for the legions of workers whom he fires for a living. When their industries and businesses can no longer sustain their jobs, they are just as stunned and unprepared.
In contrast, there’s Bingham’s on-the-road, periodic girlfriend, Alex. She seems to epitomize adaptability and flexibility in the face of change. Only late in the movie do we learn just how adaptable, when Bingham discovers she has a family. She responds to his shock with genuine confusion about what he doesn’t understand.
Her chameleon-like shifting between two realities raises red flags about how much adapting to constant change is necessary, and when does it cross the line. When do we lose ourselves and links to what is real and important?
Insight #4: “Success” takes on many forms. It’s not always clear who’s truly successful and who isn’t.
Right up to the end, Bingham is the epitome of “success” with money, prestige and a job. While the people he fires are depicted as devastated, emotionally and financially. Then, all of a sudden the tables turn.
Bingham is shown finally achieving a highly exclusive rewards status that gives him a special card and a chance to sit with the senior pilot. But, it means nothing. Around the same time, he learns that a person he fired committed suicide. He has no memory of her even though she told him of her intention to jump off a bridge in their meeting. His disconnection from all people is profound.
These scenes are followed by clips of the some of the individuals Bingham’s fired talking about their families. How much they love them. How much they support each other, and how much joy they give each other no matter the circumstances.
All of a sudden it’s not clear who’s successful, and who’s failed.
Insight #5: Sometimes finding a new fit involves big changes, and oftentimes small adjustments are enough.
Finally, I love that at the end of the movie Reitman resists having Bingham resolve his growing work+life fit dissatisfaction by making a big, grand change.
What we see is that he starts to make small adjustments. He assigns his miles to his sister and new husband so that they can take a honeymoon. He writes a personal letter of recommendation for Natalie who has made a big change and moved to San Francisco in order to find the work+life fit she wants. And, when told he’s going back on the road, Bingham inquires, “For how long?” A question he never asked before.
Then in the last scene, we see him staring at the departures screen in the airport. Will he take Natalie’s advice? Will he look at the board and just jump on a plane to any destination that looks interesting? I like to think he does.
I could have gone on and on, but “Up in the Air” presents work+life fit truths that deserve discussion. So tell me what you think. What did I miss?