watch

The Office’s Ryan - A Millennial Tragedy

The Office’s Ryan Howard (B.J. Novak) was a promising millennial go-getter—and then he became the villain of the show. What happened? In this video, we look into Ryan’s unfortunate fall from grace and how it illustrates the pitfalls of the generation he’s meant to represent.

TRANSCRIPT

Every reality show needs a villain, and within the faux-documentary that is The Office, Ryan Howard fits that bill. Like all the best reality show heels Ryan is arrogant and manipulative. He suffers from delusions of grandeur, yet he’s incredibly lazy.

Ryan Howard: “I could run GM, but I couldn’t fix a car. It’s not saying one is better than the other…” - The Office 5x23

Entitled, lacking work ethic, unable to cope with the real world: many of Ryan’s character faults are the same that have been leveled against the entire generation known as “millennials.” If we estimate that Ryan is between 22 and 24 when The Office begins in 2005 — given that he’s in grad school, probably a year or two out of a four-year university, and working an entry-level temp job — this would make him on the older end of the millennial spectrum. And The Office uses Ryan as a stand-in for the many twentysomethings who joined the job market starting in the 2000s where they quickly earned a reputation for being both incompetent and immature.

While Ryan eventually became an “evil millennial” punchline — he wasn’t always like this. Ryan started out as a bright, motivated guy with a dream for a bigger life.

Ryan Howard: “I don’t want to be like “a guy” here. You know? Like, Stanley is the “crossword puzzle guy”. And Angela has cats. I don’t want to be the ‘something guy’.”- The Office 2x4

In fact, from a certain point of view, Ryan’s transformation from humble young go-getter into hipster joke is less comedy than drama—an unfortunate fall from grace illustrating the pitfalls of the generation he’s meant to represent. Here’s our take on how The Office’s Ryan Howard is the quintessential millennial tragedy.

Who’s Afraid of the Millennial?

Like beatniks hippies, punks, and slackers before them, “the millennial’ has become one of TV’s favorite targets. After all, every generation loves looking down on those darn kids, who all think the world revolves around them.

But millennials, in particular, have come to be defined in popular culture by their

inflated sense of entitlement combined with the lack of any real work ethic.

Ryan Howard: “Ah, everyone wants to be rich, but nobody wants to work for it.”

Pam Beesly: “You came in at 10:30 today, right?” - The Office 8x3

Ryan embodies all of the worst stereotypes about millennials: he doesn’t bother to connect with others, he’s a flake, and he believes that he deserves exceptional success, but his self-sabotaging behavior usually gets in the way.

Ryan Howard: “I want leadership. But don’t just, like, boss me around, you know? Like, lead me. Lead me… when I’m in the mood…to be led.” - The Office 7x26

Like many millennials, Ryan appears to be damaged by three key factors: One, a hostile work environment, Two, a shallow image-obsessed culture, and three, overindulgent parenting.

Let’s start with the work environment. When we first meet Ryan, he seems willing—even eager to start at the bottom. Far from being averse to hard work, Ryan—or “The Temp,” as his coworkers call him attends business school at night while working at Dunder Mifflin during the day. And although he harbors some typically grand career aspirations—

Ryan Howard: “What I want is to own my own company.”

Michael Scott: “That is ridiculous.” - The Office 2x4

— he also seems to know he has a long way to go before achieving them, even if he’s already one step ahead of his boss. But this clearly intelligent, driven, and resourceful young man gradually realizes he’s entered a disappointing professional world that offers him few opportunities for meaningful advancement. This echoes the experience of graduating millennials who found themselves in a job market plagued by widespread layoffs and recession fears, and corporations run by an older generation that’s resistant to change.

What Ryan needs more than anything is a leader—someone who can educate and inspire him. Unfortunately, he gets Michael Scott. Michael abuses their employer/employee relationship, frequently forcing Ryan to do demeaning work and treating him as a personal servant.

Michael Scott: “Get Ryan. He needs to lift me. And he needs to clean me up a little bit. Bring a wet towel.” - The Office 2x12

Worse, Michael objectifies Ryan, making frequent, inappropriate comments that, in any normal workplace, would probably lead to a lawsuit. Ryan’s attempts to find a mentor among his other coworkers prove similarly futile. Baby Boomers like to criticize millennials for being too self-absorbed, but this microcosm of the work environment illustrates how those same boomers have failed to realize the example they’re setting,

or consistently mentor young millennial workers.

This lack of guidance and support means that, when Ryan tries his best but still comes up short, he doesn’t have the necessary skills (or resilience) to cope with the setback. For the first three seasons of The Office, smart, ambitious, thwarted Ryan inspires our empathy — he’s a surrogate for anyone who’s ever had their spirits crushed by corporate life.

Ryan Howard: “If I had to, I could clean out my desk in five seconds and nobody would ever know I had ever been here. And I’d forget too.” - The Office 2x13

Like Uber but For People

When Ryan is granted a surprise promotion to vice president, at first it feels like justice—a revenge fantasy for anyone who’s felt underestimated or exploited. But it doesn’t take long for Ryan to become a textbook portrait of the worst possible boss.

As his newfound success goes to his head, his once measured and justified belief in himself turns into outright egomania.

Ryan Howard: “People keep calling me a wunderkind. I don’t even know what that means. I mean, I know what it means, it means very successful for your age.” - The Office 4x1

It quickly becomes clear that Ryan views his new role as something he deserves, regardless of whether he’s actually earned it. And his idea of succeeding in this job has far less to do with his vision for the company than his own personal glory. Because Ryan was in such a hurry to skip a few steps on his way to the top, he hasn’t had time to build empathy or respect for the colleagues he’s stepped over, or cultivate the people skills that are a key part of being a manager.

After years of feeling disrespected or ridiculed as “the temp,” Ryan relishes wielding power over his former superiors.

Ryan Howard: “I need to give you a formal warning about your job performance.” Jim Halpert: “A formal warning…”

Ryan Howard: “It’s actually not a joke. I know how you spend your time here, and I know how little you care about your job.” - The Office 4x16

Without having any real grounding in the business he’s now running—after all, he’s never even made a sale—Ryan is in over his head. To cover for his many shortcomings, he resorts to chasing trends and spouting empty corporate buzzwords.

Ryan Howard: “Convergence. Viral marketing. We’re going guerrilla. We’re takin’ it to the streets while keeping an eye on the street. Wall Street..” - The Office 4x3

And while his idea for a new company website is actually a pretty solid one, Ryan needlessly complicates his simple plan with unnecessary “value adds,” desperately attempting to make Dunder Mifflin into the kind of hip brand that would match his own inflated self-image instead of channeling any of that original creativity or intelligence we know he does possess — Ryan parrots some of the established business world’s lamest efforts to reach “the kids.”

Ryan becomes a cliché in his personal life, too, falling prey to all the stereotypical hazards of success—engaging in increasingly obnoxious behavior, developing a drug problem, and finally breaking the law to fake the appearance of strong performance. Soon enough, the evident pressures of the job, coupled with his inexperience, his lack of a support system, and his inability to conduct himself maturely, leads to an inevitable crash.

Ryan’s meteoric rise and fall echo those of so many modern, alpha-bro CEOs who found sudden wealth and fame thanks to their innovations, only to tarnish their brands through their own entitled attitudes, their poor treatment of employees, and their cringe-inducing antics. Like them, Ryan seems incapable of humility. After his downfall, Ryan continues to chase delusions of being a Silicon Valley-style disruptor, and tellingly, he doesn’t seem to have any barometer for whether his ideas are even any good.

Ryan Howard: “Origami—it’s the sushi of paper.”

Robert California: “This idea hasn’t gripped me..” - The Office 8x8

What matters to Ryan is the appearance of achievement—the attention it brings him, and the image it creates.

When Likes are More Important than Being Liked

Although the Ryan of the first few seasons is studious and determined, after he gets fired from his prestigious corporate job, something changes. Ryan seems to regress: He moves back in with his parents, he bleaches his hair, and he generally behaves like a jaded, rebellious teenager.

Ryan Howard: “Last night was crazy. Jojo? Yeah. He did a donut in a parking lot in front of a cop.” - The Office 5x23

But even as he stagnates in low-wage, menial jobs Ryan still wants other people to believe he leads an exciting life. He lies about taking exotic trips. He clings to his past glories and he behaves as though his career-ending disgrace was all just one, crazy adventure.

Ryan Howard: “Even though it was an amazing ride, and I’ll give you an example. Anyone see Survivor season six? Anyone know Joanna on that show? In New York City, I hooked up with a girl who looked exactly like that.” - The Office 3X5

Ryan’s constant hunger for other people to think he’s cool or interesting is a common plight for a generation that’s been raised on social media, where the Instagrammed appearance of happiness is all that matters. Anne Helen Peterson describes this addiction as [chyron] “a means of narrativizing our own lives: What we’re telling ourselves our lives are like. And when we don’t feel the satisfaction that we’ve been told we should receive from a good job that’s ‘fulfilling,’ balanced with a personal life that’s equally so, the best way to convince yourself you’re feeling it is to illustrate it for others.”

Ryan is hopelessly dependent on this performative storytelling.

Ryan Howard: “Look, I can’t, I can’t not have my phone. I’m sorry. I want to be with my phone.” - The Office 8x11

And even when he’s not on his phone, Ryan creates this outward narrative of himself through his clothes, his pretentious affectations, his professed hobbies, and his attempts at being politically “woke.” He feels it’s crucial to be seen as provocative…, to distance himself from his boring, normal coworkers.

Pam Beesly: “Ah, their breadsticks are like crack.”

Ryan Howard: “I love when people say ‘like crack’ when they’ve obviously never done crack.” - The Office 7x20

Ryan’s image-conscious posturing makes him widely hated. Moreover, it doesn’t make Ryan himself happy. The gulf between the carefully filtered image Ryan presents to the world, and his reality that simply can’t measure up contributes to the major problem Peterson’s essay associates with millennials: “burnout.” The Ryan of later seasons stops trying to make anything real of himself, and even seems incapable of focusing long enough to do a day’s work. Other than with his phone, the most meaningful relationship Ryan has is with Kelly Kapoor. And their laughably toxic relationship is a worst-case-scenario of the millennial romance.

Ryan Howard: “I’d rather she be alone than with somebody. Is that love?” - The Office 8x21

They’re dating in an age where the internet provides limitless choices for partners, which enables young people to postpone commitment indefinitely. They’re both in love with an idea of love, which largely seems informed by the drama of reality TV. Ryan may make grand gestures straight out of a romantic comedy. But he’s only interested in how Kelly fits into his narrative. It’s not about how he actually feels —he doesn’t even seem to know how he really feels about her.

Ryan Howard: “Right here, right now, all I can think about is spending the rest of my life with her. Again, that could change.” - The Office 8x21

The third cause we’re given for Ryan’s awfulness is his upbringing. Occasional clues about Ryan’s home life imply that he’s been coddled and although he exudes arrogance, it’s clear from how flustered Ryan gets at the first sign of criticism that he’s been sheltered from it for most of his life.

This fragility echoes the Millennial reputation for being the generation of “participation medals” — the result of well-intentioned self-esteem-focused parenting that unfortunately didn’t prepare kids to deal with setbacks.

Millennials have become a familiar scapegoat—the villains of the modern office — even though most don’t deserve it anywhere as much as Ryan. But the tragedy of Ryan Howard also illustrates how the workplace itself has failed a generation of employees who now, more than ever, need generous, expert guidance.

Viewed from this perspective, perhaps Ryan is less a villain than a victim of circumstance—an unsympathetic victim, but a victim nonetheless. Maybe Ryan could have found the fulfillment he was searching for if he’d only looked up from his phone and learned to find simple joy in the day to day, or spent more time building the kind of trusting relationships with his coworkers that would allow him to show more of his true self.

Maybe everything would have turned out differently if Ryan had had a mentor who properly nurtured his ambition. Instead, he ended up at Dunder Mifflin. And while Ryan didn’t become the success that he wanted, he did become a leader in one respect: His story can serve as a cautionary tale for other young workers—and for every office, on how to handle the next generation of Ryans that will inevitably come along.