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Cardboard Box of Unemployment

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"Kids, hello. I didn't get fired. Even though I have the old plant in the box.... Margaret, hi. Just taking my plant out for some air. Just like to carry it in this box with all my other personal stuff... Sometimes, I like to put all my stuff from my office in a box and just do some exercises and just use it as weights."
Erin (who has indeed just been fired), Ghostbusters (2016)
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A trope common in Western media, the Cardboard Box of Unemployment has been used by generations of the recently laid off to remove their personal possessions from a former office, locker, or desk after being discharged from their duties. Like a pink slip, it's visual shorthand for "this character was just fired". The sight of a a worker carrying a box stuffed with books, papers, and personal items — like potted plants and family photos — can also indicate that they've merely been demoted, reassigned, or just forced to move to a smaller office, but the sentiment (that their employment status has changed for worse) remains the same.

Oftentimes, this is the result of a disgruntled employee working under a Pointy-Haired Boss snapping and telling said boss to Take This Job and Shove It. The box is also the indispensable accessory of every Fired Teacher. It can be used to show that someone is a Reluctant Retiree: if they knew their retirement was imminent and didn't start packing up their personal items in advance, they're likely to work up until the last minute before grabbing a spare cardboard box to cram all their stuff into.

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Not to be confused with the Cardboard Box Home (which is where an impoverished person lives in a box), or Bankruptcy Barrel (which is where an impoverished person wears a barrel). Similar to the Bindle Stick, which holds a character's few possessions after a loss of wealth or status.

About half the examples listed below are Bankers Boxes; sturdy, stack-able, standardized storage boxes found in white-collar workplaces the world over. (Available in white, tan, and faux wood-grain, they even come with convenient handles!) Truth in Television comes into play in that they're so cheap and abundant no employer is going to complain if a recently terminated employee takes one home with them.


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Examples:

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    Advertising 
  • Set up as if it's Played Straight in an ad by job search engine Indeed.com, titled "The Box". The ad begins with a rather stone-faced man with graying hair & beard dressed in a shirt and tie exiting an elevator with a box of his stuff and walking down an impersonal hallway while a voiceover talks about how much time and effort had led up to "this". Viewers are given the impression that he has been fired and is carrying his belongings out in a Cardboard Box of Unemployment, but as a door opens and he walks into a bright, welcoming office space it is revealed that he is actually starting a new job and was carrying a Cardboard Box of Reemployment, making this and Inverted example of the trope.
Played straight in a 2017 University of Phoenix commercial titled "We Can Do IT". The animated ad depicts a single mother employed in a blue-collar factory job operating a drill press, with a small personalized workbench seen behind her. A quick time-lapse shows her coworkers on the factory floor replaced by automation, their drill presses and workbenches disappearing, and eventually the single mother is also let go. The scene shifts to the mother at her kitchen table, contemplating a banker's box full of the items from her workbench. Those items include a Rosie the Riveter poster, whose iconic "We Can Do It!" slogan prompts the mother to get a degree in information technology (or IT) from the University of Phoenix while still working and supporting her children. By the end of the ad, the items that appeared in her banker's box reappear on her new desk at her new white-collar job in IT.

    Comic Books 

    Comic Strips 
  • In Alex, black bin liners [i.e. garbage bags] are the container of shame. Sacked bankers are required to pack their personal belongings in a bin liner and are then escorted from the building by security so they can't steal anything. The staff know that a round of firings is coming up when the boss's PA is sent out to purchase bin liners.
  • The eponymous Dilbert of Dilbert has been fired before. A strip from 2009 plays the trope straight, showing Dilbert with a "box full of junk" as he tries to give his Pointy-Haired Boss a Take This Job and Shove It after he's been fired. (It doesn't go so well for Dilbert, to the extent that the strip manages to throw in a Vomit Discretion Shot between the second and third panels.)

    Film — Animated 
  • A Downplayed example appears in Incredibles 2 — during a phone call between Bob and his contact in the Superhero Relocation Program, Rick Dicker, the latter is seen in his office packing the contents of his desk into a cardboard box. It's made clear that the shutdown of the Superhero Relocation Program is forcing Rick into an early retirement, but he can be seen wearing a brightly patterned Aloha shirt as he packs (and there's a tropical drink on the desk in front of him). Viewers are left with the impression that Rick might not mind the relaxation and travel opportunities afforded to him by his forced retirement.
  • Used twice in Zootopia
    • As anti-predator sentiment hits a boiling point, Officer Benjamin Clawhauser (a cheetah) is transferred away front desk duty at the police station. This falls under the "decrease in status" use of the trope — Clawhauser is an extroverted, personable officer who clearly loves his job greeting people. In an administrative sense the move from front desk to records might be a lateral one, but to Clawhauser it's as if he's been Reassigned to Antarctica. His despair is evident as Judy watches him packing his "I Heart Gazelle" coffee mug and snow globe into a box for the move.
      Officer Clawhauser: They thought it would be better if a predator - such as myself - wasn't the first face that you see when you walk into the ZPD. They're gonna move me to records. It's downstairs. It's by the boiler.
    • Later Inverted: when Bellwether's plot has been revealed and the anti-predator furor has calmed down, Officer Clawhauser is allowed to return to his post at the front desk. His look of delight is obvious as he unpacks his nameplate, coffee mug, and snow globe from the same box he'd used to move them to the boiler room.

    Film — Live-Action 
  • After Lester, the protagonist of American Beauty, succeeds in blackmailing his boss and quitting his boring desk job, he leaves the office carrying a box with his belongings hoisted on his shoulder and pumping his fist triumphantly.
  • Seen at the end of Birds of Prey (2020), when Renee Montoya quits the police force after realizing she's never going to be given any credit for her achievements.
  • Twice in Bruce Almighty:
    • Reporter Bruce goes ballistic during a live TV broadcast when he finds out his co-worker, Evan, was promoted to the position Bruce wanted. The next scene shows Bruce fired from his job; literally tossed out of the WKBW-TV 7 building, followed by security throwing a bankers box full of his personal items at his junk.
    • Later on Bruce uses his newfound divine powers to win back his old job, then to cause Evan to have a similar on-air breakdown. Bruce is promoted to Evan's position, and though he is initially happy at the downfall of his rival he has a change of heart after he sees Evan clearing out his office with a similar bankers box. (Bruce then offers Evan his job back.)
  • In Donnie Darko, Donnie's teacher Ms. Pomeroy is fired from her job for discussing offensive literature. There is a shot of her leaving the classroom with a box full of books, a desk lamp and a U.S. flag.
  • Averted in Fight Club. When the Narrator blackmails his boss at the automotive company into letting him "work from home," he leaves the office with a shopping cart full of fax machines, phones, and computer paraphernalia. Not a cardboard box in sight, despite the office set having been painstakingly designed, built, and filmed to evoke a quintessential soul-sucking, 9-to-5, white-collar corporate headquarters.
  • Featured on the poster for the film Get a Job, and present when a significant portion of LA Weekly's work force gets "downsized" and escorted out of the office.
  • Happens in Ghostbusters (2016), when Erin is fired from her job (after Abby and Jillian post the video of her covered in ectoplasm and shouting that she believes in ghosts). Abby and Jillian are terminated shortly after, but they forgo the bankers boxes and start wheeling equipment out with carts.
  • Happens twice in Hidden Figures:
    • As Vivian escorts Katherine to the Space Task Group's Flight Research Division to be their new [human] computer, Katherine follows with her necessary computing equipment and desk items in a cardboard box. She carries the box like a shield as she is introduced to her new, all-white coworkers.
    • After Katherine is told she's no longer needed in the Space Task Group now that NASA's IBM computer is performing calculations for them, she packs all her desk items and a few gifts from coworkers into a similar box and leaves.
  • It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie implies this trope: the Big Bad is trying to take over the Muppets' theater, and snidely tells them that if they need help moving out, there are discarded boxes behind a nearby business that they can use.
  • L.A. Confidential: Inverted when Exley is seen carrying his box to his new desk in Homicide, after gaining a promotion to Lieutenant through careful political manipulation of the "Bloody Christmas" scandal.
  • Happens in Late Night (2019) when Molly is fired from the writing staff of "Tonight with Katherine Newburry" talk show for a second time. She packs her motivational posters (which even her dour office buddy Burditt had started to warm up to), desk knickknacks, and a coffee cup she steals from the writers' room into a bankers box as she leaves.
  • Looney Tunes: Back in Action has Daffy Duck go into histrionics while arguing to the Warner Brothers that he's much more bankable than Bugs Bunny. Unmoved, the brothers have a yes-man bring in a box of personal effects. Daffy recognizes the contents.
    Daffy Duck: Say, that looks like the stuff from my office.
    Brother #1: You don't have an office.
    Brother #2: Not any more.
    Daffy Duck: [breaking fourth wall] Symbolically, this is bad.
  • Bookends the beginning and end of Margin Call, when layoffs at the investment bank's trading floor are prefaced by HR passing through with stacks of boxes to distribute to employees whose jobs are being cut.
  • Subverted in Marie (1985). When the title character is fired from her government job, she removes several boxes of files which could be useful for the ongoing FBI investigation. She then has an Oh, Crap! moment when she runs into a colleague, but he apparently thinks she's just clearing out her desk and helps her carry the boxes to her car.
  • Implied in Spider-Man: Homecoming, when Liz tells Peter that she and her mother are moving to Oregon, her mother Doris Toomes can be seen in the background carrying a bankers box with several books and a trophy in it. It's unclear if Mrs. Toomes worked at Midtown School of Science and Technology and has had to quit her job, or if she is helping Liz clean out her locker, but the impact of the scene is the same - the Toomes family members are persona non grata in New York City, and they're leaving to avoid the negative attention they'd receive during Adrian Toomes' trial.
  • Though uncommon in German media, bankers boxes show up here and there thanks to Eagleland Osmosis. One example can be seen in the Stromberg movie. Near the end of the film, the protagonist gets fired from his job at an insurance company and can be seen leaving the office with a bankers box holding a globe, a trophy and an honorary certificate.
  • April in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) after being fired from the news station.
  • Venom (2018): When Anne's law firm discovers that she was the source of the leak (after Eddie learns about the symbiote/ human trials in an e-mail from the Life Foundation on Anne's computer), she is seen leaving her (former) workplace with a cardboard box.
  • When Tess in Working Girl gets fired from her secretary job, she carries one of these boxes with her.

    Literature 
  • The first chapter of John Grisham's legal thriller Gray Mountain features protagonist Samantha Kofer being furloughed from her job at a big name Wall Street law firm during the 2008 recession. Samantha and her other downsized co-workers are given cardboard boxes by the security staff assigned to escort them out of the building:
    A woman in a black suit and a black necktie stood at the quad where Samantha shared a "space" with three others, including Izabelle. Ben was just down the hall. The woman tried to smile as she said, "I'm Carmen. Can I help you?" She was holding an empty cardboard box, blank on all sides so no one would know it was the official Scully & Pershing repository for the office junk of those furloughed or fired or whatever.
  • The Speed of Dark:
    • After Gene Crenshaw is found to have broken the law, Lou sees him carrying a cardboard box with a pair of expensive running shoes on top.
    • Later, Linda and Chuy bring boxes for all their coworkers who won't be coming back after the autism treatment.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Invoked and then downplayed in Agent Carter. Peggy is told to pack her things after the SSR catches wind of her vigilante investigation and fires her. However, she was given so few responsibilities from her sexist coworkers that there isn't much to pack.
  • A plastic crate takes the place of a cardboard box in the Altered Carbon episode Clash By Night, when Ortega's Cowboy Cop antics finally catch up with her and she's ordered to Turn in Your Badge.
  • Blue Bloods: Sid Gormley carries a Banker's box with his possessions to 1PP when he thinks he's being summoned to be terminated by Frank, only to be surprised when he's rewarded with a promotion to Special Assistant to the Commissioner.
  • In Breaking Bad episode "Green Light", Walt gets fired from his teaching job and we see him carry a box with his work items into the parking lot. He places it on top of Jesse's car where it is forgotten. When Jesse speeds off the box crashes to the ground, much to Walt's chagrin.
  • In the Broad City episode "Game Over," Ilana uses one after Todd finally fires her.
  • Daredevil (2015): In "The Ones We Leave Behind" after getting fired from the Bulletin, Ben Urich is shown bringing home a Banker's box with all his office memorabilia including his framed front page articles, just in time for Wilson Fisk to choke him to death. In between seasons 1 and 2, we see Ellison re-acquire all of Ben's memorabilia to restore the office to the way it used to be, as a shrine to Ben. And that's how the office continues to look even after Karen moves in.
  • Doctor Who: In "Turn Left", Donna is downsized from her clerical job. She leaves with a cardboard box containing her possessions... along with some other items that aren't technically hers but she decides to take as compensation.
    Donna: Hole punch. Having that. Stapler, mine. Toy cactus. You can have that, Beatrice. Catch.
  • Fi: Özge is handed one after losing her job in the second episode. It falls apart in the lobby, adding to her humiliation.
  • Fargo:
  • Occurs in The Flash, when Barry makes a deal with Julian: Julian won't turn Caitlin over to the police for her Killer Frost spell, and in return he demands Barry resign from CCPD. In the next scene Barry packs his desk into a box.
  • Inverted and then Played Straight in Good Omens episode 2, The Book. When Newton Pulsifer gets a new job as a wages clerk at United Worldwide Holdings (Holdings), he shows up on his first day with a worn out Bankers Box full of desk supplies and personal items — a plant, some highlighters, a pencil cup, and the sandwiches his mother made him for lunch. When his Walking Techbane powers short out his computer station and the office's electricity he's quickly let go, leaving with the same battered Bankers Box full of office supplies. The box breaks as he stands dejectedly in the business' parking lot, dumping all his possessions on the ground.
  • Grimm
    • Invoked in "Fugitive," the sixth season opener. Detective Hank and Sergeant Wu return to the precinct to keep tabs on the search for Nick, only for Officer Franco to inform them that Captain Renard is on the warpath. Hank notes that it "looks like he's cleaning out his office." The next shot of the interior of Renard's office reveals that he's got a bankers box on the console next to his desk, which has been emptied of his [sparse] personal effects.
    • Played straight two episodes later in "Oh Captain, My Captain," when Captain Renard has demanded Detective Hank and Sergeant Wu's resignations for their role in arresting him for the murder of Rachel Wood. Both Hank and Wu are shown with bankers boxes on their desks, and later announce to Nick that they are "officially unemployed." It doesn't stick, seeing as Nick gets them their jobs back by the end of the episode.
  • Subverted in the last episode of Jack Ryan, when James Greer is promoted to deputy station chief in Moscow. Jack catches him at his desk as he packs his personal items into a bankers box in preparation for the big move.
  • Leverage: Exploited in an episode where the team is trying to keep a company from covering some scandal on a plane, Hardison is sent to infiltrate the offices and steal the information directly. He does this by calling a bunch of meetings, then faking sickness to dump presentations on hapless stooges while he hacks the computers. At the end he puts a bunch of stuff (including the drive with the information he needs) in a cardboard box then makes a show of leaving, yelling about all he's put into this company and for them to just cut him off like this. And on his birthday too! As he does, a pair of office staff watch him go.
    Female Coworker: He was always so sensitive.
    Male Coworker: I never liked him.
  • Mad Men is bursting with examples, as it's set in the heart of white-collar corporate Manhattan during the 1960's:
    • Inverted in the first episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" as Peggy Olson arrives at her new job at Sterling Cooper carrying a cardboard box with her work supplies in it.
    • Subverted when she's promoted to junior copywriter in ''The Wheel". As Joan shows her to her new shared office, Peggy caries a bankers box full of items from her desk in the secretary pool.
    • Played straight when Peggy fires Joey Baird in "The Summer Man" after he tapes a demeaning cartoon to Joan's window. Joey attempts a Take This Job and Shove It when he grabs a bankers box Peggy's currently using to store files, dumps it out, and takes it with him, but it mostly serves to characterize him as a petulant Manchild.
    • Played with twice in the episode "Lost Horizon", when Peggy Olson moves into a new office at McCann carrying a bankers box full of personal trinkets. The first attempt at the move is a false start, but by the end of the episode the move-in is played much more triumphantly. (The box used in filming the scene was later auctioned off as memorabilia.)
  • Subverted in Season 2, Episode 1 of Mindhunter: when the FBI's new Assistant Director Ted Gunn tells the Behavioral Science Unit that he's increasing the BSU's resources and building them custom facilities to expand their team, Bill immediately fills a box with his office supplies and moves "just down the hall" into the uncompleted space.
  • Happens in Prison Break: After Warden Pope discovers burns on Micheal, he pins them on Roy Geary, a corrupt guard who'd been shaking down inmates and stealing their possessions for months. The warden searches Geary's locker, finding several stolen items. The next scene is Geary being marched out of the prison, carrying his belongings in a box.
  • Saturday Night Live has utilized the trope more than once:
    • A Saturday Night Live skit that first aired during the January 27, 2018 show featured Will Ferrell as an office worker advertising a deodorant for men "who are feeling the heat because their time's up" (i.e. men who have been outed as harassers and abusers by the "Me Too" movement). As the fake commercial comes to a close, Ferrell's character marches into the office elevator with a bankers box (laden with a plant, a cup of pencils, and various other office paraphernalia) in his arms and announces that he's been fired.
      Office Woman: You're disgusting.
      Office Man: But my pits aren't!
      Office Man (to another elevator passenger): I got fired.
    • A digital short/ musical skit called Corporate Nightmare Song, which first aired in November of 2019, features the trope in a Downplayed, blink-and-you'll-miss-it manner. The singers are Dillon, Tina, Nate, and Casper, a group of ultra punk-y 20-somethings who have been forced to take up white collar work as "corporate drones" to make ends meet. While they initially rebel against what they view as stifling corporate culture, they come to realize that the job isn't as bad as they initially thought — their pay is okay, their benefits are good, and their boss Ted genuinely wants them to succeed. When Ted offers them the opportunity to pitch a project, they're suddenly excited about their futures with the company. They bring up the fact that "Dana," an elderly co-worker in a management position, is retiring and will need to be replaced, possibly by one of their numbers. When Dana is mentioned the camera cuts away to a shot of Dillon, Nate, and Casper gesturing excitedly towards Dana, who smiles and hold a bankers box to show that she's ready to retire.
  • When Nancy and Jonathan are fired from their internships at The Hawkins Post in season 3, episode 4 of Stranger Things, "The Sauna Test", there's a brief shot of Nancy returning home with a small cardboard box in her arms.

    Music 
  • Played with in the music video for "Levels" by Avicii. The opening scene shows a tired, frumpy looking man with a Bankers Box in his arms taking the elevator to a stuffy office space. As he disembarks from the elevator, another worker dumps a mess of files into his already overfull box. The implication here is that he's using the box to take his work home with him — the photos on his desk and familiarity with his coworkers indicate that he's worked at the company for some time. Although it doesn't signal that he's been fired when it appears, the Bankers Box in the opening does foreshadow the man's dismissal from the company later in the video (due to an outbreak of uncontrollable dancing).

    Theater 
  • Seeing Ms. Norbury escorted out of school with a Bankers Box is what finally gets Cady to speak up at the end of Mean Girls. Cady had written "Ms. Norbury is a sad old drug pusher" in the Burn Book when she was upset with Ms. Norbury for "pushing" her to do better in Calculus. Once the pages of the Burn Book are published by Regina, parents of students at the school demand that Ms. Norbury be fired in case there's any truth to the allegations. Cady takes credit for fabricating the whole Burn Book, not just the page she had written about Ms. Norbury, and Ms. Norbury gets her job back.

    Web Comics 
  • Happens in the first chapter of The Duchess' 50 Tea Recipes. Before protagonist Park Hajeong was isekai'd into the body of Duchess Chloe Vadenberg, she was a modern, overworked accountant in Korea. When a risky project Hajeong's boss foisted off on her fails spectacularly, said boss orders her to resign so that he can save face. The next panel shows Hajeong walking away from her office building as the sun sets, carrying a Bankers Box with some books and papers inside.
  • Two examples in Heroine Chic:
    • Discussed/ Averted — when Zoe's boss Dyna Cuff fires her in Chapter 25, Zoe's replacement Miguel has already packed Zoe's personal effects into a Bankers Box. Zoe leaves Dyna's office without taking the box.
      Miguel: Ginger snaps! Your stuff's in a box by the elevator.
    • Inverted — after Zoe has started her own superhero couture company called "Heroine Chic" (and then disappeared into outer space for a few weeks, due to time dilation and superhero shenanigans), Dyna buys the building lease out from under Zoe and moves her business into the Heroine Chic offices. The first glimpse Zoe gets of Dyna is her former boss moving a box of business paraphernalia (one of dozens) into the atelier's workroom.

    Web Original 
  • Played for Laughs in season 10 of Acquisitions Incorporated, where the Bad Boss Omin learns that one of his underlings unwittingly assisted in Viari pulling a fast one on him. Omin has this to say to his (now ex-)employee:
    Omin: Put everything you like and care about in a box, and when I come back, we will talk about what happens to the box.
  • In the online game Receptionist's Revenge, if you get caught by the boss while you're poisoning his coffee, you get fired and the ending screen is of you crying and holding a box full of your stuff.

    Western Animation 
  • This happens to all eight main cast members at the end of the series finale of Drawn Together.
  • Only utilized in the Inverted manner in the Pixar Shorts animation Purl. When the eponymous sentient ball of yarn "Purl" shows up for her first day of work at B.R.O. Capital, she's carrying a Bankers Box filled with office supplies she has decorated with custom knitting. Later another ball of yarn, "Lacey", and an unnamed human both begin their first day at B.R.O. Capital with Bankers Boxes full of personal effects.
  • The Simpsons: In thre final act of "Kill Gil, Volumes 1 & 2", when Gil Gunderson is fired from the real estate company, someone brings him a box with his stuff, flips it upside down and tells him to pick them up.

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