Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace

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Collared or Untied: Reflections on Work in American Culture


Fred Armisen opened the first season of the TV show Portlandia singing “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland,” a dream of pierced, tattooed folks hanging out, hot girls wearing glasses and putting images of birds on everything, and grown-ups making a living making coffee. He asks Carrie Brownstein if she remembers the ’90s, when people were unambitious and “they had no occupations whatsoever.” “I thought that died out a long time ago,” she says, wonderingly, before she leaves L.A. to join Armisen’s ragged troupe of relaxed and minimally-employed folks dedicated to the art of skateboarding. The context missing from this hilarious send-up is that Portland experienced a decade-long recession in the early years of the 2000s, and didn’t bounce back from it until the last couple of years.

The ’90s, like the ’80s before them, were a decade of company mergers and the birth of bigger, leaner, and meaner mega-corporations. They accomplished this goal by slashing the numbers of middle managers, which had bloomed and burgeoned as the white-collar workforce expanded in the 20th century. So the dream of the ’90s was more of the last resort of the ’90s — making lemonade out of some very sour lemons. This disappearance of stable, salaried jobs as the dominant form of employment in the United States has been touted recently as an opportunity — now you can chase your dream! Now you can be an entrepreneur! Now you can wake-up at 11:00 and lounge around before making coffee at a low hourly wage! It turns out, though, that those middle managers made up a large portion of the modern middle class, which was thoroughly shaken by the mass layoffs of the last two decades of the 20th century and has not recovered.

The Portlandia dream of escaping the stultifying culture of the office also drives Office Space, the 1999 cult film about cube-dwellers rebelling against their repressive, meaningless work. Nikil Saval uses this movie as one of his jumping off points in his fascinating history of the workplace as a place — the office, in Saval’s book Cubed, is not only a location, but has evolved into a space designed to maximize the company’s return on their investment in its worker bees, while also trying to hide that fact. The tight, three-walls-and-a-desk cubicle that defined the late 20th-century office, we learn in Saval’s book, is a warped version of a design that was supposed to balance the employee’s need for privacy and the company’s need to surveil its workers. In Office Space, that cubicle has become a prison, one you are technically free to leave, but outside of which gapes the yawning gulf of unemployment and instability.

The wonky-eyebrowed hero of Office Space ends up happily working as a manual laborer, after his company literally collapses. This embrace of working outdoors, with his hands, is supposed to counter the namby-pamby paper shuffling under fluorescent lights that defines office work. He has become truly masculine again, and has found authentic, meaningful labor.

However, he’s also embarked on a career marked by hourly wages and the uncertainty of future work. He has become contingent. His switch to contract-based work actually echoes the changes in the American workforce, for blue-, pink-, and white-collar workers, at the end of the last century. Based on reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Saval estimates that the number of freelance or temporary workers in the American labor force today has reached as high as 30 percent. White-collar work initially had prestige, over a century ago, because it provided not only higher earnings, but steady ones. One of the reasons that the middle class grew and grew in the 20th century is that workers were attracted to the stability of office work — it was one of the first kind of jobs to actually provide a salary rather than an hourly or per piece wage.

Back in the 1880s, when the very concept of going to an office in which your labor was mental, not menial, was being invented, only 5 percent of people were employed as clerks, the job that became the emblem of white-collar labor. Everyone else was an artisan or a small farmer or a professional, or, as was the case with most of our ancestors, they sold the labor of their backs and arms to whoever needed it. While nostalgia for the Gilded Age, with its extremes of inequality and instability, seems unlikely, the second season of Portlandia reprises the show’s original song, but tweaks it to “The Dream of the 1890s.” Bread-baking, beer-brewing, beard-wearing hipsters sonorously sing of the joy of DIY while still slapping a bird on everything, but this time in embroidery floss instead of neon paint. But Portlandia’s mockery of the penny farthing-riding youngsters in suspenders actually points out a cultural reflection of an economic fact. Saval writes in his conclusion, “The United States is returning to the preindustrial era…work appears to be moving not forward but back to an earlier era of insecurity.” Stable, predictable careers that end in a pension — jobs that, granted, could often be repetitive, meaningless, driven by others’ goals, and dominated by office politics — seem now to have been a bubble that is slowly deflating. Entrepreneurship no longer feels like a huge risk when we’ve seen friends get laid off during the recession from even the biggest companies (maybe especially the biggest), and seen some of the bastions of our financial system go completely belly up. Our current direction echoes the early days of the industrial age, when the middle class was made of shopkeepers, not bookkeepers. The dream of the 1890s is alive in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Detroit, too.

The spin, again, is that this return to self-employment actually frees both us and the companies that used to employ us. Companies that run on contract labor can be more flexible and responsive to economic conditions, hiring freelancers and consultants to get by. We can take time to hang with our families when we need to and can choose projects that appeal to our ethics and beliefs. We work for ourselves, while companies avoid paying for health insurance or unemployment insurance.

The contingent nature of this growing sector of our economy also means that workers take on more risk. Comparatively, Saval identifies the main characteristics of the typical white-collar worker in the 20th century as patience, conformity, and a fear of risk. This makes sense when you think about what characteristics are needed when you are someone else’s employee. The goal of this typical worker was to move up through the ranks slowly and steadily, and plenty of business books throughout the 20th century purported to teach readers the secrets to getting ahead of your cohort at work. However, Saval also points out that most white-collar work was secretly pretty dead-end, especially for women, who did all the low-paid clerical work and had no pathway to escape the secretarial pool. But middle management was the level at which many men’s careers leveled out, too. Most people were willing to exchange boredom for a steady, guaranteed paycheck, preferring apathy over uncertainty. By the 1970s, in the aftermath of the cultural revolt of the ’60s, over-educated workers were sick of hitting against this wall, and business culture started to change. Now white-collar workers were renamed “knowledge workers,” and their creativity and individuality were emphasized in order to soothe the growing impatience of workers facing stagnating wages and repetitive, mind-numbing work.

While dedicated viewers of AMC’s 1960s Mad Men might think of the protagonist, Don Draper, as representative of mid-century manhood, in many ways he is, in fact, the precursor to the knowledge worker of today. He works in the office and out, takes naps when needed, and is driven by his urge to come up with the new language and image that will propel his ad company forward. He adds value through creativity. The real symbol of the mid-century company man in Mad Men is Pete Campbell, Accounts. Spindly and wispy, creating nothing but money for his employers, Pete ends one episode in the first season sitting in his darkened office with a shotgun, like a colonial governor posed for a portrait that will hang threateningly over his desk when supplicants come calling. The threat to manhood of becoming a glorified clerk is Pete’s constant battle, as he yearns to be like Don but is constantly rejected by the sleek yet brawny creative. It’s Don’s protégé, Peggy Olson, who will become the knowledge worker of the future. Deriving more pleasure from life within the office walls than without, her ascension from typist pool to advertising creative symbolizes the breakdown of hierarchies and the move away from the repetitive tasks of paper pushing to the more stimulating challenges of coming up with new ways to sell beans.

Saval is a graduate student at Stanford University, in the heart of Silicon Valley, where the knowledge worker is all-important to the creation and launch of the new new thing that defines Californian capitalism. The tech industry today amalgamates art and work; designers and engineers work together to make pretty, functional games, devices, and media. We learn, in Twitter co-founder Biz Stone’s new memoir-cum-advice book, Things a Little Bird Told Me: Confessions of a Creative Mind, that like many other tech billionaires, he too was a college dropout. The difference is, though, that Stone dropped out to design book jackets at Little, Brown, the literary publisher. For a multi-millionaire, Biz Stone emphasizes how unimportant money is to him strangely frequently in his book. Over and over, he reiterates his key points, which are intended to resonate strongly with the young founders of start-ups popping up along Market Street, in the shadow of Twitter’s giant new building in San Francisco: do your work for the love of it, not the money; create products that will improve the world; don’t fear failure, and always take risks. All the qualities that once made for the ideal white-collar worker are turned on their head. Stone describes his lack of respect for imposed authority and tells the story of his high school “no homework” deal, in which he persuaded his teachers to exempt him from homework, as long as his grades stayed up. He encourages his readers to act like the rules don’t apply to them, and to “think different,” that iconic tag line that urged you to buy Macs instead of PCs. Think different: choose the slightly smaller technology company.

Stone’s advice, based on his own journey from book design to web design, brings into business the language of passion and fun. Similarly, the knowledge worker is the combination of artist and worker. The software engineer makes his own apps on weekends and the graphic designer makes cute videos for fun, and that fact offers companies the perfect opportunity to cut costs. When people are looking for jobs that don’t feel like work, companies can hire a guy who will take their lower salary and no benefits over the security of one of the quickly evaporating salaried jobs where he’ll be a middle manager counting up widget sales and thingamabob costs. Richard Florida, in his foundational book, The Rise of the Creative Class, says that the defining element of the creative class is placing flexibility and feeling challenged above base pay. The perks of not wearing a tie and telecommuting can feel like prizes that make up for a lower pay grade, too.

Stone’s description of his approach to work reads like a list of supposed Millennial characteristics — he’s easily bored, he’s impatient, and he wants to do work that’s satisfying, self-fulfilling, individualist, and creative. But he’s 40. These characteristics aren’t just those of recent college graduates, despite the many articles citing the terrible work ethic of young people today. They are the characteristics of the knowledge worker, and while managers might not like it, corporations love it.

The tone of Stone’s memoir/business advice/self-promotion book emphasizes this blend of off- and on-duty that’s the new norm of office culture. It is casual, conversational. This is how he sums up the tense negotiations between Mark Zuckerberg, Ev Williams, and himself when the Twitter co-founders visit the Facebook campus to discuss the potential purchase of Twitter for $500 million, a number Stone claims he just made up on the spot during their meeting:
Again, the takeaway here isn’t about my behavior, which I’m the first to admit was juvenile bordering on obnoxious. Making jokes about massive amounts of money and proposing them to serious potential investors is no way to build a career or a business. The point is to trust your instincts, even if you’re smaller and less powerful than the other guy.
Everything is light, with the human touch Stone prides himself on bringing to the table — he’s the vegan next door who will loan you a cup of organic sugar and help you change your flat tire. His humanization of Twitter is achieved through deploying language and design to connect with the audience. In some ways, his memoir is an argument for the role of the humanities in tech — a product isn’t finished until its soul and its face have been created. The engineers need the English majors.

The design of offices today reflects the same blend of life and work that Stone advocates. Surveying the history of the office hand in hand with its design, as Nikil Saval does, allows the incorporation of architectural history, which is perfect for helping us understand the evolution of the modern office into the postmodern. He actually begins in the 19th-century countinghouse, where, just like Bob Cratchit in the opening scene of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the poor and broken-down clerks hunch over their work while Scrooge watches. As offices evolved and expanded, many design elements changed, but the essential function of surveillance stayed the same. Whether it was the typing pool on the ground floor, encircled by executive offices, or the blank slate of an open office plan, managers wanted to be able to monitor work at all times. Even as workspaces purportedly get more democratic, allotting managers and their assistants the samesize cubicle, for instance, they also lose ever more privacy for employees at all levels. There’s nowhere to hide, except the bathroom. Even smoking breaks are disappearing.

Just as business culture has strived to bring together work and play in the postmodern era, so has architecture moved from the somber slabs of glass and steel that defined office buildings of the Mad Men era to the whimsical “campus” style of the Googleplex and 1 Infinite Loop. Along with their bucolic suburban grounds, there are now gourmet cafeterias and graffiti art. Companies have long offered amenities to entice workers, Saval’s research reveals, but they’ve reached new heights in recent years.

Now start-ups offer unlimited vacation, but with the implicit understanding that you’ll bring your laptop with you to Rome or Portland or your parents’ house for Thanksgiving. And there might be foosball in the office, but there’s also a fold-out couch so you don’t have to go home to sleep. Your CEO and you both wear the same company-branded t-shirt, but only one of you is going home to the multi-million-dollar house.

Reading Saval’s and Stone’s books about working in America, both released in April of this year, gives one the sense of what an awareness of history brings. Stone refuses to be tied down by the known, and looks toward a future hazy with optimism, where all failures will eventually lead down the road to great successes. He believes capitalism should be tweaked, or, in the words he imparted to all newly hired Twitter employees, “We can build a business, change the world, and have fun.” Yet paired with Saval’s book, we see that behind this innocuous soft touch lies a history of companies determined to rise by shaping the cultures and workspaces of their employees to maximize their ROI. In the 1920s, they achieved this through movement studies and efficiency training, then in the later part of the century, though human resources and building company cultures to encourage worker engagement. Stone’s book shows the necessity of bringing creativity and art into business, and Saval’s book shows the need to remember that this has been done before. Open any management book today and you’ll find an exhortation to incorporate play into the workplace, to help workers forget that they are selling the labor of their minds and bodies so someone else can reap a greater reward.

According to Stone, people like me are the risk-taking entrepreneurs who will reshape American business by doing what we love and taking minimal material compensation for it. I graduated with a Ph.D. last year, but like the rest of American employers, universities have realized how much money they can save by cutting tenure track lines and replacing them with adjunct instructors, who work on a contract without benefits or any guarantee of being employed after the semester ends. The love of the work and our students drives many new Ph.D.s to continue toiling for decades as contingent labor — it’s gotten to the point that nearly 70 percent of academic employees at American colleges are adjuncts, a total flip from just 40 years ago. Professors are now mostly just freelancing teachers. Since adjuncts so rarely make it out of the scramble into the security of tenure, I have also taken on work as a freelance writer and an editor — but the publishing and media industries are not known for their security either, especially in our most blessed information age. Reading Saval showed that the challenges I face, even as a ridiculously over-educated individual, are the same ones faced by a growing number of American workers, whether high-level consultants or low-waged call center workers. With freedom comes risk, and without a strong safety net or a lot of luck, not all of us can recover so gracefully from failure as Stone does.

Whether a cubicle gives you hives or you can’t stop working hours after your bedtime, American work today is not a unique phenomenon. The workday and work culture have always been a taut truce between those doling out the money and those taking it. Despite changes on the surface, that fundamental relationship remains in place. As soft and cuddly as the workplace has become, or however easy it is to go to work without leaving your bedroom, these changes have occurred to improve profitability, not the life and sanity of the worker. And it’s working: even as employment remains stagnant, American productivity is growing by leaps and bounds. What we’ll have to see is whether this century will prove to be closer to the 19th century or the 20th. My bet, as I sew a bird on my canvas tote in order to carry my jars of local jam, is that the last we’ll see of the stability of white-collar work is the Eames chair, installed in home offices that double as living rooms.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Israel Andrade.

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