Birth of the Office
In 1958, the Herman Miller design company hired Robert Propst, a professor of art at the University of Colorado, to head the company’s new research wing. The company was aiming to expand beyond its traditional realm, furniture design, and into realms hitherto untouched by designers—agriculture, hospitals, schools—and Propst seemed an ideal candidate: though moonlighting as an arts academic, he was in fact an exuberantly, almost maniacally creative freelance intellectual, sculptor, theoretician. He “immediately began flooding us with ideas, concepts, and drawings ranging from agriculture to medicine,” Hugh DePree, who was Herman Miller’s president at the time, told John Berry, a historian of the design company. “It is interesting, though, that despite our mutual desire to explore other fields, the first project that attracted his continuing attention was the office.” Interesting, perhaps, but unsurprising. Propst, in his move from art and academia to corporate life, simply discovered what millions of Americans have discovered since—that anyone who works in an office spends an extraordinary amount of time thinking about the arrangement of offices.
Propst found that he hated the rigid furniture Herman Miller gave him; he hated the static layout of the office in which he was supposed to invent dynamic concepts; and when in the next few years he began traveling the country, meeting with white-collar workers, designers, architects, mathematicians, and—crucially—social and behavioral psychologists, he found he was not alone. The postwar explosion of office work, in the newly great corporations of America—IBM, GE, Whirlpool—had created legions of employees with good benefits, relatively short working hours, abundant vacations. What is more, they were doing a different kind of work. “In the last fifty years,” Propst would later write, “in the most dramatic contrasts, activity has moved from tasks of rote to tasks of judgment.” Blue-collar workers organized, went on strikes, and were subjected to vicious state-sanctioned violence. White-collar workers, on the other hand, expecting to be promoted from within their organization, resisted unionization; each depended on himself to rise. Yet simmering below the surface, and bubbling up sometimes in the darker novels and plays of those years, something was definitely wrong.
“Today’s office is a wasteland,” Propst concluded. “It saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment. It is the daily scene of unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” Worst of all, it was failing to keep up with the times. Human beings were performing new kinds of work, giving birth to new forms of socially sanctioned desires. “We are in an era of rising awareness of the importance of individuality,” Propst stressed, and the workplace needed to express this. Instead, bull-pen offices were the norm—vast caverns of undifferentiated desks, office workers bowed intently at the paper piles or rudimentary counting machines in front of them, encircled by a corridor of offices where management presided behind closed doors. At best, workers had two or three thin, waist-high partitions, which generated a poor semblance of privacy and individual space.
In 1965, Propst’s first attempt to remedy this situation failed. Called “Action Office,” his design consisted of a large space, loosely defined by three or four movable walls. There were three desks of varying heights—one low, designed for sitting, another carrel for communications, and a workstation where work could be done standing up—thus encouraging a worker to move vertically as well as horizontally. But the movable walls, which were the work system’s signature innovation, were too cumbersome and heavy to allow for the mobility Propst wanted. More important, the space was too vaguely defined for it to be widely applicable or reproducible.
By the end of 1967, though, Propst had made significant improvements. The space was smaller; the interlocking walls were mobile, lighter, and made of disposable materials; storage space was raised off the ground. “Action Office II” was Propst’s attempt to give form to the office worker’s desire. It consisted of three walls, obtusely angled and moveable, which an office worker could arrange to create whatever work space he or she wanted. The usual desk was accompanied by shelves of varied heights and variable placement, which required constant vertical movement on the part of the worker—because “man,” as Propst observed, is a “vertical machine.” Tackboards and pushpin walls allowed for individuation. Intentionally depersonalized, the new Action Office would be a template for any individual to create his or her own ideal work space. The effect of the Action Office would be one of constant dynamism, as in Futurist paintings of cyclists and soccer players, except that in Propst’s vision, the worker’s motion reflected not some machine-like capacity of the body, but rather the ceaselessly inventive potential of the white-collar mind. Early brochures for Action Office II play this up—we see modular walls expanded to create broad, half-hexagonal spaces; tackboards are used to great effect, and the walls are adorned by hangings, maps, or chalkboards. Workers are in motion or constant conversation, some even standing to make dramatic pointing gestures to other workers sitting on high swivel chairs (which force them constantly to move between sitting and standing positions).
So it was that in 1968, Propst unveiled Action Office II and published a 71-page pamphlet that trumpeted the theoretical bases of his new design. Called The Office: A Facility Based on Change, it was a kind of Port Huron Statement for the white-collar worker. In addition to voicing the complaints quoted above, it offered solutions. Propst’s narrative of the office teems with high historical drama, centered on one key event in the history of labor: the gradual replacement of America’s manufacturing base with white-collar work. “We are a nation of office dwellers,” Propst asserted. The face of capitalism had changed; the office had become a “thinking place”; “the real office consumer [was] the mind.” Repetitive work, of the kind performed in factories and typing pools, was disappearing, to be replaced by what Peter Drucker called “knowledge work”—and the new office was going to have to keep up. Propst noted that in the spring of 1968—that fabled spring of Prague and Paris—the New York Stock Exchange, which he called “the office-of-all-offices,” suffered a “hiccup” when the manual machine processing required to run share transactions was suddenly and dramatically outpaced by the volume of trading, forcing the Exchange to limit its hours.
Action Office II received immediate praise from the office furniture industry. Herman Miller launched a nationwide marketing campaign to educate designers on the use of the system, simultaneously inaugurating an accompanying lecture series on the future of creative office work (for which Action Office would be the ideal work space). Sales initially were slow, but after a competitor produced a rival modular office system, Propst’s concept was validated, and sales took off. The Action Office eventually became Herman Miller’s most important product and an inescapable feature of office design.
Years later, Propst would know what he had done. His design proved irrepressibly popular: in the year 2000, by his own count, forty million white-collar employees in America alone worked in forty-two different versions of the Action Office. Yet they would all be known by the same name: the cubicle.
Several factors aided the cubicle in its rise to monolithic status. The first was a seemingly minor shift in economic policy. In the early 1960s, the US Treasury instituted new rules for depreciating furniture assets in order to encourage more corporate spending. Furniture was given a shorter taxable life (7 years), while permanent features of a building would have a concomitantly longer one (39.5 years). This meant that, from the ’60s on, it became vastly cheaper to buy and replace office furniture and systems like cubicles, since corporations could write off cubicles, but not fixed office suites, on their tax returns.
Meanwhile, new offices were being built at astonishing rates. In New York, a onetime capital of manufacturing where many companies began to position their corporate headquarters, white-collar workers outnumbered blue-collar workers two to one by the end of the 1960s, and great office towers were built to accommodate them: fifty-four million square feet of office space were added in New York in the 1970s, forty-six million in the 1980s. Expanding companies, attuned as always to short-term financial health, found it efficient (i.e., cheap and quick) to adopt an existing design rather than tailor newly built spaces to the particulars of their industry and culture. That design, more often than not, was Propst’s, which required little more than wide, wall-less spaces in which Action Offices could be arranged.
In the cities, existing buildings had to be torn down or comprehensively renovated to make room for the new open-plan offices. (“You would think the simple fact of having lasted / Threatened our cities like mysterious fires,” James Merrill wrote of these destroyed buildings.) In America’s swiftly suburbanizing expanses, however, the march of the cubicle faced fewer impediments. Low, boxy buildings ideal for a shiftable labyrinth of cubicles could be built on cheap empty land. These building-boxes could in turn be surrounded by box-shaped parking lots that could collect employees from an impressive geographic radius. Meanwhile advances in fluorescent lighting and air-conditioning meant that architects no longer had to submit to such concerns as the need for light or breeze. Indeed the ease of designing these offices meant that companies no longer had to submit to such people as architects.
Inside the big boxes, things went on pretty much as before. Until the introduction of the IBM desktop computer in 1981, typewriters, adding machines, and carbon copies were the predominant tools, except that now these tools were stored in cubicles. This technological stasis helped produce a kind of cultural stasis as well; most commentators agreed that office life remained largely insulated from the political ferment of the 1960s and its aftermath. Bell-bottomed or no, the conservative uniform of suit and tie, with all it implied, remained in effect. The office worker still enjoyed a high degree of job security (especially by today’s standards), and still tended to view himself, in C. Wright Mills’s half-derisive formulation, as a solitary frontiersman who would rise through the ranks, or fail to do so, depending on his skills and fortitude.
Mills had predicted that the objections of white-collar workers (“rearguarders,” he called them, or “cheerful robots”) to unions would eventually dissipate: “However widespread the prestige resistances to unions may now be, solid, long-run factors are acting to reduce them, [including] the breakdown of the white-collar monopoly on high school education; the concentration of white-collar workers into big work places and their down-grading and routinization; [and] the mere increase in the total numbers of white-collar people.” It never happened. Office work did, as Mills had predicted, become more subjugated to the needs of machines—and therefore more similar, broadly speaking, to blue-collar work—but this did not lead office workers to link arms with their brethren in the factories. If anything, because of what happened to manufacturing in the next thirty years, the psychological need to erect clear barriers increased.
What happened was that, in the 1970s, major American corporations suffered a crisis in profitability from which they would never entirely recover. The generous benefits and stable wage increases that had defined a generation would vanish. Largely through layoffs, American manufacturing workers would decline from a peak of 19.4 million in 1979 to 14.3 million in 2005. Unions would be broken, declining from about 35 percent of the labor force in the 1950s to 12.5 percent today. The aggressiveness of the new era was signaled by one government action, unrivaled in spectacle: Ronald Reagan’s decision in 1981 to fire 11,400 striking air-traffic controllers, whose union had endorsed his candidacy for President.
Insecurity was creeping into the office by the mid-’80s—for instance, in 1985 Business Week reported that at least one million white-collar or “non-production” jobs had been lost since 1979, because of the even heavier losses in what it called “smokestack America.” (In a particularly grim irony that year, the New York Times reported that companies were purging their ranks of in-house business economists.) But the white-collar worker hardly noticed and continued to feel relatively secure. History, after all, was on his side. The economy—as Propst, Drucker, and so many others had promised and continued to promise—would become perpetually more knowledge-oriented. Machines and machine-made goods could be produced anywhere, because the actual manufacturing process had been so pervasively routinized and de-skilled. Knowledge, however, unique to the character of the ever more individualized white-collar worker, was best produced at home. Perhaps the office worker labored in a cubicle, not a cozy corner office—but he might ascend to the corner office someday, and in the meantime, his semipermanent walls were better than the laborer’s open shop floor, which seemed more and more like a dangerous no-man’s land.
Then, on or around October 19, 1987, everything changed. The Dow shed 23 percent of its value in a day, and in the recessions that followed, white-collar workers—particularly managers and midlevel executives—began to recognize themselves as the targets of mass downsizing. Between 1990 and 1992, 1.1 million office workers would be laid off, exceeding blue-collar layoffs for the first time. In the ten days following the ’92 election of Bill Clinton, the pace of white-collar layoffs quickened (General Motors: 11,000 jobs; BellSouth: 8,000; Travelers: 1,500; Chevron: 1,500; DuPont: 1,243). Every year of the 1990s, layoffs outpaced the speed and quantity of the layoffs of any year of the 1980s. And it was all in the name of good fun. “Destruction, obliteration,” cheered business guru Tom Peters in Liberation Management (1992). “If ‘clean sheet of paper’ seems too radical for you—well, whoops.”
Under the now inescapable rubric of cost cutting, corporations poured money into cheap systems furniture, putting more and more of their employees in Action Office–type spaces. Naturally, the cubicles themselves got smaller. Between 1999 and 2006, the average size of a cubicle decreased from 90 square feet to 75. In some places, they were a lot smaller: in 1999, the headquarters of then media mogul Michael Bloomberg had average work spaces of four square feet, a squeeze designed to increase “collaboration.” By 2006, polls would report that half of Americans believed their bathroom was larger than their cubicle; indeed, one wonders to what extent the extravagant growth of the American bathroom, and of the suburban home in general, is partly a reaction against the shrinking of cubicles, where the owners of those bathrooms spend so much of their time.
Because of course the hours spent in these shrinking cubicles expanded, as workers tried (without much effect) to safeguard themselves against the increasing likelihood of getting laid off. No one knows exactly how much the working day has lengthened, but a few statistics are telling: 25 million Americans work more than ten hours a day; 1.7 million work more than seventy hours a week; the average American has nine to twelve vacation days a year (compared with twenty-five and thirty in France and Germany, respectively). As they began to seize more of an office worker’s time, cubicles would become organicized and domestified in everyday office parlance. Dense expanses of cubicles became known as “cube farms”; the phenomenon of people poking their heads over modular walls to talk to their neighbors came to be called “prairie-dogging”—though this practice gained a name only when managers became interested in suppressing it.
The office—indeed, the Action Office—became an index of capitalism’s relative accumulation of misery. From the revolutionary spirit of ’68, a space had emerged whose omnipresence and deadening passivity were without precedent in human history, and whose future no one could contemplate with hope. The malleability of the cubicle made it indispensable to business culture, as Propst had hoped—but it wasn’t the cubicles’ inhabitants who had the power to move the walls. What management embraced as “flexibility” manifested itself to workers as transience, arbitrariness, and uncertainty, always delivered from above. The flimsiness of the cubicle’s walls became emblematic of the white-collar worker’s flimsy security; worse, somehow, to be imprisoned in those fabric-wrapped panels than in stone and steel. The universality of the situation only served to deepen the pain; if the point of work (apart from earning a paycheck) was to express—as Propst had written—the value of your individuality, then the very fact of working in a cubicle, that bland, atomized expression of the essential sameness of all white-collar labor, was inherently embarrassing. Why speak of your workplace, when it was just like everybody else’s? Why speak of work at all, when it was—as the cubicle seemed to prove—everywhere alike? Thus the eight (or more) hours spent in one’s cubicle joined the eight (or fewer) hours spent asleep in the realm of what was better left unsaid: even if you could remember what happened, there wasn’t much point in telling anyone.
The rise of the tech companies in the 1990s, with their explicit reliance on the intelligence and innovation of their employees, ushered in a new age of rhetoric about the liberated worker and his liberated office.
When the largest tech corporations expanded in the mid-1990s, each needed to consider the benefits of closed offices versus an open-plan office with cubicles. Microsoft added more closed offices. But most tech companies followed the lead of Intel, which had adopted the open-plan arrangement way back in 1968. Intel did not pretend that the cubicle was a great place to be; instead, it pretended that it could foster an egalitarian work environment by insisting that even the staff of upper management work in cubicles, that there should be no “mahogany row” at Intel. A reporter from the Los Angeles Times described Intel and its famously ruthless CEO Andy Grove in 1996: “Here were cubicle dividers, and behind the cubicle dividers was a desk, a computer, and a man, Andrew Grove. And you looked at that and you thought, well, wait a minute: What kind of business is this?” Another employee, introducing Grove at an Intel Science and Engineering fair, said: “Andy has nurtured an egalitarian culture at Intel. . . . We all work in a company where Andy Grove’s cubicle—which I think is about eight by nine—is just like everybody else’s.”
Yet Grove’s was a gesture of pure irony. The cubicle may have come to represent the exploitation and unhappiness of white-collar workers, but the idea that those modular walls, those tackboards, actually determined anything was patently false. You could hardly be said to occupy a cubicle if you could leave whenever you pleased, probably spent most of your working hours flying around the country in the company jet, and earned $200 million a year. This was not, incidentally, a nuance lost upon Grove’s employees: his “egalitarian culture” led to the employee-constructed website FACEIntel (Former and Current Employees of Intel), an enormous bloglike register of complaints about overwork and employee abuse. A quote from Elie Wiesel headlines the home page (“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest”), and the joke was surely not lost on the website’s creators that Grove himself, a Hungarian Jew, had spent the war hiding out in a cellar.
In the late ’90s, the New Economy companies made the related mistake of confusing the cubicle with the worker’s prison, and its destruction with his liberation. Or maybe they knew just what they were doing. The anomalous Chuck E. Cheese’s workplaces of those years—iconic sunburst-bearers of computer science like Razorfish (motto: “Everything that can be digital will be”)—announced themselves as cubicle-free zones of unbridled creativity. The workplaces were empty lofts and warehouses in New York’s SoHo or San Francisco’s SoMa district, buildings that still bore the traces (now refashioned as “hip”) of their blue-collar histories. These companies had relatively few employees, each of whom enjoyed, at least putatively, a measure of control over the company and his own workload. Their work spaces were sometimes like small neighborhoods or cafés, with coffee shops and fake street signs turning the whole area into something resembling the set of Friends. Above all, no cubicles! And free back massages! Enormous vats of colored foam balls!
In these fantasy camps, people worked 80 hours, 90 hours, 100 hours a week, and some of them weren’t even being paid. “White-collar sweatshops,” they came to be called, placing a slightly different meaning, suddenly, on the hip refurbished buildings they had reclaimed for the free activity of the mind.
At the height of the tech boom, Malcolm Gladwell reported on designers attempting to create innovative workplaces by basing offices on Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. As Jacobs emphasized the chance, organic encounters of public street life, these designers would make “public” the private areas of the office—for instance, by moving all desks out into central, public areas. Constant encounters would encourage—it was a promising echo of Propst’s manifesto—communication and potential for innovation. But the use of Jacobs hinted at a problem. Jacobs’s neighborhoods, while succeeding on their own terms, could barely resist being overwhelmed by gentrification—their organic street life augmented with condominium towers, their working-class character devastated by the influx of luxury. What Jacobs could never predict was the caprice of economic management, and its role in the frequently ruthless exercise of urban planning. Seemingly organic neighborhoods were actually built up by policy decisions; their bases could be—and were—easily eroded, their inequalities exacerbated. So with the office, where control over the character of the place came not from the chance encounter at the “street level,” but from above, behind the closed doors of policy makers.
In attempting to create enjoyable workplaces, these “fast companies” failed to create humane ones. One wonders whether it was with chagrin or relief that their former employees migrated back into the cubicle farms of the giants (Intel, Viacom, Hewlett Packard) that had weathered the burst of the stock bubble. Of course the giants, too, took the opportunity to eviscerate their workforces. Beneath the gossipy media buzz about the creative-office revolution came the more insistent rumble of real history.
Two months before the Nasdaq collapsed in March 2000, Robert Propst died. Two years earlier, he had granted an interview to Metropolis magazine. Propst did not recant his ideas, choosing instead to disavow responsibility: “Not all organizations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places.” That wasn’t the Action Office Propst knew. “We wanted [it] to be the vehicle to carry other expressions of identity,” he said. “That’s why we provided tackboards and all kinds of display surfaces.” He had, of course, not predicted that those tackboards would become, above all, repositories for clipped Dilbert cartoons. “The things expressed in that comic are the very things we were trying to relieve and move beyond,” said Propst. “It was a Dilbert world even back then.” Instead, Propst had unintentionally produced the office’s most reviled feature: the flimsy, half-exposed stall in which the frightened white-collar worker waited out the days until, at long last, he was laid off.
In May 2005, I graduated from college; a week after graduation, I was working in an office. It was a large publishing house right on the Hudson River, with an open-plan office so spread out that I often got lost wandering its halls, even many months after I started working. My cubicle, situated right outside my boss’s office (he had a view of the river, as well as the Statue of Liberty) had three modular walls, one of which was extremely high, separating me from my neighbor to the right. Even when standing, I couldn’t see her. Nor could I see my neighbor to the left, who had the same high wall. True to Propst’s vision, my cubicle had shelf storage space lifted off the ground, and I constantly had to rise to retrieve material from the shelf. It didn’t feel invigorating, though. After two weeks of excitedly playing around with email and tacking up pictures and poetry, I had had enough. I sat much of the day with my feet on my desk, searching the internet for more quotes from Mario Savio and the Paris revolts of 1968 to put on my tackboards (sous le bureau, la plage!). I started thinking about offices and how crushing they were. But where else could I go, I wondered, since everywhere else was an office, too? At night, I watched the television show The Office obsessively, often until very late. I woke up feeling bitter, eyes sunken.
A year later, after months of trying, I found another job at another, smaller publishing house, which put out better books. My new cubicle was poorly arranged, so that my L-shaped desk left a wide useless space I filled with books and trash. My boss’s office was directly behind me, and I had my back to her, which induced a perpetual uneasiness. The company was deliberately understaffed: the books-to-staff ratio was twice that of my previous company. My pay remained about the same, but the overtime compensation I used to enjoy wasn’t available, and, after a few months, neither was a corporate vision plan (my health costs increased by $1,000 a year, but my salary didn’t). Instead of working 9 to 5, I now worked from 9 until 7, or later. When I couldn’t stay, I took my work home or showed up in the office on weekends. Having neither the time nor energy to exercise, I deliberately ate less, knowing that otherwise I would quickly become fat.
Eventually, sick of overwork, I quit. That was mid-April. Two weeks later, I was broke. I started temping at a small private equity firm, which bought public companies, reorganized their staff and management through layoffs, and brought them public again, laden with “growth” debt. I got paid as much as I had in publishing, but had less to do. I had no benefits. My cubicle was in a hidden office, and it was two by two feet. My bosses liked me, but they realized I wasn’t doing any work—so they moved me to a larger cubicle, right next to a very powerful air conditioner. In the midst of summer, I brought a bagful of extra clothes to work.
In June, my (second) publishing boss took me to lunch. The intervening two months had been brutal for the company’s employees. The publishing house had purchased an imprint from another house, and, as usually happens when such sales are made, had laid off twenty-four of the imprint’s ninety workers. More layoffs were promised, and more came. The company’s CEO issued a press release in which he explained that the job cuts were part of a “painful reality.” The industry trade magazine valorized the action, pointing out that in an industry generally resistant to innovation, “change” of this kind was “good.”
My former boss and I talked about this idly. She complained about her staff, declaring that she wanted to adopt the Jack Welch principle of firing the least efficient performers each year. She complained about her workload, and then, interrupting herself, said—nearly cried out:
“Want to do freelance editing for me? I’d pay you. I’d pay you money.”
“Sure,” I said.
She took me back to the old office to give me a manuscript. The whole place was under construction. They were moving the new staff onto the same floor, but they weren’t expanding. To make new offices and cubicles for the incoming staff, many of the old offices and cubicles had been resized to about half their original dimensions.
I grabbed my manuscript and headed out into Midtown, ecstatic to be free of such madness once and for all. I would work without benefits and for slightly less pay, but in exchange I would get—freedom! Freedom from the office, its arbitrarily rigid hours, its air-conditioned nightmare.
Now I’m frequenting the cafés of New York City, enjoying my freedom. There are many like me—too many. I have to get up early in the morning to find a seat, which I claim with a valuable laptop. I’m afraid to get up to use the bathroom—the other freelancers might not steal my laptop, but they’ll certainly steal my seat. As a kind of rent paid to the café owners, I order a lot of expensive coffee and sun-dried tomato and mozzarella sandwiches on stale ciabatta. The music is loud, and through the day it seems to get louder, particularly when I ask the café owners to turn it down. Trying to read the words on the page in front of me, I find I’m mentally repeating the chorus of the last song that played (I made a lot of mistakes / in my mind / in my mind). The internet access cuts out now and then.
Still, it seemed worth it—because no matter what happened to me, I was not at the office, and it’s hard to convey how pleasurable that is. Luckily, I don’t have to convey it, because everyone already knows. But as I wandered the streets of New York, wondering whether there existed some perfect café that would give me space to work, I began also to wonder whether this wasn’t exactly the feeling the office is now designed to produce—whether my reflexive disgust at the sight of a cubicle, those hoary walls, those fake-wood surfaces, didn’t fit all too neatly into corporate plans.
Office-design theorists (borrowing their notions from the virtual “desktop” and Microsoft’s “Office”) wax rhapsodic about “spaceless growth”—in which offices no longer increase in size, but the number of employees does. Smaller cubicles are one way to do this—but another, better way, the way that gestures toward a future of perfect corporate efficiency (i.e., getting something for nothing), is to persuade employees to rent their own offices, buy their own coffee, provide their own air-conditioning, pay for their own health insurance, soak up their own sick days, settle for no vacation. But where would you find such suckers? Who in their right mind?
Well, me, for one. Lots of people. The financial advantages that corporations achieve by employing a casualized workforce of temps, freelancers, and telecommuters are humongous—untold billions in unpaid rent, infrastructure, and benefits, plus the sacred gains in “flexibility.” And they can only do this (without significant resistance) when two conditions are met: (1) workers have to be deeply dissatisfied with life at the office and (2) they have to conceive of potential solutions exclusively in terms of their private isolation (“Get me out of here”). The cubicle, emblem of both disgust and isolation, lends itself to both these conditions. The only way out of the cube (besides being laid off) is to become a freelancer; but the absent freelancer suits the longings of management better than the docile cube-farmer ever did. The cubicle shrinks until it disappears; profits per square foot become incalculable.
Just as Margaret Thatcher said, “There’s no such thing as society: there are only individuals,” one is also tempted to say, There is no such thing as the office: there are only cubicles. Over the span of my office life—from one cubicle to another, and from one café to another—I have marveled at its spectacle: the way some indifferent fate seems to apportion each of us a podlike existence whose grim passivity and hopelessness are without precedent. And to think it all came out of the revolution of 1968!
In place of collective farms, we have cubicle farms; instead of political action, an “Action Office.” In this situation, the ranks of the exploited include not only the low-wage clerical workers of Wal-Mart’s back offices, but also—though it sounds bizarre—the educated, often well-compensated professional classes. Banking industry Masters of the Universe, Silicon Valley programmers, “Madison Avenue” ad-copy writers: no matter the amount of compensation, overwork debilitates their family life and health; the frenetic pace with which they increase profits never guarantees the stability of their jobs. Civic life buckles under the inexorable pressures of the office. So, in turn, does the office vitiate itself. Information “hiccups” like the overwhelming of the stock market in 1968 now occur with alarming and increasing frequency. Our contemporary foreign policy disasters are chalked up to ignored internal messages or misplaced faxes. White-collar workers report higher levels of stress than their blue-collar counterparts and suffer twice as often from severe depression. Managers respond by cutting benefits and vacation time and by increasing working hours. Their jobs, too, are on the line.
For my part, at the time of this writing, I’m preparing to begin a graduate program in literature. My latest effort to escape from the office is surely a familiar one. “Brains, Inc.” Mills called it—another extension of the bureaucratic office world. And I’ll even have an office, though nobody will make me go there, really, and I’ll probably never use it except for my weekly “office hours” with students. I wonder what I’ll tell them. Will I say what I’m sure they already know—that their papers don’t matter, that their hours spent on a thorny passage of George Eliot’s Middlemarch won’t help them with their securities research, their ad-copy deadline, their pile of documents still left to be filed? Will I explain that, instead, their education, the same education I got, will turn out to be an absolute nuisance, a museum of alluring quotations that they can only pin to their cubicle walls? Someday, I imagine, no one will show up, and I’ll spend those hours doing nothing at all, as I often dreamed of doing in my cubicle.
Next time you look out over any city skyline at night, consider for a moment that all those glittering lights shine from offices, where men and women are working their unholy overtime. Even when the buildings are empty the lights remain on, as if to remind the world (as if the world needed reminding) that the demands of the office never flag or wane. Look, too, at the daytime café dwellers, and consider how the chief rationale for their anxious roaming is their unshakable dread of the office. Think about the un- and precariously employed, all struggling to get into offices or stay in them. The classical notion of “office” is the “fulfillment of one’s proper work” or “that which is fitting” (Cicero). What this should mean, for all of us, is the ability to produce and control our own work, in line with the ends of a community we support and love. Instead we have a society of offices, in which we are asked to obey commands, to produce and consume endlessly by diktat in order to live. Our choice is to spend life either in a cubicle or scrupulously avoiding one.
To free ourselves, we need to change the very operation of our desires, which the office has duped us into accepting. Our wish should not be to “graduate” from the cubicle to the corner office—that self-debilitating aspiration to become the bosses we hate. As a front of united office workers, we must not merely make claims on sharing out abundance (leisure time, pay, reducing working hours); we must make claims on the real mechanisms of power—that same autonomy that was promised, and perverted, by the cubicle. When white-collar workers join together, against the arbitrary claims and demands of management, to demand their proper work, the effects will be felt far beyond the skyscrapers and suburban office parks. Propst was mistaken when he lauded “the renewed rise of individuality as a value”; the Port Huron Statement was wrong when it claimed that what a person now wants is “not to have one’s way so much as it is to have a way that is one’s own.” We stand together or we fall apart.
The entire office now is the space to claim; the world beyond it, which we have never known, is the one to win.