A Brief History of Work

Have you ever wondered how society transitioned from farms to cubicles? And why so many now want to escape the cube—sometimes back to the farm? Sixty percent of Americans work in cubicles, and 93% dislike it, according to Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval (2015). As a burbsteader, I’ve been seeking to understand why we long to escape our white collar confines, which have been considered the pinnacle of employment.

First, there is the simple ebb and flow of culture over time. Generations seem to fluctuate back and forth. For example, there have been trends taking us from thrifty to spendy and back again. Compared to our parents, millennials tend more toward minimalism, passion careers, and saving money. But our parents were responding their parents, who may have saved or spent to extremes as a reaction to emerging from the Great Depression and WWII.

One main innovation led Americans from the agricultural farm to the cubicle farm: the railroad. People farmed for subsistence and for local markets until the birth of the steam engine. Horse & cart could only take goods so far, and only so many people were needed (or had the capital) to work as storekeepers. Farmers would sell or barter directly with the local storekeeper or individuals for the items they didn’t produce themselves.

With the railroad, farmers could focus on growing more of one or two crops and shipping these long distances. Industrialization replaced independent farmers and artisans, meaning more people worked in factories. At the same time, all this transporting and selling of goods required more people doing paperwork, keeping track of inventory, routes, and accounts. These people were called clerks.

Previously, clerks worked at “counting houses” and then their modern counterpart, banks. There weren’t many clerks in one institution and they often worked directly under one top dog in a flattened hierarchy where they could likely one day replace the boss. After the economic shift of industrialization, people were needed to manage these clerks and factory workers. Now a legion of clerks aspired to a limited number of managerial positions, which came to be called “white collar” jobs, a term satirically coined by Upton Sinclair.

People started studying how to manage clerks and factory workers. Enter industrial organization, scientific management, and vocational training. Next came studying which types of people to hire: the HR department was born. Office jobs continued to proliferate. In 1956, America reached a tipping point in its labor history: white collar workers outnumbered blue collar ones for the first time.

As big business grew in the early 1900s, skyscrapers were needed to house the growing population of clerks and middle management. Just as standardization was prioritized in management classes, it was prioritized in architecture. While some opulent skyscrapers boasted artistic lobbies and lavish offices for upper management, the bulk of the space was designed to be easily and efficiently multiplied. The standardized office units that we know today as cubicles were first called “cells.” What a lovely term—reminiscent of prison!

In fact, the principle-turned-proverb “form follows function” was coined by one of the most famous architects of this period, Louis Sullivan. Cookie cutter “cell” design had the advantage of being rentable. It allowed businesses to move in and out of spaces with ease. Rather than considering the best work environment for the employees or the type of work, future real estate value was the primary concern.

And so the majority of Americans ended up in cubicles. Why? The steam engine. The railroad. Paperwork. Big business. History reveals the concrete answers, but what lies beneath?

It seems that people were chasing freedom and security. Relief from the backbreaking or mind-numbing labor of farm and factory. Ending man’s dependence on out-of-control variables like the weather, animals, and diseases that threatened one’s livelihood. Freedom from subsistence living.

Cube life offered an illusion of freedom: if one moved up the managerial ladder enough, one would become wealthy and successful. No longer a drone, but a free person. Not told what to do, but telling others what to do. As it turns out, this is a mostly empty hope, as only an elite few climb this high, leaving a vast pool of desperate middle managers and unsatisfied office workers behind. Politics, policies, procedures, and TPS reports abound.

The modern cubicle is a bit like the epidural for childbirth. It might make the job less painful, but it’s still hard work.

William Whyte, author of Organization Man (1956), believed the corporate system was stifling freedom and the Protest work ethic that fueled America’s economic growth. He observed that big corporations “offered the womb-like safety and security that colleges provided….A smooth pipeline from dorm room to the desk made organization life irresistible.” Engineering and business education were emphasized during the cold war, and those emerging from the Great Depression were quick to view big business and office jobs as a source of security.

Baby boomers, born into a thriving post-war economy, became the most extravagant generation in history. In the 1970s, credit cards and other consumer debt became widely available to the average consumer, funneling many coming-of-age Boomers into unprecedented sums of personal debt.

And so a nation moved from one type of restriction to another. What numbed the pain of physical labor also ended up numbing the soul, or so it would seem from the wealth of satire surrounding the modern office. And don’t forget about the 93% disgruntled cube-dwellers. Many deal with this discontent with therapeutic spending. Shopping, restaurant outings, entertainment, and vacations are sought to alleviate the sting of all that cube time. A tiny portion, following the example of Jacob Lund Fisker’s Early Retirement Extreme, have used their office skills (and sometimes office down time) in the ultimate act of subversion: calculating their path to freedom and investing more than half their income in order to escape.

It’s invaluable to understand where we came from. Almost all of us came from the farm. Our progenitors left the farm because of the steam engine. And because eeking an existence out of soil is hard, and risky. But the cube has brought its own dangers. It’s the modern equivalent of smoking. Working in a colorless sea of identical “cells” can feel dehumanizing. It promises a stability it cannot deliver, which stifles artists, entrepreneurs, nonconformists, and naturalists alike. And this, as far as I can tell, is why people want out.

What do you think? Is the cube a wonder of the modern world, or nearly prison? Why do so many people want out?

This post draws upon the following sources, especially Cubed. Since this isn’t a research paper, I haven’t used in-text citation, but I want to credit the following references:

Lind, Michael. Land of Promise: an Economic History of the United States. 2012. Harper Collins Publishers, New York.

Newman, Rick. “Americans Don’t Like to Buy Stuff Anymore – And That’s A Problem. Yahoo Finance. https://finance.yahoo.com/news/americans-don-t-like-to-buy-stuff-anymore-%E2%80%93-and-that-s-a-problem-170924225.html

Saval, Nikil. Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace. 2015. First Anchor Books, Random House, New York.

Tags: ,

38 Responses to “A Brief History of Work”

  1. Ernie says :

    When I stepped down from vocational ministry 10+ years ago, I welcomed cube life with arms wide open. In some weird kinda way, it was a breath of fresh air. I loved the structure of the job and the natural boundaries it provided (no nights, no weekends). But I’m entering a new season now, and the cube life doesn’t suit me as well. While I’ve become very cynical about cube life, I have to remember that it was part of a very restorative process for me.

    • Kalie says :

      I didn’t know you were in vocational ministry; how interesting. I can see why the cube life was a nice respite in some ways. That’s great you can remember that when you’re feeling cynical.

    • Ernie says :

      Yeah, I was a youth pastor for 3 years immediately after college, and I loved it. Feels like eons ago!

    • Kalie says :

      Very cool! We were volunteer youth leaders years ago, too 🙂

  2. Josh says :

    I think people are searching for the best of both worlds. They want the perks of a cubicle (non-strenuous labor & scheduled hours & paid vacation) but want the freedom of the the farm (to not be in jail).

    That’s my opinion at least & the reason I pursued the jobs I have. I enjoy the flexibility of being part inside/ part outside during the workday (something cubicle workers cannot say) & being able to take a day off when I want (something farmers can’t do).

    • Kalie says :

      I’m glad you’ve found the best of both worlds in your employment. I have never worked in a cubicle but I can see the pros and cons of it.

  3. John K says :

    The cube life is starting to be replaced with the work-from-home philosophy. You sorta have the best of both worlds. The safety of the large corporation and the ability to work in an environment that is less structured.
    It saves on the dreaded commute and all the ills involved with that. In fact, as gas prices topped $4 a gallon it became a solution in some cases.
    I would argue that the explosion of the information technology is more to blame for the current cube life than industrialization. Without computers you still needed to meet face to face and get out of the cube. With today’s technology there is no reason to leave your desk and meet ‘face-to-face’ with anyone in the world. This is also allowing the work-from-home to be much more plausible and tolerable to corporations.
    Efficiency in farming also meant you could produce far more product with much fewer people. This pushed large family sizes down and left the family farmer being replaced with large corporate farms. This moved the population into the cites looking for jobs.
    Interesting topic.

    • Kalie says :

      Great points, John. I agree that technology is making face-to-face interactions less necessary, and therefore makes the cubicle more isolating. I’ve worked from home and love the flexibility and convenience it provides.

  4. Our Next Life says :

    I learned so much reading this post. Thanks! My grandmother grew up on a sharecropper’s farm during the Great Depression, and she told me that she was willing to do just about anything to escape the farm life. She even decided to marry my grandfather solely because he was the only man she knew who wasn’t a farmer, but instead worked in a factory! The story ends well because they had a great 50-year marriage, but maybe not the best foundation to build a marriage upon. 🙂 But her take on leaving the farm wasn’t even about financial freedom. It was freedom from the endless work. There was literally never a single day off. You were up every single day before the sun, and engaged in back-breaking labor all day long, only to do it again the next day. She literally just wanted a day or two off per week! So in that regard, modern workers are no doubt better off than farm workers of ages past, even if we do mostly dwell in unpleasant “cells.” And most people don’t realize that factory and desk workers alike didn’t have weekends at all until the modern labor movement — so we all have them to thank as well!

    • Kalie says :

      What your grandmother experienced sounds so hard. I agree the cubicle is a step up from many historical work environments. Remembering that is an important part of being grateful for the modern work scenario, even though it isn’t perfect.

  5. DC YAM says :

    This was a really great post, fascinating stuff. I read this statistic: “Sixty percent of Americans work in cubicles, and 93% dislike it” and said “Yep!” I’m curious who the 7% are ; ) I’ve grown to dislike cubicles more over time. They got rid of the fourth cube wall at my office and lowered the height of the walls. It’s SO dang loud and distracting in our “open” (but not) office. The introvert in me craves a private office where I can work in peace.

    I may have to read up on this more. I’m curious where we will go the next 10, 20, and 30 years.

    • Kalie says :

      I’m wondering about the 7%, too. I’ve never worked in a cube, but I don’t know many people who are into the new open cubicles. It seems like the worst of both worlds in some ways. The end of the book Cubed offers some thoughts and suggestions on where things might go. Of course working remotely and freelancing are getting more popular, but it’d be nice for more companies to design their spaces around the needs of the employees & specific type of work.

  6. Amanda says :

    My husband’s company is moving to the open cube setup soon and he is dreading it. He and his coworkers will be in a circle facing each other for ease of communication and “teamwork”. This new plan fits more employees in one building so the company can then close another office and save on rent.

    Funny how many of us now romanticize “farm” life, dreaming of the way things used to be, so simple and and free from the 9 to 5. The grass is always greener…

    Thanks for taking the time to write this informative post, Kalie!

    • Kalie says :

      I don’t know anyone who likes the open cube set-up, either. My husband didn’t. I’m such an introvert, I work much more efficiently when left alone. It’s true that the cube has some major advantages over farm life. We try to spend a lot of after-work time outside to balance things out!

  7. Francesca - From Pennies to Pounds says :

    Even that photo of the cubes makes me feel anxious! I think it’s because you feel so closed off from everyone. It’s got to be bad for talking to colleagues – sometimes you can overhear something that helps with another query!

    • Kalie says :

      As many are commenting, the trend toward a new open cube setup is not any more popular. It leaves more opportunity for communication, but people are so close together that it becomes hard to work. But more interaction in certain types of work could be very helpful, I agree.

  8. Clearwing says :

    Ever see the George Tooker painting Landscape with Figures (1965-1966)? It captures cube anxiety perfectly. I worked in an office with large shared desks and probably would have preferred a cubicle, since we couldn’t really talk to the other people anyway.

    I switched to retail because it paid more (!) and because I could walk around and get the feeling back in my hands (carpal tunnel and arthritis from data entry), but retail has its own problems. Let’s not go there, except to say the work environment is a lot healthier than sitting all day perched on a keyboard.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for referring to the painting; it definitely captures cube angst well. And thanks for sharing your experience in a variety of work environments. I guess work is work–it isn’t the ideal place we’d all like to be, but being on your feet has its health advantages.

  9. Jack says :

    People typically hate their coworkers / boss more than hating their company or job.

    Hell, as they say, is other people. The best job in the world is hell if you’re surrounded by bad people, and vice versa.

    As long as I have something interesting to do during the day and the ability to provide for my family, and put away some extra to invest and grow, I’m happy, or at least content.

    • Kalie says :

      The cube is certainly not the only thing wrong with work. And the people you work with make a huge difference, as does your attitude about work in general. Sounds like you’ve found a good perspective of contentment. We also feel very grateful for our jobs and financial provision from them.

  10. Prudence Debtfree says :

    Very interesting stuff here, Kalie. It is helpful to be able to see your own situation in the context of history. My parents were very frugal – influenced as they were by the Depression WW2 – and I rebelled against that frugality in the context of the Yuppy culture of boomers – 10-15 years my senior. Of course there were money-smart people in my generation too. I didn’t filter either my response to my parents’ frugality or the influence Yuppy culture had on me. No matter what point of history we occupy, it’s always better to be proactive rather than reactive. I think the culture of every generation has both its pluses to embrace and its minuses to avoid.

    • Kalie says :

      Your story is a great illustration of the pendulum swings we’re so prone to. I don’t think I reflected much on my own context until recently, and it’s been helpful in finding balance. I agree that every generational shift offers pros and cons, and thinking through those is helpful but hard to do in the midst of it. Hindsight is 20/20!

  11. Holly says :

    I have never really worked in a cubicle, per se, but I have worked in many office environments. It really did feel like torture to me – like I was trapped somewhere for 45 hours per week.

    • Kalie says :

      I haven’t worked in a cube or even an office, really. But my husband does, and there is a lot of research on it now. That’s great you’ve found a better career path for you.

  12. EL says :

    It goes against our bodies natural ability of always wanting to be in motion. I feel best when I’m moving about running, doing sports, or working out. Sitting for 8 hours straight just goes against those feelings, and the hormonal boost of moving around. I’ve heard many podcast, and the cube is considered modern day slavery of some sort. While the ultra rich vacation at leisure with no worries, it is unfortunate our society has turned out like so. But what is the alternative? No one really has an idea.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, while I’m sure the modern desk job is nice compared to very difficult physical labor, we seem to have taken it to another extreme. I definitely like a mix of sitting still and being active. I realize it’s a lot easier to critique something than offer a great solution. There’s freelancing, entrepreneurship, and working from home which all seem to be on the rise, but that doesn’t eradicate the office.

  13. Harmony says :

    Wow – this was such an interesting read. I’ve wondered about the cause of our current predicament as well and appreciate your synopsis of the history. I’m always doing laps at work because the lack of motion drives me crazy.

    So, where do you think we will go from here? There seems to be a shift towards more remote-work opportunities, with new technological advancements every day . . . but still the perceived need for drones to push papers and fill the office chairs. I wonder what work will be like in 50 years?

    • Kalie says :

      I’m glad you enjoyed the synopsis, Harmony. I’ve been pondering all this for a while.

      The end of the book Cubed talks about these new shifts in work environments and suggestions for how the office might better suit humans, but we’ll see what actually happens. Ultimately a lot boils down to money instead of the employee’s experience.

  14. Latoya - Femme Frugality says :

    I think it all depends on the person. Some are content to go to work and do exactly what they are doing as long as their needs are being met. Being a creative like I am, I found other ways to channel my expression in addition to my job so I wouldn’t become discontent. Everyday isn’t rosey, but I know that I (and only me) have the ability to change the course of my career if I wanted to, at the time I simply choose not to.

    • Kalie says :

      Good point, Latoya–some people are pretty content with the current work situation, and we’ve definitely found ourselves in that camp during certain seasons. We definitely seek fulfillment outside of work in a variety of ways, and think that’s important. There aren’t many perfect work environments, so it’s what you make of it, and owning that decision.

  15. Rob Money Nomad says :

    Phenomenal, well researched article! As someone who’s done some post-graduate business studies, your discussion of the history of business is fascinating. And you’re absolutely right! Although I’ve never thought of it before, the cubicle did come about as a form of freedom – and now the definition has shifted.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for weighing in as someone who has studied business. I think understanding the context history offers is invaluable.

  16. The Green Swan says :

    Wow great post and lessons learned. I remember my summer job during school at the industrial print shop, I vowed to get a good degree so I wouldn’t have to do manual labor for my full time job. It was good motivation at the time, now I find myself sitting in a cell everyday…!

    • Kalie says :

      It’s kind of a catch-22, but the cell has its perks I guess. I agree that manual labor when you’re a student can be a good motivator for graduating. I had to stop coaching gymnastics at age 20 because it was wearing on my back too much.

  17. Mortimer says :

    93% is a staggering number, but also not surprising. I also agree corporate life is a security blanket. It is smooth and predictable. And boring. It’s only fulfilling if you buy into the ladder hype, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who truly believes in it.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree there is a lot of cynicism about the corporate ladder now because it’s been revealed for what it is. It was interesting to read about its history and the hope that was once placed in it, though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *