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.