Offices have been around since the earliest potentates and priests needed a place for scribes to craft grand pronouncements and number crunchers to tally the loot. For most of history, offices were for the fortunate few. It was nice work if you could get it, especially compared with plowing fields, lugging water buckets, and slaying Hittites. Only in the past century have most of us spent 9 to 5 Mondays through Fridays in offices.
During the 20th century, office work boomed. All those gleaming towers in every city around the planet represent a real-world bar chart that tracks the growth of office culture. And culture it is, though the white-collar theme usually centers around alienation and absurdity, as seen in everything from the Tracy and Hepburn classic “Desk Set” to Sloan Wilson’s “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” and from “Glengarry Glen Ross” to “Dilbert” to the comically transgressive world of “The Office.” In offices, the ties of the past – family, farm, parochialism – could be set aside and new lives as corporate citizens could be forged.
Offices have many advantages (clean, well-lighted, air-conditioned) and drawbacks (tedium, gossip, PowerPoint). But while office life is easy to poke fun at, office work is an important part of millions of lives. World-changing ideas are launched in offices. Airplanes, algorithms, and electric grids are not the product of a sole proprietor scribbling at a kitchen table. Office workers accomplish great things and earn honest salaries, which cycle back into the economy as houses, groceries, and educational expenditures. Yes, there’s also office politics. Office mates bond, disagree, and sometimes fall in love (see Tracy and Hepburn). All those inside worlds, after all, are occupied by humans.
Increasingly, though, the century-long boom in office work appears to have peaked. The overbuilding of commercial space in the first decade of the 21st century and the layoffs of the past few years have turned many office buildings into echoing reminders of past glory. In newspapers, real estate agencies, mail-order houses, and insurance companies – among the businesses hardest hit by the Great Recession – whole floors have gone dark and every other cubicle is empty.
The “jobless recovery” is partly to blame. Skittish employers are reluctant to hire, and workers out of work are often shunned by companies that have jobs to offer. Moreover, new-economy powerhouses run lean as a practice. Google and Apple employ fewer than 75,000 workers combined, a fraction of the jobs that old-line companies like General Motors and AT&T salaried in their heyday.
Outsourcing and telecommuting also are making steel-and-glass headquarters buildings anachronistic. With employees working remotely, clerical work being aggressively automated, and employers avoiding the commitment of hiring for the long term, the career-long office job seems to be heading for obsolescence.
Literature has begun to reflect this shift. Joshua Ferris’s 2007 novel “Then We Came to the End” and Ed Park’s 2008 “Personal Days” recorded the anxiety of the era of downsizing. Mr. Ferris describes how a white-collar advertising tribe in Chicago watches news reports of distant layoffs in factories confident that they were “corporate citizens, buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat,” never realizing that “in a downturn, we were the mismanaged inventory.”
This is dark stuff. Let’s pause for perspective: White-collar unemployment is only half as bad as blue-collar unemployment. Still, it is higher than it has been in previous recessions, and if the economy is fundamentally restructuring (see this special report), then the office world is in for continuous disruption in the years ahead.
What’s to be done? Four years into a downturn that still hasn’t turned up enough jobs, the unemployed, the marginally employed, and those worried that they might one day be seen as mismanaged inventory know that they have to persist in their quest for work. That can mean education, retraining, and job interviews stretching to the horizon.
This is not a story with a happy ending, except perhaps for this: Millions of people have come to realize that they are not in this alone. They need the world outside the office – family, friends, faith, and community – the world too often neglected in the quest for corporate citizenship.