Glass box: Citigroup offices in Canary Wharf, September 2013. Photo: Getty
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Is the office about to become redundant?

In 2014, the distinction between work and life, office and home, is poised to collapse. Members of “Generation Y” desire greater flexibility, with the ability to work where and when they want.

Does the office have a future? With the fall in stable, nine-to-five jobs, will we lose our water coolers, filing cabinets and pot plants? Does Silicon Valley, with its in-house doctors, resistance swimming pools and “nap pods”, represent an alternative model for corporate life, or does the advent of “the cloud” signify the end of office spaces as a whole?

Over the past century, workplaces have evolved to meet the needs of businesses (and, in rare circumstances, those of workers). The term “white collar” was coined in 1919 by the novelist Upton Sinclair, and has carried uneasy connotations ever since. “[They are] the worst exploited of the proletarians,” he wrote, “who, because they are allowed to wear a white collar . . . regard themselves as members of the capitalist class.”

The first decades of the 20th century saw the transition from small numbers of highly-skilled clerks working in corner offices, to armies of copyists and stenographers, lined up in the style of a factory floor. Taylorism – the paper-pushing counterpart to Fordism, named for the “efficiency expert” Frederick Winslow Taylor – demanded maximum utility and a radical division of labour. It was the first step on the road to today’s call centres, in which operatives neither have the power, nor the expertise, to assist their customers.

In 1915, the US Equitable Life Assurance Society introduced the “modern efficiency desk”: a suspended metal slab with drawers beneath. By the 1950s, the office had moved upwards into multiple-storey buildings made of glass and steel. But the “open-plan” approach, popular since Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building, completed in 1906, seemed to be harming productivity. Worker esprit de corps fell to an all-time low.

In 1951, the American sociologist C Wright Mills decried what he saw as an ideological division between life and work. “Each day men sell little pieces of themselves in order to try to buy them back each night and weekend,” he wrote. Personality and meaning were drained from office life, a problem the furniture company Herman Miller set out to rectify. In 1958, the firm hired the inventor Robert Propst to develop a species of office furniture inspired by the German concept of Bürolandschaft, or “office landscaping”. Propst designed the Action Office, a modular system with pinboards, a standing desk, a table, colourful storage and movable walls. Against his wishes, businesses tightened the angles to 90 degrees to save space – and thus the “cubicle” was born.

According to Nikil Saval, the author of a new book, Cubed: a Secret History of the Workplace, as high a proportion as 60 per cent of American workers inhabits cubicles today – 93 per cent of whom say they would “prefer a different workspace”. In the end Propst swore off his creation, calling cubicles “hellholes” born of “monolithic insanity”.

In 2014, the distinction between work and life, office and home, is poised to collapse. The number of self-employed people in the UK has risen by 650,000 since 2008 to 4.5 million, or 15 per cent of all employment (the figure is twice that in the US). This is not necessarily bad news. While job security, benefits and wages (the self-employed earn 40 per cent less on average than employees) have suffered, members of “Generation Y” nevertheless desire greater flexibility, with the ability to work where and when they want.

Less time at the office could also improve your health. Research by the Danish ministry of employment suggests that workers in open-plan offices take 62 per cent more sick days than those in private offices. The American Cancer Society claims women who sit for six or more hours a day are 37 per cent more likely to die prematurely than those who sit for less than three.

However, the “flexible working” revolution has yet to take hold. We still need offices. Silicon Valley is asking the right questions, attempting to please both shareholders and employees. But, for all the media exposure the Google campus has received, the changes elsewhere have been more sinister. Working patterns in Britain increasingly resemble those of the 19th century – short-term contracts, no benefits, longer hours. How all this will change the office remains to be seen.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear