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 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 marine, and human costs, of illegal fishing

Two new books take us inside the least regulated industry on the planet.

How big the sea is, how big. How poor a description that is, too, but the ocean usually resists description and words, no matter how many of its plains are named after Herodotus or how many fracture zones are called Charlie-Gibbs. It is rare to find good writing about the sea: that’s why everyone who tries quotes Conrad and Melville. It is rarer still to find good writing about the people of the sea, those strange creatures – strange to us, on our supposed maritime island, from where the ocean as a place of industry has long retreated – who set out to sea in boats and ships to make a living from it. These two, very different books try to bring them alive, although both really are about death.

Fishers and Plunderers is dense and dry, but within it are riches and horror. Seafaring is the second most dangerous job in the world, but deep-sea fishing is worse. In the UK, between 1996 and 2005, the rate of fatal accidents in the fishing industry was 115 times higher than that for the overall workforce.

The dizzying facts and stats come, and come again, like tides. We start with the ocean, and the fish in it – or the fish that used to be in it, before human beings learned to build vessels that could scrape the seabed, that could entangle dolphins, sharks and other unlucky passers-by. How wrong indeed was T H Huxley, the eminent biologist and chairman of a royal commission on sea fisheries, giving the inaugural address at the Fisheries Exhibition in London in 1883, when he said: “I believe . . . that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish.”

He did not account for our greed. There are 16.5 million fishers catching 90 million tonnes of fish a year in four million fishing vessels. Pelagic long-lines, stretching dozens of kilometres, to hook tuna. Super-trawlers that can retrieve the equivalent weight of 20 busloads of fish a day, using nets 600 metres long. A biomass of predatory fish that has decreased by two-thirds in a hundred years. One-third of fish stocks fished unsustainably. Thousands of tonnes of “bycatch”, a benign word for a horrible thing: fish that are caught and discarded. An indictment of us.

But the sorry heart of this book lies with the fishers. There are the natural dangers that face them – ice, water and weather – such as the ones that overcame the crew of a British trawler near Iceland in the first half of the 20th century. They couldn’t beat the ice, so the skipper got everyone in the radio room, from where they phoned home. The crew “said goodbye, and eventually were just turned over and were lost”.

In every British fishing port, you will find a memorial to those lost at sea. There will not be a memorial to the fact that, in 2008, 75 per cent of those who died on UK boats were from eastern Europe or the Philippines. Fishing is the most unregulated industry on the planet, infected with abuse, slavery and worse. Some West African states lose 40 per cent of their catch to foreign vessels that come and steal from their waters, such as the bottom trawler Apsari-3, found fishing less than two nautical miles off the coast of Sierra Leone. The boat and officers were Korean, the crew from China, Indonesia and Vietnam. They had no contracts and no salaries, but were paid in packets of “trash fish” to sell ashore. They shared wooden and cardboard bunks in the hold. It was not an isolated case. Distant-water fishing nations operate vessels that abound with these ghosts: men trafficked or bonded into appalling conditions or contracts, stuck at sea for months at a time.

Modern shipping, with its “flag of convenience” system, makes slipperiness easy. Pay a fee, and you can fly the flag of any state and are then governed by its law at sea. Unscrupulous owners and operators can switch flag, name or identity almost instantly (hence “convenience”). Escape is easy for the criminals, and for the abused: often they go overboard. The illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing industry is worth up to $23.5bn each year, and it is extremely difficult to police. Much illegal fish from West Africa passes through Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, which has hardly any inspectors. It is repackaged, presented as legal catch and sold in western Europe. Some subheadings in the chapter on “Abuses and Slavery at Sea”: Abduction; Abuse; General; Beatings; Children; Death; Exploitation; Imprisonment; Murder.

Fishing has never been an easy life. It’s not that it was better then than it is now, but that now the abuse is industrialised, organised. The authors are a sober lot, and include Father Bruno Ciceri, who chairs the International Christian Maritime Association. The port priests are often the ones who save and soothe the fishers, though they can only do so much. I’m glad they do that. And I’m glad I don’t eat fish.

Julia Blackburn’s Threads is what you should read after finishing Fishers and Plunderers. Read it as an antidote to rigorous investigation, because this is a gorgeous, dreamy quest, for a man named John Craske, who was “a fisherman who became a fishmonger who became an invalid”. He also became an extraordinary artist, but one whose legacy is scattered and maligned.

Craske was born in Norfolk in 1881 and went to sea, like the rest of his family. At the age of 36 he fell ill with a mysterious illness, and never recovered. There were months of stupor and disability (Blackburn concludes that it was diabetes), of becoming, as his valiant wife, Laura, wrote, “very quiet. Sudden turns. Must get outside.” He did go back to sea, when his brothers took him on their fishing boat, lashing him to the mast in rough weather. He stayed for three months, rolling about in the hold or on deck until, somehow, he realised “it was not his home” and he came back to land.

Craske began to paint. They had no money, so he painted on what he had, which was the surfaces in his house. On the mantelpiece. On bits of cardboard. “On the seat of the chair he did a frigate in a storm.” His love of the sea and knowledge of it were clear, as a fisherman whom Blackburn interviews tells her. “You can’t put that energy out unless you’ve been there.”

This “quest” is meandering: don’t expect great events. The revelations are of emotion: sadness throughout for Craske’s life, though he may have been happy. Grief for Blackburn, who suffers a great loss while she is writing the book, so that from then on “grief is prowling close”. And joy, for being exposed to the embroidery of Craske, who took up the needle as he lay abed, finding a vocation. His little fishermen in their boats, sewn in careful stitches; his giant portrait of Dunkirk, with sweeping seas and tiny figures: they are amazing, yet were scorned by the museums and odd places where his work ended up, turned to the wall, ignored.

A doctor once told Craske’s wife that “he must go to sea. Only the sea will save him.” And it did, but not for long enough. We should thank Julia Blackburn for bringing back this quiet fisher and man of the sea; and Bruno Ciceri and his co-authors for exposing an unforgiving and cruel industry, where men die and the seas are depleted for the sake of our fish supper, out of sight beyond our horizon.

Rose George’s books include “Deep Sea and Foreign Going” (Portobello)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle