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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Thus Bad Begins confirms Javier Marías as a master of the novel form

Marías’ masterful expression of his characters' psychological weather, combined with Margaret Jull Costa's gifted translation, makes for rewarding reading.

For those who love the novel as a form and not just as entertainment, Javier Marías is arguably the most rewarding writer working today. Marías, who has a self-professed fondness for English-language masters such as Joseph Conrad and Henry James, carries forward and vitally renews the great European tradition – a tradition that, rooted in Cervantes and digressive 18th-century writers such as Fielding and Sterne, found its high point in the work of Flaubert, Proust and Balzac, as well as the anglophone novelists from whom Marías has learned so well.

No one since James has used the sentence to such effect in exploring the workings of human psychology and this must have presented his translator, Margaret Jull Costa, with problems. It must be difficult to render Marías’s Spanish sentences, which are uniquely those of this novelist, into contemporary English without making them read like a sub-Jamesian imitation. That she succeeds is a mark of a truly gifted translator.

Following on from The Infatuations, his superb and moving 2011 novel (published in English in 2013), Marías’s new offering is, if anything, even more effective in conveying the psychological weather of those who, as his narrator here puts it:

. . . will never go beyond their own bounds, those who one knows early on will leave no trace or track and will barely be remembered once they disappear (they will be like falling snow that does not settle, like a lizard climbing up a sunny wall in summer . . . like the words, all those years ago, that a teacher painstakingly wrote on the blackboard only to erase them herself at the end of the class, or leave them to be erased by the next teacher to occupy the room) and about whom not even their nearest and dearest will have any anecdotes to recount.

Such a person (the narrator of The Infatuations, for example) may become “a silent witness, impartial and useless”, and only the “indifferent sentinel observing all our lives” – fate, perhaps, or a kind of autre monde novelist recounting the human story from some remote watchtower – is capable of seeing that these characters, who seem “to be just passing through or on temporary loan even while they’re alive . . . harbour stories that are far odder and more intriguing, clearer and more personal than the stories of the shrill exhibitionists who fill most of the globe with their racket”.

These characters are observers, sometimes devotees, of the lives of others. In his youth, Juan, who tells the bewildering and tragic story of Thus Bad Begins, was the personal assistant of the film-maker Eduardo Muriel, whose finest days are behind him but who still commands respect among those who love film for its own sake. Much of Muriel’s life has been spent, or rather wasted, on two kinds of compromise: first, the self-betrayals that everyone had to commit during the Franco dictatorship in order to pursue his or her craft; and second, the kind of financial wheeling and dealing that any film-maker has to endure to realise their vision in celluloid.

Somehow, he has come through honourably and it is clear that Juan admires him, both as a man and as an artist – which makes Muriel’s cruel treatment of the wife who adores him all the more puzzling. Why does the great artist hate the beautiful, long-suffering Beatriz Noguera and why does he show her such contempt? This is the mystery at the heart of Thus Bad Begins, a mystery that will leave Juan well out of his depth when he is charged by his hero to investigate a man called Jorge Van Vechten, about whom Muriel entertains dark, if initially rather vague, suspicions.

To disclose more of the plot here would undermine the suspense that Marías so carefully creates, although it should be stressed that this suspense is not only dramatic and psychological but also existential. Besides, there is so much else to enjoy here, from the characterisations to the grace of the prose as, sentence by elegant sentence, Marías glides with seeming inevitability first towards the main narrative’s denouement and then to an afterlife in which Juan, now an older man looking back at his former life, remains haunted by the past, even in the midst of present happiness. That past, however, is more than just a troubling memory. It is an ever-present warning that today’s happiness might be lost in a rash word or an impulsive gesture; in short, in the kind of unguarded action with which bad begins.

Having witnessed the events of the novel as Muriel’s assistant and sometime friend, Juan knows that there is no defence against that brooding, internal danger, other than a kind of wishful or superstitious thinking in which, rather than consigning what happened in the past to the past, he forces himself to “recover that vision, so that . . . reality can be restored and that forgotten yesterday can return the today, which, just for an instant, has slipped away from us”.

This is the novel’s last poignant moment. It is a reminder that, throughout, Marías has been uncovering a history of temps perdu, in a life, in a marriage and in a society shamed by the dictatorship with which it allowed itself to compromise for so long. 

Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is published by Hamish Hamilton (512pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad