My mom thinks I need structure.
I can’t disagree—freelancing often leaves me listless and broke, but I don’t want to work in an office. Of course, the response to this is always an eye roll.
Well duh, the eye roll says. Who does?
No one wants to work in an office, but if you get the opportunity, you have to: that’s just how it is. Office jobs are the goal and bane of urban and suburban existence. They’ve been around since the eighteenth century and have long served as poster children for late capitalism: the upwardly mobile sitting quietly at their desktops, so far away from the fruits of their labor that it all just looks like numbers on a screen. 40+ hours a week every year minus two weeks of vacation in exchange for enough money to buy pretty much anything you want, so long as you don’t have kids or medical needs. It’s not the best deal, but it’s the one we’ve got.
I am not unrealistic about work. I fit pretty squarely in a younger generation eschewing office jobs for the gig economy, but I don’t think it’s because of laziness. Actually, millenials (and burgeoning Gen Z) have shown themselves to be harder working than previous generations, at least in the classroom, where this kind of stuff is more measurable—Spending 3x longer studying than Gen X, completing 30% more homework, and spending 14% more time in class, as well as taking 921% more Advanced Placement tests with high scores remaining roughly constant across generations—data pointed out by Malcolm Harris in Kids These Days. Clearly, it’s not a lack of work ethic that’s making young people office-phobic. For some, it’s the daylight hours spent glued to a chair. For others, it’s the lure of entrepreneurship, particularly the lightning speed riches bestowed to technology first comers. (People my age have watched success story after success story of creative tech inventors and users. With the exponential growth of tech, there seems no slowing to new ways it can be monetized.) For me, it’s office culture.
While all my office thoughts should be taken with several cellars of salt, as I’ve only ever worked in office settings where I’ve been significantly younger than everyone else and, as such, operated outside the realm of office culture as the onlooking intern or freelancer, my outsider position and naiveté also afford me the ability to make sweeping generalizations that I imagine may be useful for thinking more broadly about the office, if completely lacking the lived experience necessary for making these judgments well. So dip out here if you want, and if not, pardon the oncoming broad strokes.
But I had a hard time working in my first Manhattan office because everyone was so goddamn normal. Everyone fit so neatly into their target demographics, buying the things they were supposed to buy, posting the right articles on Slack. The straight white woman in her mid-thirties buys Glossier blush and Everlane pants and loves Lizzo, the late thirties management considers Air Pods and Canada Goose a necessity, Burning Man a good time. Everyone seemed busy constructing their identity as young, upwardly mobile city dwellers through particular, well-worn patterns of consumption. While this kind of citizenship, one based on white consumption, has been around since the beginning of capitalism, it feels particularly empty in its latest stage. Almost as if Jennifer didn’t actually know if she preferred by Chloe or Sweetgreen—just knew that she wanted to be the kind of person who ordered that stuff for lunch.
Let me pull back before this turns into some personal indictment of coworkers past, because it’s not personal. I do not think everyone who works a 9-5 is a tasteless dope. I think that offices encourage a cardboard sort of community through group consumption, which can encourage people to be tasteless dopes. This is different. I’ll explain.
An office, by definition, is a community that has one profit in common. In the same way that a neighborhood is bonded by their physical location or a fraternity is bonded by shared, raced masculinity, an office is a community that is bonded by a single shared profit. Wax poetic all you want about the real utility and intrinsic goodness of your product: if it fails to bring in profit, you will get fired. Your office is not a family, even if you enjoy being there. The communal aspect of the office is, in every single way, governed by profit motive.
That logic permeates everything that occurs in an office. People are supposed to leave their home selves at home: aka their culture, traditions, wardrobes, desires, and unrequested opinions—and bring sanitized versions of themselves to the office, so they may interact with other workers without friction (or worse, asked to perform their culture/race/gender or sexuality in trite ways for the sake of “diversity”). Consider: the entire comedic framework of The Office hangs on the notion that people must be their “work selves” at work. Michael Scott’s impropriety is only funny because it breaks the taboo of the workplace; he brings his whole, politically incorrect self to the office. His exception establishes the rule: that the work self and home self are different, that the office is a place where many markers of selfhood must be subsumed to the profit motive.
Many markers of selfhood, save one important one: consumption. Safe conversation territory with coworkers almost always returns to consumption patterns—namely entertainment consumption. “Water cooler talk” these days is almost entirely about catching up on TV shows, podcasts, sports, or viral videos from the internet. Not even what coworkers think about these things, just whether or not they’ve seen them, and if so, how much they’ve seen. (As much as outrage clickbait pollutes our news feeds, we still live in a culture where IRL opinions are commonly, half-jokingly referred to as “hot takes.”)
Office culture, then, only allows people to express themselves as consumers—as consumption is the one form of identity allowed in an office, something safely assumed to be shared by all under capitalism. Office culture exacerbates the blanding effects of identifying primarily through consumption. (“Blanding” is a term used by Red Antler, the marketing agency that has designed ads for a number of successful startups aimed at millenials who ride the L train. Red Antler’s designs, and the startups themselves, offer relief from decision fatigue: you don’t need to spend hours finding the perfect mattress for the best price, there’s only one mattress you could ever want, and it’s Casper. That sort of thing.)
Because people want to relate to each other, they buy things to belong to the demographic they’d like a stake in. They buy things to continue the churn of water cooler talk. To fit it. To prove to themselves that they can fit in. (We all do this.) But the term “office culture” is frankly, a misnomer. The only “culture” offered by an office is shared consumer culture, and consumer culture is not real. It is manufactured by advertisers making broad assumptions about who upwardly mobile young city dwellers are, and thus, what they want, and so the upwardly mobile young city dwellers want these things so they might know who they are.
But my coworkers past are not all basic rise-and-grinders who buy whatever their Instagram ads tell them to buy, they are humans seeking social connection and maybe even a sense of meaning from their shared profit motive. And I think they are failing, because office culture, synonymous with consumer culture (you might call it “capitalism culture”)—provides limited meaning. It feels absolutely empty to construct your identity with eye shadow and television shows, Apple products and designer clothing. It makes you feel disposable.
That being said, I don’t think the gig economy or co-working spaces are the answer. Though gig economy jobs can allow some people to feel like they have more control over their schedule, this is rarely the case for most gig setups, plus these jobs are often socially isolating by nature. Co-working spaces can also be isolating and sometimes less social than normal offices, since workers don’t necessarily share profit motives. I have worked gigs through apps and currently clock in at a co-working space so fancy it took me days to work up the courage to sample the free coffee. I am there at the behest of my boss, who uses the space as a makeshift office: we talk shop but mostly sit silent at our laptops, forced by proximity to listen to the other small companies talk their shop. It’s a lot of fashion people, white ladies in designer streetwear. But they are friends with each other. Their conversations are friendly: “No I’ve never heard of that. You say it’s like Hollister? ‘Aeropostale?’” Some laughing, some shushing each other out of respect for our nearby ears. Office jobs share the property of all other jobs that they are made significantly better by friendship.
But isn’t the sweetest part of a coworker’s friendship the real weirdnesses you share in spite of the workplace’s expected propriety? Isn’t every real friendship made with a coworker fundamentally in spite of the “workplace self?” Again, the exception proves the rule: that it is not in a company’s best interest for employees to be friends (friendly, yes, but not truly friends, which requires exposing more than one’s work self). If you have friends at work, you might be lucky, but you are counteracting the profit motive—you are considered less valuable to your company for that friendship. Even companies that invest significantly in meeting their employees’ needs (like Google) only do so because workers are more profitable when they are happy. That “happiness” might include excellent and useful amenities, open bar mixers and elaborate holiday parties, but not friends.
A lot of startups (particularly in the new co-working market) are investing in the question of how to build a better office. But what does “better” really mean? Happier? More communal? The office is, by nature, optimized for profit. Any other features, even lengthy maternity leave and fresh-cut strawberries on Waffle Wednesdays, are there because they bring in money.
When I say I don’t want to work in an office, I mean there is only a certain strength in weak ties. I’m interested in tightening my knots.
is still figuring it out.