Jeremy Hunt was widely ridiculed last week for claiming that most Britons were desperate to get back to the ‘fizz’ and ‘excitement’ of office life. If there’s one positive to take from 2020 thus far, it’s that most of us have been spared the pain of witnessing its dizzying downs and more downs from our desks.
The reason the poor Hunt’s assertion elicited such widespread tittering is that office work is synonymous with the most extreme banalities of modern British life.
As someone who is himself very boring, Mr Hunt should probably be grateful for this. After all, it is our daily exposure to the almost nihilistically mundane that means we are often immured to, among other things, the sight and sound of people like him.
All Ricky Gervais had to do was call his show The Office for most people to understand the kind of environment he was satirising. One of the reasons it was so popular is because, until the pandemic, most people could expect to spend the majority of their lives working in an office.
So, office tedium, and the rich seam of office tedium-related humour, is one of the few cultural unifiers we have left in our increasingly fractured society. However, unlike partying, football or holidays, office work is a fact of life that British people endure rather than enjoy.
Much of the invective aimed at everyone’s favourite former health secretary focused on a standard office’s physical space. Commentators recalled the fizz and excitement of blocked toilets, instant coffee and nausea-inducing carpets.
Their ridicule was well founded. For among the country’s square miles of post war concrete there are indeed hundreds of thousands of terrible offices. I, like many people of my not-that-advanced age, have known a fair few.
I’ve worked in some really grim offices. Ones with poor sanitation, electrical hazards, ancient technology and, in one case, a predatory office manager. I’ve also worked in several nicer spaces with comely pastoral bonuses such as free fruit, good art and space-age hand dryers.
Looking back, many of the latter I associate with some of the darkest periods of my life, while one or two of the former I remember as transformative hothouses of creativity and lols. Despite the unpleasantness of working in a grim space, the most salient factor in our enjoyment of an office is always how fulfilling we find the work we are doing there.
The problem is, as this current debate has revealed, a significant proportion of us don’t find it very fulfilling at all.
I believe the reluctance of most people to return to their desks, notwithstanding the threat of contracting a deadly virus, as well as the usual heavy millstones of several hours’ commuting and sad Pret salads, is to do with the preponderance in the UK of what the late anthropologist David Graeber dubbed ‘bullshit jobs’. These are jobs which are generally well-paid and vaguely respectable but that confer no meaning or purpose on their holder—things like marketing or admin or corporate law.