What do you have in common with your colleagues? Fifty years ago, it was easier to answer this question. Work was linear and relied on identical inputs that produced predictable outputs. Corporations recruited identical people to perform identical tasks, and the media and education system produced identical people to fill seats in vast corporate offices.
In his 1951 masterpiece on the American Middle Class, C. Wright Mills describes it as follows:
"The new office is rationalized: machines are used, employees become machine attendants; the work, as in the factory, is collective, not individualized; it is standardized for interchangeable, quickly replaceable clerks; it is specialized to the point of automatization. The employee group is transformed into a uniform mass in a soundless place, and the day itself is regulated by an impersonal time schedule."
As Mills elaborates in his book, the "new" office did not just change how people worked, it also changed who people were. The economy transformed from one made of farmers and independent businessmen into one made predominantly of office-dwellers:
"The twentieth-century white-collar man has never been independent as the farmer used to be, nor as hopeful of the main chance as the businessman. He is always somebody’s man, the co"poration’s, the government’s, the army’s; and he is seen as the man who does not rise. The decline of the free entrepreneur and the rise of the dependent employee on the American scene has paralleled the decline of the independent individual and the rise of the little man in the American mind."
The consequences of this shift were not just practical and psychological; they also verged on the spiritual. Office-dwellers did not just work for large organizations; they belonged to them. The corporation and its physical embodiment, the office, were where people connected and found meaning. As William H. Whyte points out in another masterpiece of the 1950s:
"Organization Men... are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions."
Whyte saw this development as a "Utopian Faith" in which, ultimately, the workers merge with their employers and industrial society. His Organization Man saw himself as "isolated, meaningless" on his own and as worthwhile only "as he collaborates with others." Not psychologically, but spiritually: "by sublimating himself in the group, [the Organization Man" helps produce a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Corporations and society have changed significantly since Mills and Whyte wrote their masterpieces. The way we work at offices also changed and morphed multiple times. And yet, for many, the office remained a focal point of social and spiritual-ish life. Employees spent most of their time at the office, socialized with their colleagues, were encouraged to see the corporation as their "family," and increasingly expect the company's own values and choices to reflect their own.
Tens of millions of people spend far less time in the office than they used to, and some avoid it altogether. This leaves a social and spiritual void. How can it be filled? Early evidence points in a few directions.
The Wall Street Journal reports, "Members-only clubs are popping up across Manhattan, providing an alternative social hub and workspace as New Yorkers are spending less time in the office." Unlike traditional, pompous clubs, many of these new ones are priced more affordably and aim to attract a larger number of members from many different backgrounds.
As one club member told the Journal, belonging to a club "means never having to plan a night out." As she said, “You don’t have to do anything other than show up.” You get instant socializing and networking and a place to go where you're always welcome, never alone, and always belong.
In parallel, something else is happening. As David Perell pointed out:
“Among friends, I’m sensing a passionate rejection of individualism. What’s old is new again: the anchor of religion, getting married young, having kids shortly thereafter, and finding a community of friends who live within walking distance.”
Perell sees it as a rejection of individualism. Still, to me, it seems to be a rejection of the Organization Man's life: A backlash against the notion that your job, office, or even your country is the only source of meaning, agency, and security. There is nothing un-individual about having a family and children and building a strong community.
As fewer people work in offices, I expect more of them to embrace new types of communities and probably invent a new religion or two.