For this reason early American commentators, for whom office work was not a natural or dominant kind of work (the country was much more agrarian, and nascently industrial), viewed office work as “not real work”—not least because it seemed to require no physical effort. “A slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest,” Walt Whitman called clerks, and he derided their tendency to dress fancily as a kind of compensation: “What wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked!”
I think this unheroic aspect of office work is one reason why it’s so rarely written about. In movies and novels and TV, the work itself gets treated almost invariably as drudgery, from early films like The Crowd through to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and through to The Office. In fact, in a lot of these books and films and shows, you rarely learn what it is people are actually doing, or it becomes impossible to show them doing it—you can only show it as them socializing: Their socializing becomes the way to show them working (or avoiding work). Even the title of a show like The Office suggests that, even when a place has people doing so many different kinds of tasks, ultimately what they do is in the same setting, and is, therefore, basically homogeneous.
But another feature that office work’s relative invisibility, or opacity, helps obscure is the question of class. Since the rise of the ranks of clerical workers in the 19th century, it became a virtually unquestioned assumption that office work was middle class work. Office work was clean, and you didn’t come home smelling of your job; you wore (pretty much) the same clothes to work that you wore on the street; and you got a steady salary as opposed to an hourly wage. And there was the assumption, as I’ve mentioned, that you could rise from the bottom of the ladder to the corner office—something few people assumed about factory work. There was always a high level of prestige to office work that never accrued to industrial labor. In fact, I think that the prestige of office work was pretty much predicated on the denial of the salience of class at all; that, if you worked hard, you were basically always on your way up, and so weren’t really constrained by class.
Still, there were a few times when this correlation between office work and being middle class came to be questioned, and this was when the work itself began to seem less enjoyable, or its connection to steady upward mobility less apparent: in other words, when office workers began to see themselves less as “employees” or “junior businessmen,” and more as, well, workers. By the 1930s, office work really did resemble factory work: if you think of old films, even through the 1960s like The Apartment, you have these cavernous accounting or steno pools, where people clock in and out and have daily, repetitive tasks that form part of this enormous, labyrinthine operation that nobody understands, just like in factories. And the Great Depression put a dent in people’s expectations of a steady career; as a result, office worker unions really began to coalesce in those years.