Work used to be something we did in the day. Now it’s more than that.
If you look back into the mists of time, you can, generally speaking, pinpoint seismic moments of change – the momentum-shifters that crept up on you and altered the landscape forever. They’re most often the result of discussions that have been happening elsewhere (away from you), that have been gradually rippling outwards, swelling as they go, turning into waves, seizing consensus, before drenching you along with everyone else. Then at some point the tsunami softens into a tide, the tide dims, and they become a norm, a known quantity. You might even forget that they were once considered radical. A good societal example might be when you started hearing about vegans. First it was a whisper, then a punchline, then an appreciation in a paper you like, then they were everywhere, then you became one for a bit, talked about it, kept talking about it, reconfigured your tastes to echo fashionable opinion, then McDonalds got in on it and a mark of contrarianism and activism became a given (gah, so nearly an anagram of ‘vegan’).
I’ve been affected by the same shifts as everyone else. I’m not a vegan, but I did think about it, I’m not much of an environmentalist but I’ll spend Sunday evening reorganising my recycling into the right boxes. I’ve adapted and incorporated new world views as my own, because that’s what we do. Our personalities might stay the same, but once in a while you’ll find yourself washing up old tins before they go in the bin, or googling what the word ‘sustainable’ actually means. That’s just who we are now, it’s a new normal (not to be confused with the new normal, which was a Covid sensation). But here’s the thing, what’s with all these dances? Are we doing them because we think we should? Have we been indoctrinated somehow? Are we just purporting to being progressive?
Now before we continue, I want to make something very clear – I’m not a conspiracy theorist. I really can’t emphasise that enough. Earth is round, vaccines are good, JFK was probably murdered by the CIA by accident. But, seriously, am I being controlled by corporate forces?
I ask because two separate moments from my working life have always stood out like sore thumbs, but for moderately different reasons. They’re similarly indicative of lifting the curtain to see the mechanics, the inner workings/soul of the business world, but with differing impacts. One burst a bubble, the other sort of inflated one. But possibly (depending on your view) in a way that’s contrived. Whether that’s good or bad is entirely up to you, because as I mentioned, I’m not spreading conspiracies here, just the facts as I see them – I don’t expect nor want anyone to follow me into a bunker (because there isn’t a bunker).
The first occurrence was around 20+ years ago when I was working in magazines. I loved working in magazines, they were the perfect places for impressionable young writers looking to embark on monumental careers, they had vibrant offices, big characters, and they were disposable enough that you could take editorial risks. For the handful of years that I worked at them (late 90s until mid-00s roughly), it felt like you had a broad creative license, you weren’t totally unshackled but the seat-belt was nice and loose. In fact, once in a while, as far as you knew, you might even be driving this thing. Then, all in one afternoon, the wind changed, the world wobbled, the pickle jar cracked, and my innocent Garden of Earthly Delights was soiled forever. We were assembled into an office where folks in suits (like the ones you’d get in boardrooms off the telly) who I’d never seen before sat us in a semi-circle and painted us a brand-new ‘vision’, a new structure, an afraid new world (if you will). They spouted theories, incorporated kangaroo science, applied restrictions, and my creative endeavour was immediately unmasked as an economic one all along. For a naive young idealist like me, things were never the same again, the death knell began clanging louder and louder. In a stroke the whole thing felt like painting-by-numbers.
Without wanting to sound too dramatic here, let’s just say the entire universe exploded into smithereens that day. I’d seen a glitch in the matrix, the reality of what we were doing, and there weren’t enough communal mugs of very bad coffee to reinvigorate a broken spirit. After that, it felt like management were popping in more and more, tasting the soup, and I knew it was over, my number was up. My brand of tracing paper creativity wouldn’t stand a chance in this corporate hellscape, as just another puppet for The Man (or Woman). No sir (or madam).
The second notable moment came a fair few years later, when I was working at a digital agency – though how ‘digital’ it was by modern standards would be debatable. There were actual people working there, human ones like you get in real life, and lots of them too. Like so many agencies, it wore its corporate hat proudly with a big feather in it, and that was fine by me. They celebrated new business when it came their way, they planned how to capture more ‘accounts’ by assembling employees into ‘war rooms’, or having ‘town hall meetings’, and the further up the ladder you went, the more tucked-in the shirts were and the more flamboyant the cock swinging. Again, like before, we were called into a room and assumed into a semi-circle like good little children. Only this time it was a different kind of discussion. Where magazine-gate fudged some economic social science to make a disheartening point that killed my mojo, this time we were veering towards cod-spirituality (which became clearer later – we were teaching the Tin Man how to love). We were tasked with talking about our ‘values’, to delve into our unspoken belief systems, to uncover what really mattered to us on a personal level. Only, you know, at work, to our colleagues. So we didn’t even get to have sex first.
The idea was that once we’d turned ourselves inside out, revealed our true feelings, off they’d go to compile a rudimentary list of rules that we should all live by, in accordance with the word of the company/God. It felt entirely baffling, it was like a teacher insisting you use their first name, or your bank manager turning up in jeans. Not inappropriate necessarily, but definitely askew. This wasn’t the nature of our relationship, was it? And why did it matter anyway? It was work, just work, a job to go with a litany of other jobs, the thing you do during the day before you get home, take your wig off, and loosen your bra straps. Like gazillions of employees before us, we clocked in, we clocked out. We weren’t there to have our spirits nourished. In fact, I dare say, my motivations lay somewhere closer to the other end of the spectrum. I was after cold hard cash. This whole sojourn had been an exercise in selling out for me, my dirty little secret, and the only thing that united me and the dick swingers at the top was money. I wanted theirs, they wanted theirs. And now, apparently, they were after my soul too.
Of course, we’re all used to this now, the humanisation of corporations. That tidal wave has softened into a working norm. We’ve reanimated businesses with brand new personalities. They’re your mate, your mentor. Their homepages are keen to usher you towards their ‘values’, to show you the tablets with their commandments carved into them at the earliest possible opportunity. They’re mostly the same too, mostly quite biblical. They want to be kind, they want to be inclusive, they want to make everyone feel great. You suspect they also want to make a steamboat full of money, and that they will fire you if they have to. But let’s not dwell on that bit.
So now, just as I rinse my jars before bin-time, I also check that the wealthy organisations I want to work for have the right spiel about striving towards a better tomorrow. It helps me sleep easier in my bed at night. And though I know it’s a pantomime, that I was practically there at its inception, who knows? If we all keep saying it and saying it, perhaps one day it’ll become a reality. Like when you bite down into that juicy burger in your hand without considering, even for a moment, that it’s now entirely made of vegetables.