The Week in Radio: Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life reveals changing culture of work

  • @FionaSturges

"Over the last two centuries, offices have changed the way we live as well as the way we work", it was revealed in Lucy Kellaway's History of Office Life on Radio 4.

I'll say. Ten years ago, I worked in an office where I had co-workers and a range of respectable clothing. Now I'm a home worker whose colleagues are feline, and whose sartorial style is best described as "boho bag lady".

I like to think that I keep up a professional front, though. I once decided to do a 15-minute phone interview with hair dye developing on my head, only my interviewee babbled on and on. As the chemicals began burning into my scalp, I didn't scream once. So, I'm with Kellaway. Office life ain't what it used to be.

One could question the sensitivity of a two-week series on the soul-crushing ennui of office life in light of the job prospects currently faced by the nation's youth. But this wasn't a programme about ineffectual government employment schemes or the abominable state of the job market. The emphasis here was on history, social hierarchy and the changing culture of work.

Kellaway, who as a Financial Times columnist is no stranger to the office herself, began her investigation at the British Library with the essayist Charles Lamb's account of working life at the East India Company in the early 1800s. "Thirty years have I served the philistines," he wrote mournfully, "and my neck is not subdued to the yoke." Lamb told of 13-hour days, of punishing weekend overtime, of perks granted, only to later be revoked when profits were down. He and his colleagues were made to sign in every 15 minutes to make sure no one was shirking. There was little hope of moving up the career ladder unless someone above you keeled over and died.

Work-related stress was clearly a thing even then, though the morale-boosting karaoke sing-a-longs ruthlessly enforced by the likes of Nev of BBC3's The Call Centre had yet to be masterminded. In Lamb's office, a man threw himself through a window to his death. He was angry, bored and, like so many of today's corporate slaves, powerless to change his circumstances.

And yet, as Kellaway pointed out, the growth of office life has also been a force for good. Over the past century, it has been the driving force of new technology and made workers more upwardly mobile. It has brought women out of the kitchen and into the boardroom, albeit via a long stint in the typing pool.

This was a thoughtful, illuminating and superbly researched programme that used historical precedent to show us that, while today's office drones may have grounds to be grumpy, not all that much has changed. While certain office signifiers have disappeared – whither blotting paper, ledgers and tea trolleys? – others such as petty bureaucracy, bitching and motivational slogans are enduring.

And if you thought that the asinine questions posed during today's psychometric job interviews are new, think again. We learned how, in the 19th century, the Chinese developed a tortuous examination system for admission into the imperial service that comprised lengthy tests in which applicants had to, among other tasks, memorise 40,000 characters of Confucian text. This inspired the British to re-think the qualifications of those working in the civil service. The old-school patronage system was largely dispensed with in favour of meritocracy.

So for anyone sitting in an office thinking of hurling themselves through a window, Kellaway's programme brought at least some cause for optimism. Time was when you had to be Lord Gladstone's nephew's neighbour's cousin to bag a desk job and a pension. Now all you need are some A-levels and a love of karaoke.