In the drumroll weeks toward the launch of Busted Cubicle, I’ve been sharing my vision with friends and colleagues. For some, the name brought to mind changing labor norms, whether it was the rise of telecommuting, the shrinking middle class, the collapse of unions, or even the force of the #MeToo movement. For others, it conjured a scene from the movie Office Space where three workers cathartically destroy a printer with a baseball bat. The truth is it’s all of these and more.
Busted Cubicle stemmed from my observations as a cubicle-bound worker who became fully remote three years ago. I cut my teeth in the Silicon Valley as a managing editor for education websites, but I’d always dreamed of telecommuting permanently. I’d spent five years living abroad and enjoyed internet connections in the most far-flung places. If Nepal’s secluded Manang Valley could have web access—an area which could only be reached by foot or horseback—I truly could live and work from anywhere.
For me, the cubicle environment was distracting. I could rarely draft an email without interruptions; the peripheral motion of colleagues or the vibrations of the office floor precluded any real cognitive flow-state, and whatever “creative magic” was supposed to thrive in that environment was conspicuously absent from my experience. Then again, writers/editors aren’t collaborative by nature, and I feel my professional life flourished when I broke free of the cubicle environment.
Beyond the literal, what is “Busted Cubicle” supposed to represent? In recent decades, telecommuting hasn’t been the only force upending traditional work environments. With the rise of dual-income households, working parents must figure out how to juggle their careers while raising kids and may seek more flexible jobs. Artificial intelligence is rapidly transforming industries and contributing to worker uncertainty. Perhaps most interesting to me, however, has been the busted contract between employers and employees, between government and citizens.
To the first point, union membership has declined precipitously and collective bargaining has all but ceased. In the past, not only was organized labor more powerful to advocate for eight-hour work days, overtime pay, and various benefits, but also many U.S. workers stayed with the same employer for decades. In the 21st century, workers don’t feel the same job security and hopping between companies is much more common. CEO pay continues to skyrocket while everyone else’s wages have stagnated. Powerful companies don’t think twice about laying off loyal, hardworking employees and relocating to areas with more favorable tax laws or cheaper local labor. I don’t blame companies for doing this, of course. They’re behaving just as they should in the interest of self-preservation. If they don’t innovate or cut their costs, a competitor will. But the bygone contract between employers and employees—the one that existed before capital could relocate so easily—feels broken.
To my second point, the contract between government and citizen also feels busted—unless, of course, the “citizen” is a corporation. In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United case, companies could spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. As a result, large, wealthy donors now drive policy more than ever, and not surprisingly, many of these changes (e.g., the GOP Tax Bill) have favored the rich.
It’s a myth (not a political opinion) that the “free market” operates best without government regulations. In reality, people create the rules of the market, and these rules stem from specific priorities and values. When lawmakers favor large companies, regulations and enforcement mechanisms are weakened, leaving workers to fend for themselves. When lawmakers favor the people, regulations and enforcement mechanisms are strengthened. Overall, there are legislative changes which can promote the interests of each camp. It’s not a matter of left versus right; it’s top versus bottom, and wealth inequality has exploded since the 1980s.
Why is this an issue? Reflecting on an international analysis in his fantastic book, Utopia for Realists, Rutger Bregman summarizes the problem succinctly: “Whether you look at the incidence of depression, burnout, drug abuse, dropout rates, obesity, unhappy childhoods, low election turnout, or social and political distrust, the evidence points to the same picture every time: inequality.” To whom will the haves sell their goods when all the have-nots are impoverished, distressed, and angry?
Also, even in developed countries with high per-capita earning and spending, people’s perception of their own financial well-being is a relative measure. So in countries like the United States, the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” makes workers miserable and status-conscious.
Another part of the busted contract between the U.S. government and citizens is the exorbitant cost of basic necessities. Healthcare and education in particular are treated as expensive privileges rather than rights as they are in many other countries. And it’s not just in developed nations either; I lived in Argentina for a year when my partner suffered a terrible bicycle accident. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, stitched up, and didn’t have to pay a dime. We estimated that without insurance, this treatment would have cost several thousand dollars in the U.S. If we can spend several trillion dollars on wars in the Middle East, we have the means to make education and healthcare accessible and affordable for everyone.
In sum, Busted Cubicle is designed for people who want to work non-traditionally—whether it’s through telecommuting, starting one’s own company, pursuing a career outdoors, or negotiating for a more flexible arrangement with a current boss. It’s also there for people advocating to mend busted contracts between U.S. employers and employees, between citizens and government.
We have the resources, the infrastructure, the work ethic, the eye for innovation, and the entrepreneurial spirit to make the United States an example in the working culture of the future. Now let’s muster the collective will.