The Golden Age of Work

Reading Nancy Jane’s post here about the modern world of work made me think perhaps it’s time I wrote a post about The Golden Age of Work. It may have been a particularly British Golden Age, or it may be just me, but I think the period from around 1975 to 1985 was one of the best times to have worked in an office. It was a time when the regimented discipline of dress code and the strict enforcement of office rules were in decline and a time before cut backs and productivity and the drive to be lean and mean and downsized.

It was a time when people could chat and laugh and use the phone for personal calls and work at a reasonable pace. It was a time when going to work was fun. Of course my experience may have been somewhat skewed as I was working for the British Civil Service. The pre-war image of civil servants in pin stripe suits, drinking tea and discussing cricket all day may have been a caricature, but it wasn’t that far removed from the truth. By the 70s the pin strip suits were being replaced by jeans and T-shirts, but the enlightened attitude towards work remained. And as for the staff…

The staff requires a paragraph or two of their own. In the 70s the civil service was seen by many graduates as a safety net. If you couldn’t get the job you wanted, there was always the civil service. They didn’t pay well, but they loved graduates and were always recruiting. And they were one of the first employers to rely heavily on aptitude tests, tests which gave the highest marks for intelligence. This resulted in an abnormally large intake of highly intelligent borderline eccentrics, including some people who you couldn’t imagine getting a job anywhere else.

But it made work so much more interesting. The conversations you could have around your desk were incredible. And it was so much fun. And occasionally surreal. Most employers would think twice about employing a man who thought he could make himself invisible. The civil service didn’t mind. And though it was disconcerting at first to have someone drift into your room, walk around very slowly interspersed with long periods of standing stock still before leaving without a word, you got used to it. He was practising his invisibility routine and as long as you didn’t talk to him or, God forbid, say, ‘I can see you!’ he was happy.

But then the Civil Service of that period had its own take on reality. Taking minutes of meetings for example. Most people assume that minutes are supposed to reflect what happened in the meeting. Wrong. The Civil Service view was that minutes should reflect what should have happened at the meeting. Reality pushed aside in favour of an idealised meeting where people discussed the matters cogently and without rancour. And if you remember a point that you should have made in the meeting you could always add it later. As long as the outcome of the meeting matched reality what did it matter how you got there?

And as for timescales and targets, the philosophy in my project was that a job took as long as it took. The only pressure job was the weekly payroll – the manual staff didn’t take it too well if their pay was late. And when you’re working on MI5 Payrolls you know that one mistake and a fleet of Aston Martins will be heading your way with orders to both shake and stir…

The rest of us had it easier. We could arrange our D&D events, organise the lunchtime soccer league, and do a bit of gardening. I’d been given some pepper seeds and a propagator as a wedding present and couldn’t abide the thought of thinning out the seedlings. I was young and life was precious. Those seedlings had to be given every chance. So I bought sixty five-inch pots and took them all to work.

Looking after 60 pepper plants took a lot more effort than I’d bargained for. They grew huge and took up a lot of space. Some people had a spider plant or a cactus on their desk. I had 60 sweet peppers … which I split over four desks lined along the windows. I had to water them and pot them on. The latter leading to the incident in the 5th floor gent’s toilet when I managed to block two of the sinks with soil. And a man with 60 pepper plants on his desk looks very guilty when a memo comes round asking the footballers to be more careful washing their muddy hands after the lunchtime matches.

But the abiding memory of my time with the Home Office was one of fun, of camaraderie, and of waking every day looking forward to going to work.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .

An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.

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The Golden Age of Work — 5 Comments

  1. They’ve probably been privatised. Or are working in a government basement somewhere. Or maybe they’ve all mastered the invisibility technique:)

  2. One of my colleagues on MI5 Payrolls though (and not at all eccentric) did go on to win BBC”s Mastermind series. That was the UK’s premier general and specialised knowledge contest. He was the official Brain of Britain in the mid eighties.

    And he was really good bloke.

    Come to think of it we also had the blind chess champion of Britain too.

  3. It wasn’t like that at all here, at least in the private sector, or even in the non-profit.

    It was like that though for the MTA administration office, which explains why the MTA was such a wreck in those days. I spent one entire winter on temp assignment in one of those MTA offices. I was pretty shocked at the non-productive salaries we the taspayers paid for, but it was very pleasant, of course. But it was all day non-stop socializing, and I preferred to be working on my own stuff if I didn’t have work-work to do for which I was getting paid.

    What I liked better though, and there was a dress code, was working in hot shot law offices as the pa to senior partners. All I had to do was phones. I wrote my first novel on the Mag Card word processor. Nor was this a problem because they were lawyers — double billing was not only traditional, it was approved! Showed I was enterprising and thus to be trusted.

    That flexibility changed in law offices too. Even for the senior partners. Lawyers are being laid off and new ones can’t find jobs.

    Love, C.