5 Ways the Workplace Has Changed in Forty Years

The workplace has improved but we still have a long way to go

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

If my twenty-one-year-old daughter was whisked back in time, I’m sure she would be shocked. Not by the whisking itself or David Tennant turning out to be a Time Lord in real life. But by the working conditions.

The workplace has changed in the last forty years. What was normal then is almost unbelievable now.

In 1978 I started work as a Saturday girl in a department store. Since then I’ve worked in accountancy, banking, retailing and transport. There have been many changes since since 1978, most of them for the better.

Here is what the workplace used to be like:

1. Your job could more easily kill you

“You can’t be as old as I am without waking up with a surprised look on your face every morning: ‘Holy Christ, whaddya know — I’m still around!’ It’s absolutely amazing, I survived all the booze and smoking and the cars and the career.” — Paul Newman.

When I started work, it was customary for people to smoke at their desks or in the lunchroom. I didn’t think it odd at all.

My father had smoked indoors at home all his life. All the adults who smoked did it indoors. Any complaints would have been met by a clip round the ear and a telling-off.

What with all the smoking going on at home, it didn’t occur to anyone to be worried about it at work.

Throughout the eighties and nineties, I was exposed to varying degrees of secondhand smoke at work. When I was in a small office with another manager, he chain-smoked. I remember feeling really sick and ill.

Attitudes slowly changed in the UK, especially when the British entertainer Roy Castle died of lung cancer from the secondhand smoke he had been exposed to. Castle was not a smoker but had spent many years playing in smoky clubs as a musician.

Thankfully, New Zealand introduced legislation banning smoking from the workplace many years ago and recently updated it to include vaping.

“Under the Smokefree Environments and Regulated Products (Vaping) Amendment Act 2020 (the Amendment Act), all indoor workplaces must be smokefree and as of 11 November 2020 has been extended to vapefree. This includes offices, restaurants, bars, warehouses, factories, break rooms, taxis, internal areas of trains and ships, prisons and travel terminals and passenger lounges.” — smokefree.org.nz

Photo by Andres Siimon on Unsplash

2. You were offered a hot beverage even when you weren’t upset

“I got nasty habits — I take tea at three.” — Mick Jagger

Up until the early nineties, we had a tea lady at the bank. It was great. At ten-thirty and three o’clock, the tea lady would come round with her trolley and ask if you wanted tea or coffee. Sometimes she’d baked for charity, and we got a slice of cake for 10p. She did all the washing up as well.

It was always a tea lady, never a tea man, and they all had lots of stories. One of the tea ladies I knew had a friend who was murdered, made into a pie, and eaten. Or so she said.

Thanks to YouTube

It was nice having tea and coffee brought around, but it meant we only got one drink in the morning and afternoon.

On the topic of snacks, the executive team had a cook. The entire team sat down to a proper cooked lunch in the board room a couple of times a week.

There was also a liquor cabinet which possibly explains some of the shouting and 4.00 pm sackings on the occasional Friday.

3. We ladies could have it all — or could we?

“A working woman as role model didn’t come along until the late 1960s and early 1970s when shows such as Julia — where Diahann Carroll starred in the first non-stereotypical network TV role for an African-American woman as Julia Baker, a single mom who worked full time as a nurse — and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Moore portrayed Mary Richards, a career-oriented single woman who is a news producer for a TV station in Minneapolis.” — Susan Hauser, workforce.com

When I started work in the early eighties, people were still discussing questions of note such as:

  • Are women as intelligent as men?
  • Would you ever work for a woman boss?
  • Would you allow your wife to work?

One of my mum’s friends was unusual because not only did she go to work, she was a supervisor. Sonya was known as the driving force in her marriage. Her husband was either pitied or envied by the men in the group.

My friends and I were all ardent feminists who objected to the prevailing treatment of women.

Our protests were greeted with cries of, “Off to burn your bra, are you love?” or “Wait until you meet a nice man and have a baby, you’ll change your mind then.”

Sometimes even, “Well there’s nothing wrong with you having a little job as long as your husband doesn’t mind.”

We knew of older women who were allowed to work by their husbands. As long as working didn’t interfere with their housework, that is. In particular, the dinner being on the table when the husband got home.

In job interviews, women would be asked when they were planning on having a baby and if their husbands minded them taking the job.

Thought this seems like a sixties comedy skit. Sadly, this all happened and was the norm. Though we still have a long way to go, attitudes towards women in the workplace have progressed a little.

Having said that, I was asked if I could cook and what time I got the dinner on the table by a couple of men when I was dating online a few years ago.

And even now, the advent of Covid is adversely affecting women in the workplace more than men.

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

4. We worked from nine-to-five

Back in the eighties and nineties, lunches were at set times. Either twelve until one or one until two. We were either allocated a lunchtime or told when to go. Every coming and going was scrutinized.

Even two or three minutes late, coming back from lunch was called out immediately by the boss. If the boss wasn’t there, a colleague would be sure to loudly point out your tardiness.

The same went for start and finish times. We had to start at 9.00 am on the dot. That didn’t mean walk in at 9.00 am and make a cup of tea. That meant at your desk, working. At five pm, there was a daily stampede out the door to the lifts. It was pointless, as most people had been messing around getting ready to leave for the last fifteen minutes.

We couldn’t change our hours either. It was the same for everyone, 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, that’s it. I once asked if I could take Friday afternoons out of my holiday leave for a couple of months. My ex-husband was working in Portugal, so I used to fly out to see him. A few Friday afternoons off would have made the journey much easier for me. I was told no, it would look like favoritism.

No wonder women weren’t represented in the workplace. Rigid time-keeping made it all too hard once women had a child.

Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash

5. You could be handcuffed to a trolley

At my department store job, I was promoted to work in the office. I have no idea why. They just told me one Saturday morning that from now on, I would work in the office.

One of the jobs we had to do was collect all the cash boxes from under the tills. There was a trolley that the cash boxes slotted into. The boxes were locked in place on the trolley or under the till. I had to go round with the manager and swap the empty cash boxes for the full ones.

To stop thieves from taking the trolley, I was handcuffed to it. Not the male manager. Me, the sixteen-year-old Saturday girl.

Another Health & Safety hazard was the bars across the windows in the cash office. We had often complained that if there was a fire, we wouldn’t be able to get out.

There was indeed a fire, but at the flagship Woolworths store in Manchester. Like our cash office, theirs had windows with bars, and the firemen had to cut through them to get the girls out. Ten employees lost their lives on May 8th 1979, in the fire.

“We then went through to the adjoining office where we tried to get out but all I heard was screaming and shouting and the black smoke that was in front of us was unbelievable. We then went back in the office and stood on the desk and opened the windows only to find the bars. We just started screaming for help with our hands waving out of the windows.” — Anne Beswick, from a story by Rob Williams, Manchester Evening News.

“I remember standing across the road by Piccadilly Gardens watching the flames. I saw a woman in a window high up waving, the window had bars on it. — Brenda Kennedy, from a story by Rob Williams, Manchester Evening News

Final words

Time has ticked on, and I find myself in a different world.

Better in some ways, but we still have a long way to go.

There is still a wage gap between men and women. Sixty-one people still lost their lives at work in NZ in 2020. Women are bearing the brunt of Covid related work stress.

Still, a long way to go. But slightly better than where we were.

If you enjoyed this I invite you to have a look at some of my other articles:

Brit in Auckland writing about leadership for new leaders, diversity, post divorce dating, and becoming a writer/entrepreneur. Warning: random humor included.

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