Bring your birthday cake to work – it’s a crumb of comfort

<span>Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Nils Jorgensen/Rex/Shutterstock

When I was younger the phrases around work were largely of the “You Don’t Have To Be Mad To Work Here” variety. Office humour is a hell of a drug. “SARCASM is one of the free services I offer” propped on a desk alongside a family of gonks and three cooling coffees. “When you EXCEL they always SPREADSHEET about you.” It was good stuff! It kept us going through the dark days of the mid-2000s, before the world as we know it emerged, with its sickness and crop tops, and endless milks. And before work became so complicated and so changeable we were required to create whole new phrases and grammar to try to explain it.

The latest is “quiet hiring” – when employers ask workers to shift their roles rather than employ new staff, which is the younger sibling of “quiet quitting” – doing the minimum your job requires. That’s another one, a phrase built to help us re-conceptualise the ways we’re forced to work, especially since the pandemic, which slowly wrung out the last possibilities of joy from work’s withered flannel. My colleagues and I are currently working from home, or “WFH” (along with the new phrases came a file of correct pronunciations, and this, I can tell you, is pronounced like a dog sneezing), which means this month we have missed two deskmates’ birthdays, and so, two cakes.

You may have heard by now that Professor Susan Jebb, chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency, recently announced that bringing birthday cakes to work should be considered as socially unacceptable as passive smoking. It was, admittedly, an odd news story – the Times seems to have set up its own commission, where knowledgable people like Jebb contributed ideas about health in a nuanced way, and then the paper reported it with a shocked headline as if she was launching a culture war to ban our biscuits. But still. Battle lines were drawn.

Who was this woman and why was she coming for our cakes?

Who was this woman and why was she coming for our cakes, cried the internet, our cakes, the final flake of pleasure us flailing workers had left! Cakes should not be banned, people suggested – colleagues who say, “Oh, I shouldn’t,” when offered a piece should, or “I’m off sugar.” Love letters to Colin the Caterpillar – his moist chocolate loins, the transgressive pleasure of biting into an eyeball – sat alongside essays on how Jebb’s suggestion was another example of wokeness gone mad. Me, I loved it all. I mean, I scoffed, of course I did.

A slice of cake around the printer is unlikely to have any health risks for the majority of us. Even two. Even two, eaten using a magazine as a plate and a ballpoint pen as a knife. Because a thousand things decide whether or not a person will become obese, quite aside from their willpower around dessert – it’s a confused and confusing combination of age, metabolism, mental health, medications, genetics, class and money that decides the state of a body. But, as usual, the messaging has been simplified and scrubbed until it’s so flimsy it appears like this, as a sharp-nailed swipe at office cake.

That’s part of the reason I remain on the side of cake. The other became clear when curled with my daughter watching the new series of Junior Bake Off, where child bakers were tasked with making cakes that illustrated something they would prioritise if they were prime minister. One boy made a cake that called for neurodiversity to be better understood, another made a bed, symbolising his policy to end homelessness. It was equal parts adorable and upsetting, these genius kids, able to both make a quite delicious-looking little sponge and quickly describe the thing that adults were failing at; the thing which kept them up at night.

They were judged on their bakes, but the real judgment was on us, the old and voting public, who continue to let down our children with bad choices and fear. I thought about cake as a symbol and I thought about work. It feels clear to me that the meaning of all these new phrases about work, like “quiet hiring”, are less important than the fact we feel a need to create and update the language at all. They’re a record of how we are struggling to understand the changing landscape of work and trying to make it all right in our minds.

And in the same way, this debate about office cake misses the point. Four o’clock, the jangle of awkward song, the heaving oneself up to marvel at a traybake – it’s about taking a pause in the day for a tiny celebration, acknowledging a life outside work, one where we were once kids and birthdays were important, and forcing a moment of human connection across a Victoria sponge. A plate of supermarket cupcakes, icing so thick it briefly paralyses your teeth, a round of under-brewed tea, a Twix bought as an in-joke and one unexplained Revel on a tray. Susan Jebb, my friend, these are the things of life! And to my sweet-toothed comrades, still toiling through the discourse, this argument about cake… it’s not about cake at all.

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