When William H. Whyte, assistant managing editor at Fortune Magazine, published The Organization Man in 1956, critics – professional and otherwise – were outraged at the portrait of American business he painted. This was not the America they knew! Where was the individualism, the entrepreneurship, the originality that we prided ourselves upon? Where were those very qualities of our national personality that we had defined ourselves by for generations?
Where were they? One might say that twenty years of economic chaos had beaten them out of us.
Because to understand the importance of Whyte’s landmark work – both today and when it was published in the mid-1950s – one must reacquaint oneself a little bit with American history.
For in the two decades that preceded the book’s publication, America had endured a catastrophic financial depression, a world war that fundamentally changed the planet’s political and power structure, and then more recently the inauguration of an economic engine that would drive the world for the next sixty years.
And it is important to recall this extended era of remarkable turbulence because it explains why, even as America had become the dominant economy on the planet by 1956, the fear, uncertainty and doubt that Americans had been battling daily since October 1929 were still so much a part of their psyches. Indeed, the Organization Man of 1956 had most likely been born during the Depression and had known privation and rationing in some form or another his entire life. Everything in his experience indicated to him that want was the norm and not the wealth of goodies that were increasingly surrounding him – the very same wealth of goodies that we tend to identify as the distinguishing characteristic of the 1950s.
Thus when Whyte described a workforce that was conservative, lacking ambition and non-entrepreneurial, a workforce comprised of:
the modest aspirations of organization men who lower their sights to achieve a good job with adequate pay and proper pension and a nice house in a pleasant community populated with people as nearly like themselves as possible.
he was simply describing the eminently logical desires of people who were clearly still reeling from the effects of two decades of economic chaos. If you’d grown up during 25% unemployment, bread lines, radical social upheaval, victory gardens and ration cards, the promise of adequate pay you could count on and a decent house you could pay off would probably seem almost more than you could legitimately hope for.
Indeed, when viewed in this context, what’s truly curious is the fact that Whyte’s observations outraged as many as they did – which frankly makes the story that much more fascinating and compelling.
Now, this is important to understand for a couple of reasons. First, because of the very direct insight it provides into the generation that has dominated our culture and economy ever since they arrived. For these Organization Men are, quite literally, the fathers of the baby boomers and understanding the issues at play for them is always useful.
Second, because while the economic uncertainty and military actions we’ve been through recently are not as substantial as the ones that preceded the book’s original publication, they have had a surprisingly similar effect on the public. More people seek simple stability – a living wage, a secure job, a roof over their heads – in numbers we haven’t seen in decades. In other words, Whyte’s observations have special significance and relevance today – especially in light of recent surveys indicating that economic mobility in the US lags other countries .
But beyond the nearsightedness of our immediate era or demographics, the simple fact is that while we may be more independent-minded than others we can point to, while we may cherish the image of the lone cowboy, the frontier, the iconoclast, the ‘crazy ones’, most of us are, and always have been, happy to conform in every age to some sort of norm. We are not all Faulkners, Franklins, Jobs, Dylans, no matter how often we trundle out those images.
America has always held these two ideas of itself in its collective conscience simultaneously. America has always believed itself to be at once a nation of individualists and a collection of tribes, and the uneasy resolution of these opposing perceptions of ourselves is what has always driven our literature, our politics, our culture and our economy.
Perhaps you find that contradiction disturbing. But could you sell mass market brands if it were not so?
The Organization Man by William H. Whyte was published by Anchor/Doubleday in 1956 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).