A Nation Of Risk Takers?

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Offices are not what they used to be. On a bulletin board in the office where I work, some mischievous soul has posted work rules said to have been written in 1852:

“1) Godliness, cleanliness and punctuality are the necessities of a good business. 2) This firm has reduced the hours of work, and the office staff will now only have to be present between the hours of 7:00 A.M. and 6:00 P.M. on weekdays. 3) Daily prayers will be held each morning in the main office....4) Clothing must be of a sober nature. The office staff will not disport themselves in raiment of bright colours....6) A stove is provided for the benefit of the office staff....It is recommended that each member of the office staff bring four pounds of coal each day during cold weather....8) No talking is allowed during business hours....10) Now that the hours of business have been drastically reduced, the partaking of food is allowed between 11:30 A.M. and noon, but work will not, on any account, cease. 11) Members of the office staff will provide their own pens....”

Talk about a different world! As late as 1840, the business historian Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., tells us, “there were no middle managers in the United States—that is, no managers who supervised the work of other managers and in turn reported to senior executives who themselves were salaried managers.” In the traditional commercial enterprise of the first half of the nineteenth century, “business was carried on in much the same manner as it had been in fourteenth-century Venice or Florence.” The work was done by “two or three copiers, a bookkeeper, a cash keeper, and a confidential clerk who handled the business when the partners were out of the office.” (Herman Melville’s wonderful story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1853, gives us a vivid glimpse of an office organized in this way.)

 

Today, of course, our offices are cells in giant organizations. “Inside the Whale,” the title of an essay by George Orwell about the novelist Henry Miller, is the title I intend to use when I write my business memoirs. In the twentieth century, for better or worse, life inside any large organization is life inside the whale. We go where the big fish takes us, at the pace it prefers.

The organization man, Fortune magazine announced on August 17, 1987, is “just about extinct.” Odd, I thought. If the organization man is extinct, what am I doing sitting in an office reading Fortune ? Who are all these other people in all these other offices?

My contemporaries, the organization men and women of the 1980s, have embraced a fate that does not seem burdensome, except for the burden of finding that most of our discoveries are rediscoveries. When we read novels like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) and nonfiction like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), William H. Whyte, Jr.’s The Organization Man (1956), and Alan Harrington’s Life in the Crystal Palace (1959), we realize that even our frustrations are old hat. I extend my sympathy to our children, the organization men and women of 2010, who are destined either to forget the past or to discover our rediscoveries.

What will they discover? Even though Fortune has declared the organization man extinct (on the ground that “today’s news makers are not faceless institutions but people”), I think that the next generation of Fortune and Forbes subscribers will feel a jolt of recognition when they read, for instance, the passage in which Tom Rath, the hero of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, explains to his boss why he has had second thoughts about a promotion to a more demanding job:

“I don’t think I’m the kind of guy who should try to be a big executive....I don’t want to give up the time. I’m trying to be honest about this. I want the money. Nobody likes money better than I do. But I’m just not the kind of guy who can work evenings and week ends and all the rest of it forever....I’m not the kind of person who can get all wrapped up in a job—I can’t get myself convinced that my work is the most important thing in the world.”

The literature of the 1950s that we associate with the organization man holds up remarkably well—not because the 1980s are a rerun of the 1950s but because the fundamental difficulties of adult life do not change much from generation to generation. When I reread these books recently, I was struck by how sensible and, often, how subtle they are. For instance, I expected Whyte to be a critic of conformity, but I found him criticizing the critics: “This book is not a plea for nonconformity. Such pleas have an occasional therapeutic value, but as an abstraction, nonconformity is an empty goal....There will be no strictures in this book against ‘Mass Man’—a person the author has never met—nor will there be any strictures against ranch wagons, or television sets, or gray flannel suits. They are irrelevant to the main problem and, furthermore, there’s no harm in them.”