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A Nation Of Risk Takers?

July 2024
6min read

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.”

I cite this passage not only as an example of good sense but as an example of the difference between the 1950s and the 1980s. So far as I know, no one has thought about conformity, much less worried about it, for years, though I have no doubt that all of us might worry again if Time or Newsweek ran a cover story on “the new conformity.” (The important thing is that, for one week, everyone should worry together.)

Conformity is not the only concern of the 1950s that stirs little interest today. Another subject that has fallen on hard times is affluence. The problems associated with “permanent” prosperity no longer attract attention. Titles like The Affluent Society (John Kenneth Galbraith, 1958) and Abundance for What? (Riesman, 1964) do not appear on our best-seller lists.

Thinking of the happy days after World War II when America’s business muscle went unchallenged, I’m reminded again of Orwell: “There you are, in the dark, cushioned space that exactly fits you, with yards of blubber between yourself and reality....” Thirty years ago we worried about anomie and alienation, we worried about conformity, we worried about affluence, but we did not worry about our ability to compete in world markets or about the future of the automobile industry. Today, of course, the blubber that separates American managers from reality has all but melted away. As for our interest in addressing the problems that afflict an “age of plenty” (Riesman, 1958)—well, it may not be gone, but it’s hard to sustain it in a period in which General Motors announces that it will cut its white-collar work force by 25 percent, General Electric decides that it can’t compete in consumer electronics, and the stock market takes a plunge that shakes sober men into using words like meltdown.

Whereas the central figure in the business literature of the 1950s was the organization man, the central figure in the business literature of the 1980s has been the entrepreneur. In recent years a “flowering of entrepreneurship” has been widely reported in the business press, and there may be something to it. According to The New York Times, more than 630,000 new businesses were founded in 1984, compared with half that number a decade before. The times were a-changing, as Bob Dylan told us long ago, but not quite in the way we imagined.

The literature of the 1950s that we associate with the organization man holds up remarkably well.

Certainly the literature of entrepreneurship has flourished. Whatever may be happening in the rest of the economy, the proliferation of books with titles like Going for It! How to Succeed as an Entrepreneur and Entrepreneurial Megabucks: The 100 Greatest Entrepreneurs of the Last Twenty-five Years bears witness to a flowering of entrepreneurship among authors and publishers. There has even been a multipart television series and, inevitably, a “companion volume,” lavishly illustrated and priced to match—The Entrepreneurs: An American Adventure.

No one can doubt the importance of entrepreneurship in any advanced economy, but something about the celebratory literature now flooding our bookstores makes me uneasy. My muddled thoughts on this subject came into focus recently when I watched on television a classic movie of the 1950s, Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. The movie is an old favorite of mine, but this time I saw something new in it.

As the opening credits roll, vertical and horizontal lines are drawn on the screen until a huge grid appears. Then, slowly, the grid turns into the facade of a towering Manhattan office building. The camera takes us inside, and out of the elevator steps a host of men in suits. One of them, dictating a note to his secretary, is Cary Grant.

In the next two hours Roger Thornhill, advertising executive, is transformed into a daredevil who scrambles for his life as a crop-dusting airplane takes aim at him, climbs roofs as nimbly as a cat burglar, and darts up and down the face of Mount Rushmore with the agility of a mountain goat. It is a wonderful fantasy—the same fantasy that occurs every time mild-mannered Clark Kent steps into a telephone booth, sheds his suit, and emerges as Superman—but even better, because it’s better to be Cary Grant than Superman.

But it is only a fantasy. In real life, palefaces do not turn into redskins, advertising men do not turn into acrobats, and organization men do not turn into entrepreneurs. What makes me uneasy in the current business literature is the suspicion that we are indulging a national fantasy. A book like Entrepreneurial Megabucks is a drug. Our heads spin; we dream we are a nation of risk takers. In this respect, I think, we are, indeed, “inside the whale,” with yards of blubber between ourselves and reality.

At any rate that is how the situation looks to me. One thing I know for sure: Even though Fortune says we have ceased to exist, not one person in my office has canceled his or her subscription. Our pencils are sharpened, our coffee is brewing, the mail is piled high in our in-boxes, and our computers hum from dawn to dusk. We’re going to feel pretty foolish if the organization, our womb and world, is dead in the water.

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