Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review: The Organization Man, by William H. Whyte

New York: Simon & Schuster, 1956, pp. 429.

When I picked up William H. Whyte's The Organization Man I expected to find a musty curiosity. Back when Whyte was writing the country was undergoing sustained, rapid economic expansion such as America has not approached since (averaging 5 percent GDP growth a year for twenty years); the New Deal State was going strong and expected to go on doing so forever, the conservatives fulminating against it apparently hopeless yearners for a past that was never coming back; and a new hire expected to be able to stay not just in their field, but at the same company, for life.1 Indeed, Whyte worried that the great danger of the organization to the individual was that being an "organization man" was too comfortable, the company environment too "beneficent" (to use his favored term). By contrast the post-1973 period has been characterized by mediocre growth through decade after recession-filled decade; by a shift in the character of government's role in economic life that in Whyte's day had been widely thought an inconceivable regression; by the stagnant salaries and generalized insecurity that have left working people caught up in a revolution of falling expectations. The result of all this is that the pressures of the workplace would today seem to be something quite different.

Yet, while much has changed, much has also remained constant, and much of the analysis of this book, sophisticated yet accessible in a way that makes so much of our current pop social science seem embarrassingly dumbed down, could have been written today. Barbara Ehrenreich's writing in books like Bait and Switch (2005) and Bright-Sided (2009), its description of the pressure to be "optimistic" and agreeable while on the job, and the submergence of individuality beneath sociability in the workplace; the self-help tradition and its special place in the culture of salesmanship; the use, misuse and abuse of personality tests by employers; is a reminder that much of what was problematic about the economic world Whyte described remains with us. Similarly relevant is his description of how the middle class handled its finances in his day, the portrait he paints one of people with little knack for managing their own money generally living beyond their means to maintain their social status (a reminder that this hasn't solely been a feature of the slow economic growth we have taken for granted since the '70s). Likewise, there is the rightward political shift among those leaving the city for suburbia, the similarly motivated "ex-urbanites" today repeating the process.

An even bigger surprise for me was Whyte's characterization of education. Reading his comments on the conservatism and non-intellectualism or anti-intellectualism of college students; the decline of the humanities and liberal arts (and even the short shrift given the fundamental sciences) not only as majors but as components of the average student's education as training becomes more narrowly vocational; the weaknesses of teacher recruitment and teacher training, with its low stress on subject area knowledge; the hysteria that some challenge by another nation requires us to produce more engineers, to lament that more students don't study the necessary subjects, and to (disingenuously) blame "softer" majors for that lack; the concern that business's grant-giving is having undue influence on education, and that academics are only too inclined to cater to what they think businessmen want; it certainly seemed to me that there had been very little change on campus, for all the celebration and condemnation of the 1960s as some watershed. I think, too, of what Whyte said of business's bias against liberal-arts majors at hiring time, even as business leaders call for more broadly educated employees, the author observing that
At the rate things are going, it would seem liberal arts is well on its way toward being made into a specialty--a preprofessional training considered useful only for those who intend to lead the gentle life (105).
And of course, there is the issue at the bottom of it all, summed up in the words beneath the title on the cover: "The clash between the individualistic beliefs he is supposed to follow and the collective life he actually lives--and his search for a faith to bridge the gap." Of course, that clash was not a new issue in Whyte's time. Arguably, Frederick Jackson Turner writing a half century and more earlier wrestled with the same issue in the wake of the frontier's close, anticipating the replacement of earlier, more libertarian economic thinking by a world of big business and big labor and big government, the older resource profligacy by something like sustainable growth--and an America looking more like Europe. The failure to reconcile the contradiction between reality and ideology, which may be starker now than ever before, makes Whyte's take on the problem even more relevant now than when it was first written. A century after the great merger movement and the trusts, during which time the trends such writers saw have only advanced, our rhetoric on issues from space development to the welfare state still recalls frontier-style individualism. Simply put, we haven't really dealt with the contradiction, and I'm wondering if we ever will.

1. This is my own calculation using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, adjusted for inflation.

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