Aspire | Action | Acquire
Aspire | Action | Acquire

Careering Out

Yale University’s Class of ’49 became a turning point in career capitalism. As observed in The Organization Man, by William H Whyte “This class at Yale and everywhere else, weren’t so hot. … These young people weren’t seeking excitement, or challenge. They wanted a safe haven. They wanted to work for AT&T and General Electric, for heaven’s sake!”[1]

The students Whyte observed were amongst the first born to the Great Depression (1929-1933). Fast forward three decades after graduating, the party that lasted between 1950 and 1980 began to unravel.  Whyte, who went on to become a distinguished university professor made his early career observations as a journalist for Fortune magazine.

In an unrelated sequel to The Organization Man, Amanda Bennett wrote “Managers, as well as the managed, were being wrenched from their jobs”[2] in the The Death of the Organization Man. The promises of Roosevelt’s New Deal (1934-39) began to be broken, not only for workers but also those who the corporatization of capitalism demanded highly skilled managers. This period marked both the beginning of the end of the mass-production era and the commencement of the information technology era.

A principal contradiction of the mass-production era was that highly skilled workers, artisans, were replaced by technologies to carry the load of the most physically arduous tasks. At the same time, the scale of large businesses’ operations required what historians Alfred Chandler and Stephen Salsbury described as “managers with a specific type of training, experience, and abilities.”[3] On one hand, physical labor was being deskilled and mental labour upskilled. In time, the information technology era would deskill mentally arduous tasks.

The emergence of professional management did not happen overnight. T J Stiles, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The First Tycoon, associates Cornelius Vanderbilt and his son William H, with the introduction of departmental organization and standardized procedures at the New York Central Railroad. The great wave of railroad mergers between 1895 to 1904 that followed the death of the senior Vanderbilt hastened the pace of the “giant corporation.”

A specific feature of the giant corporation is the impersonalization of labor; which continues to this day and is quantified in the book Willing Slaves in terms of worker disassociation. In Pierre S du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation, Chandler and Salsbury assert that the training and performance of managers dictates their selection over family connections[4]. This is consistent with the post-Vanderbilt era of rail and the testimony of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie before a 1908 Ways and Means committee.

Carnegie, whose father’s home weaving business was displaced in the 1840s by early textile factories, testified “That millionaires of the future would follow the route taken by Charlie Schwab [who rose through the ranks of Carnegie Steel]and hitch their stars to rising corporations.”[5] Contrary to the immediacy that is often associated with the demise of an industry and its workers, Henry Ford, wrote that unemployment is contained because industries do not disappear overnight[6].

When those industries do fail, Ford wrote, new and better jobs await those who are displaced. This of course, requires reskilling, which is addressed in a separate article. The length of time before a new knowledge finds commercial applicability takes around 25-35 years according to the late economist and management Peter Drucker[7]. If we look at today’s internet-driven industries this is exactly what has happened. Two notable books on this subject are The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.

[1] Whyte, W. H. The Organization Man (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), viii.

[2] Bennett, A. The Death of the Organization Man (New York: Morrow, 1990).

[3] Alfred D. Chandler, and Stephen Salsbury, Pierre S du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation (New York: Harper Row, 1971), 591.

[4] Alfred D. Chandler, and Stephen Salsbury, Pierre S du Pont and the Making of the Modern Corporation (New York: Harper Row, 1971), 591.

[5] David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie, (London, Penguin, 2008).

[6] Henry Ford, My Life and Work: An Autobiography of Henry Ford (Lockport N.Y: Snowball Publishing, 2012), 105.

[7]  Peter F. Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles (Oxford, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann, 2006), 101.