How Has 'The Organization Man' Aged?

The New York Times , January 17, 1999

LOS ANGELES -- William H. Whyte, who died last week, lived long enough to achieve a paradoxical fate for a social critic: the world he once criticized had become the good old days.

Whyte's 1956 classic, The Organization Man, argued that American business life had abandoned the old virtues of self-reliance and entrepreneurship in favor of a bureaucratic "social ethic" of loyalty, security and "belongingness." With the rise of the postwar corporation, American individualism had disappeared from the mainstream of middle-class life.

The Organization Man, wrote Whyte, "must not only accept control, he must accept it as if he liked it."

"He must smile when he is transferred to a place or a job that isn't the job or place he happens to want," Whyte wrote. "He must be less 'goal-centered,' more 'employee-centered.' It is not enough now that he work hard; he must be a damn good fellow to boot."

Young men of ambition submerged themselves in the organization, adopting what Whyte described as a standard litany: "Be loyal to the company and the company will be loyal to you." Whyte noted that the younger generation -- up-and-comers who would be in their 60's today -- considered looking out for job opportunities at other companies gauche. "Such behavior," they believed, "was characteristic of the What-Makes-Sammy-Run type, and the companies would be better off without such people."

Whyte's portrait was damning, or at least depressing. The implicit premise of the book was that the change was permanent: that the Organization Man and all he represented would henceforth define the American character. That Whyte's conformist organization represented the mature form of capitalism was conventional wisdom until fairly recently. We lived, critics and supporters agreed, in what John Kenneth Galbraith called "the technostructure," an oligopolistic industrial state where the future was carefully planned in advance, through either government or private bureaucracy. Technology and capital markets had made entrepreneurship, and unpredictable economic evolution, obsolete. At least that's what the wise men of the 50's, 60's and 70's believed.

Of course, it all sounds like nonsense today. Now we associate technology with change, not predictability. Corporations cherish flexibility, leanness and just-in-time management. "Creative destruction" is the rule. Men -- and, this time around, women -- of ambition seek their fortunes not in bureaucratic conformity but in adaptability, entrepreneurship and job hopping.

This cultural and economic dynamism deeply troubles today's social critics, who seem to prefer stasis. On the right, Pat Buchanan longs for "the kind of social stability, rootedness . . . we all used to know," the world in which his father lived in the same place and worked at the same job his whole life. On the left, the sociologist Richard Sennett writes a book on the "new capitalism" called The Corrosion of Character. The old hierarchies, he argues, gave people a sense of purpose and control, a linear narrative of their lives. Without that, he suggests, "the corroding of character is an inevitable consequence."

Though some might deny it, such critics want to bring back the Organization Man and the orderly, predictable world in which he lived. In economic and social diversity, they see only fragmentation. In business innovation, they discern only disorder. In the fading of "belongingness," they imagine the death of character.

The Organization Man reminds us how easily social critics can confuse passing cultural moments with permanent transformations. But it also provides an antidote to the nostalgia for postwar corporatism. The world we've lost wasn't all today's stability zealots make it seem. "Loyalty" sounds good in the abstract, but it exacts a terrible cost in economic stagnation and personal repression.

The pressures of competition, and a new generation's desire for self-expression, reinvented work. The "goal-centered," individualistic employee returned to the American workplace, as did creativity and enterprise. The world of white-collar work became less certain, but it also became more interesting. Capitalism proved more dynamic, and far more creative, than Whyte expected.