the organization man -- 5/4/22

Today's selection -- from The Organization Man by William H. Whyte Jr. The years following the harrowing Second World War saw the emergence of dull conformist employees working for large, faceless corporations. They came to be known as organization men:

"This book is about the Organization Man, if the term is vague, it is because I can think of no other way to describe the people I am talking about. They are not the workers, nor are they the white­-collar people in the usual, clerk sense of the word. These people only work for The Organization. The ones I am talking about be­long to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of or­ganization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions. Only a few are top managers or ever will be. In a system that makes such hazy terminology as 'jun­ior executive' psychologically necessary, they are of the staff as much as the line, and most are destined to live poised in a middle area that still awaits a satisfactory euphemism. But they are the dominant members of our society nonetheless. They have not joined together into a recognizable elite -- our country does not stand still long enough for that -- but it is from their ranks that are coming most of the first and second echelons of our leadership, and it is their values which will set the American temper.

"The corporation man is the most conspicuous example, but he is only one, for the collectivization so visible in the corporation has affected almost every field of work. Blood brother to the business trainee off to join Du Pont is the seminary student who will end up in the church hierarchy, the doctor headed for the corporate clinic, the physics Ph.D. in a government laboratory, the intellectual on the foundation-sponsored team project, the engineering graduate in the huge drafting room at Lockheed, the young apprentice in a Wall Street law factory.

"They are all, as they so often put it, in the same boat. Listen to them talk to each other over the front lawns of their suburbia and you cannot help but be struck by how well they grasp the common denominators which bind them. Whatever the differences in their organization ties, it is the common problems of collective work that dominate their attentions, and when the Du Pont man talks to the research chemist or the chemist to the army man, it is these prob­lems that are uppermost. The word collective most of them can't bring themselves to use -- except to describe foreign countries or or­ganizations they don't work for -- but they are keenly aware of how much more deeply beholden they are to organization than were their elders. They are wry about it, to be sure; they talk of the 'treadmill,' the 'rat race,' of the inability to control one's direction. But they have no great sense of plight; between themselves and organization they believe they see an ultimate harmony and, more than most elders recognize, they are building an ideology that will vouchsafe this trust.

"It is the growth of this ideology, and its practical effects, that is the thread I wish to follow in this book. America has paid much at­tention to the economic and political consequences of big organiza­tion -- the concentration of power in large corporations, for example, the political power of the civil-service bureaucracies, the possible emergence of a managerial hierarchy that might dominate the rest of us. These are proper concerns, but no less important is the prin­cipal impact that organization life has had on the individuals within it. A collision has been taking place -- indeed, hundreds of thousands of them, and in the aggregate they have been producing what I believe is a major shift in American ideology.

"Officially, we are a people who hold to the Protestant Ethic. Be­cause of the denominational implications of the term many would deny its relevance to them, but let them eulogize the American Dream, however, and they virtually define the Protestant Ethic. Whatever the embroidery, there is almost always the thought that pursuit of individual salvation through hard work, thrift, and com­petitive struggle is the heart of the American achievement.

William Hollingsworth Whyte, Jr.

"But the harsh facts of organization life simply do not jibe with these precepts. This conflict is certainly not a peculiarly American development. In their own countries such Europeans as Max Weber and Durkheim many years ago foretold the change, and though Europeans now like to see their troubles as an American ex­port, the problems they speak of stem from a bureaucratization of society that has affected every Western country.

"It is in America, however, that the contrast between the old ethic and current reality has been most apparent -- and most poignant. Of all peoples it is we who have led in the public worship of individu­alism. One hundred years ago De Tocqueville was noting that though our special genius -- and failing -- lay in co-operative action, we talked more than others of personal independence and free­dom. We kept on, and as late as the twenties, when big organiza­tion was long since a fact, affirmed the old faith as if nothing had really changed at all.

"Today many still try, and it is the members of the kind of organization most responsible for the change, the corporation, who try the hardest. It is the corporation man whose institutional ads protest so much that Americans speak up in town meeting, that Americans are the best inventors because Americans don't care that other peo­ple scoff, that Americans are the best soldiers because they have so much initiative and native ingenuity, that the boy selling papers on the street corner is the prototype of our business society. Col­lectivism? He abhors it, and when he makes his ritualistic attack on Welfare Statism, it is in terms of a Protestant Ethic undefiled by change -- the sacredness of property, the enervating effect of secu­rity, the virtues of thrift, of hard work and independence. Thanks be, he says, that there are some people left -- e.g., businessmen -- to defend the American Dream.

"He is not being hypocritical, only compulsive. He honestly wants to believe he follows the tenets he extols, and if he extols them so frequently it is, perhaps, to shut out a nagging suspicion that he, too, the last defender of the faith, is no longer pure. Only by using the language of individualism to describe the collective can he stave off the thought that he himself is in a collective as pervading as any ever dreamed of by the reformers, the intellectuals, and the utopian visionaries he so regularly warns against.

"The older generation may still convince themselves; the younger generation does not. When a young man says that to make a living these days you must do what somebody else wants you to do, he states it not only as a fact of life that must be accepted but as an inherently good proposition. If the American Dream deprecates this for him, it is the American Dream that is going to have to give, whatever its more elderly guardians may think. People grow res­tive with a mythology that is too distant from the way things actu­ally are, and as more and more lives have been encompassed by the organization way of life, the pressures for an accompanying ideological shift have been mounting. The pressures of the group, the frustrations of individual creativity, the anonymity of achieve­ment: are these defects to struggle against -- or are they virtues in disguise? The organization man seeks a redefinition of his place on earth -- a faith that will satisfy him that what he must endure has a deeper meaning than appears on the surface. He needs, in short, something that will do for him what the Protestant Ethic did once."



William H. Whyte Jr.


The Organization Man


University of Pennsylvania Press


2002 University of Pennsylvania Press


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