The Bedraggled Return of the Organization Man
June 8, 2013 Editor 0
In 1956, journalist William H. Whyte described the American worker — in particular the white-collar worker — as an “organization man” out to build his career and his life around a single corporation. These conformist sorts, living in tidy new suburbs like Park Forest, Illinois, which Whyte described in depth in his classic study, The Organization Man, looked happily upon the steadiness and predictability of their lives:
For them society has in fact been good — very, very good — for there has been a succession of fairly beneficent environments: college, the paternalistic, if not always pleasant, military life, then, perhaps, graduate work through the G.I. Bill of Rights, a corporation apprenticeship during a period of industrial expansion and high prosperity, and for some, the camaraderie of communities like Park Forest. The system, they instinctively conclude, is beneficent.
Nowadays, of course, only a small percentage of Americans have military experience, colleges leave graduates with unpayable debt burdens, the economy keeps trying and so far failing to bust out of a post-crisis funk, and 18.8% of the population of Park Forest is below the poverty line. It is a very different, less beneficent era from the one Whyte described.
Yet one thing is similar: Americans seem to again be looking for the security of long-term corporate jobs. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Americans are starting fewer businesses, are becoming more reluctant to change jobs, and are likelier than ever to work for a large (500+ workers) employer.
One should always a be a bit dubious of sweeping claims about national-level changes in behavior. But a little digging through the data does seem to back up the Journal‘s claim.
For example, the percentage of workers who are self-employed, which usually rises during and immediately after a recession, has been falling steadily since 2006. Then there’s the trend in median job tenure, measured by the Labor Department in a biennial survey and shown in the chart to the left.
Men saw a decline in median years on the job in the 1980s and 1990s, in keeping with media narratives of declining job security and rising entrepreneurialism. For women, tenure kept rising as they became more ensconced in the workplace.
Then, in the early 2000s, the declining tenure trend for men bottomed out; since 2006 it’s been on a steady upward path.
This doesn’t mean times are good for male workers. The employment-to-population ratio — the simplest of job-market metrics — shows a sharp drop for men in particular in the last recession.
Basically, a American man is less likely to have a job these days than at any time in many, many decades. But if he has a job, he’s becoming likelier to stick with it. These are organization men out of fear, not of a belief in the beneficence of their employers. And while the longer-term trend for women is basically just toward a deeper involvement in the workforce, the last few years seem to indicate a similar quest for security in a tough environment.
Given the beating the U.S. job market has taken since 2008, this is understandable. What’s curious, though, is how at odds these trends are with the portrayals of modern worklife that you read in, well, HBR. In our pages, the business world is transforming into one where work is split into ever tinier, easy-to-contract-out chunks, where supertemps are on the rise, where two-or-three-year tours of duty are replacing long-term jobs, and where of course building a personal brand separate from that of your employer is essential to career success.
When economic data and media portrayals conflict like this, I have learned to trust the data on relatively stable phenomena, but pay attention to anecdotal evidence that something new and different is happening that doesn’t show up yet in the data. In this case, though, it’s the economic data showing a new trend — toward longer job tenures and less risk-taking — while the business-media narrative is still mostly about job-hopping and free agency and entrepreneurship.
So what’s up? I’ve got two hypotheses. The first is simply that the changes in the job market from the early 1980s to the early 2000s were so dramatic that we’re still catching up with their consequences.
One can see this better by looking at the job-tenure data for older men since the 1950s. The Labor Department has only been doing its biennial tenure surveys since 1983, but it did ask about the topic occasionally before then, and the Employee Benefit Research Institute has dug up the old data used in the chart to the left.
As the chart shows, men over 45 experienced rising tenures in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, then a big dropoff starting in 1983. The uptick since 2006 looks pretty modest in comparison.
Another possibility (my second hypothesis) is that different kinds of workers are competing in very different labor markets. HBR and HBR.org readers are a rarified group, after all. You’re concentrated in professional and managerial jobs, and a significant percentage of you don’t reside in the U.S. Then again, tenure in managerial and professional jobs has risen more sharply over the past decade (from 4.6 years in 2002 to 5.5 in 2012) than for workers in general. And a quick look at job tenure data from around the OECD mainly shows a lot of stability (percentage of German male workers with 10+ years of job tenure in 1992: 21.9; percentage in 2011: 21.9).
Maybe it’s just that HBR readers tend to aim high. CEO tenures are significantly lower than they used to be, and many of the most impressive and acclaimed careers of our day were not built within a single organization. If your goal is reaching the top, the path nowadays is anything but straight and narrow.
But most people don’t want to be CEOs, or world-changing entrepreneurs. What they really want, apparently, is a steady job.
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