The New Organization Man

Welcome to a new Slate series.

In 1956 a Fortune magazine writer named William H. Whyte published his classic study of American corporate life, The Organization Man. That title joined the language, along with those of other 1950s books such as The Lonely Crowd and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. All these texts painted a similar picture of life in that decade. In particular, they portrayed what they saw as the deplorable, metronomic life of the American businessman. He commuted to work in his immaculate gray suit every day from his neat suburban tract house. He kept his front lawn and his hair trimmed to lengths tacitly agreed upon by his peers. He avoided high culture, and anything else that smacked of elitism. He embraced the personality tests administered to him by his corporate employers. These tests plumbed the depths of his willingness to conform. “Underline the word you think goes best with the word in capitals: NIGHT [dark, sleep, moon, morbid]; NAKED [nude, body, art, evil].” Mainly, he seemed concerned with behaving exactly as everyone else did. When he read “naked,” he said “nude,” even if he thought “evil.”

All this led Whyte to a simple theory: The Protestant Ethic, with its emphasis on rugged individualism, had been displaced in American life by something else. “The Social Ethic” is the fancy name Whyte gave that something else. The Organization Man believed in the essential rightness of large groups–and in the essential wrongness of the individual. He felt very strongly that people had a moral obligation to fit in. To Whyte, this represented an important shift in American values. Americans were not merely working differently now; they were voting, praying, dressing, buying, and loving differently, too. And all this flowed from changes in corporate culture.

The character at the center of Whyte’s wonderful psychodrama was “the well-rounded man.” The well-rounded man was the ideal type: He conformed to the mean in every aspect of his being. He was normal. Whyte wrote his book in part as an argument against the well-rounded man. He believed that the well-rounded man was tyrannizing the truly talented among us–scientists, artists, etc. The pressure exerted on these talented people to be “normal” was causing extraordinary products of the human mind to be discouraged and suppressed:

Searching for their own image, management men look for the “well-rounded” scientists. They don’t expect them to be quite as “well-rounded” as junior executive trainees; they generally note that scientists are “different.” They do it, however, in a patronizing way that implies that the difference is nothing that a good indoctrination program won’t fix up. Customarily, whenever the word BRILLIANT is used, it either precedes the word BUT (cf. “We are all for brilliance, but”) or is coupled with such words as ERRATIC, ECCENTRIC, INTROVERT, SCREWBALL, etc.

Forty years later the remarkable thing about Whyte’s description of American business life is how thoroughly wrong it sounds. It may even have been wrong, or at least exaggerated, at the time. But the Organization Man, if he ever existed, is dead now. The well-rounded fellow who gets along with pretty much everyone and isn’t overly brilliant at anything sees his status trading near an all-time low. And all those brilliant screwballs whose fate Whyte bemoaned are sitting now on top of corporate America, including the one who runs the corporation that owns this magazine. Even on Wall Street, which has long specialized in taking toothsome men of no particular skill and making them rich, those who now make the most money are the socially maladjusted Ph.D.s in physics and mathematics from Harvard and MIT. (Both recipients of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics now work for the most profitable Wall Street hedge fund, Long Term Capital.)

A few weeks ago I moved to Silicon Valley to start a yearlong series of articles for Slate about this shift in American corporate culture. They will be written, for better or for worse, from the perspective of that well-rounded man. Each week this space will feature a different character from American business, who will, with any luck, illustrate a different theme. Many but not all of these characters will come from Silicon Valley; many but not all will come from the newer technology businesses. The point of the exercise is to build a portrait of values currently on the rise in corporate America.

My premise is that Whyte’s line of inquiry is still as valid as it ever was: The way people organize themselves to make money influences the way they do a lot of other things. The financially most successful people have a way of shaping the culture in their image; and the financially most successful people are now, for the most part, the brilliant screwballs. Millionerds set the tone and the pace of American corporate life.

A few working theories: The millionerds seem to me to differ from people who typically acquire great corporate status. Many of them didn’t set out in life to be financial titans, and they are perhaps less certain than titans of yore about what to do next with the wealth that has been showered upon them. Most of them have only the faintest idea of how to explain to ordinary people what they do for a living. All of them are insecure–forever worried that they will be devoured by whatever little tech revolution they have created. And while many of them work for giant corporations, they are, at bottom, enemies of the conformity one usually finds in such places. They make their money from rapid change, and they hire people who can help them to bring it about.

Or at least, they think they’re enemies of conformity. The Silicon Valley corporate campus certainly looks less conformist than the corporate office tower of the 1950s: the racial and sexual mix, and the dress code, if nothing else. The actual degree of nonconformity is one thing I hope to find out. Just a few years ago I couldn’t imagine why any sane person would care to mimic the child-man body language of Bill Gates, or the techno-geek speak of his minions, or the war language of the Microsoft contras. But since then I’ve met too many unemployed English majors turned entrepreneurs who rock back and forth as they makes their incomprehensible sales pitches. (“We’re just like, only different …”)

This series is not about the Gateses, though. Or not entirely. It is mostly about the ordinary little millionaires–and maybe even some nonmillionaires–scattered through the new American economy. Who are they? What are their lives like? And how does that affect your life?