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Mid-Century Conformity

Pop culture depictions of working life in the 1950s and 1960s often focus on images of conformity. Identically dressed businessmen in gray suits sitting at long rows of identical desks is a standard image of the period, from The Producers to Mad Men. But where do these images come from? One of the primary sources for this popular notion of mid-century conformity is William Whyte’s non-fiction book The Organization Man.

First published in 1956, The Organization Man is one of the most influential and bestselling books on management ever written, ranking up there with other classics like How to Win Friends and Influence People and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But beyond giving managers tips on how to more effectively run their business, The Organization Man came to define an entire era.

The Organization Man studied American businesses and argued that the guiding principle of American workers was collectivism as opposed to individualism. Its portrait of this conformist culture combined with other works, such as Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, to give us a picture of the 1950s office that later generations would rebel against.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

Whyte was an editor at the financial magazine Fortune in the mid-1950s who undertook a project to understand the American workplace in the aftermath of World War II. This period, from roughly the late 1940s to the mid 1960s, was one of great economic growth in America, as companies grew larger, creating more middle-class jobs and greater prosperity. This period also saw the growth of pre-planned suburban communities and technologies, from TV to frozen food, which promised to make life easier.

Alarmed by this belief that technology and corporate America could solve all of our problems, Whyte began interviewing CEOs from many of the largest companies in America. He found this attitude that all of life’s problems could be solved by corporations to be prevalent among CEOs and average employees as well.

He came to the conclusion that Americans no longer believed in the philosophy of individualism, the idea that progress is made by talented individuals who go it alone. Instead, Whyte argued, Americans had given into collectivism, the belief that problems were best solved by an organization or group and that the individual should dedicate his talents to serving the group. Whyte argued against this, pointing out that individual creativity is needed for advancement and this collectivist mentality leads to executives who are hesitant to try new things.

The Impact

Whyte’s book had a profound impact on management culture in America, though in some cases it took decades to see the full extent of his influence. Companies realized that their organization created incentives for not taking risks and rethought their structure. When technology companies started sprouting up in California’s Silicon Valley in the 1970s, their management structures often followed Whyte’s advice and rejected the 1950s model, creating small, nimble companies that valued risk-taking and individual input.

The book also had an influence beyond the business world. It is often discussed in conjunction with Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, which was published just a year before The Organization Man. Wilson’s novel is about a World War II veteran who works in public relations and struggles to find contentment despite his material success. The novel was one of the first works to question the materialist culture of 1950s America. When Whyte’s book appeared a year later, it seemed to provide real-world evidence of the problems Wilson described.

Lesson Summary

William Whyte’s 1956 book The Organization Man is a study of midcentury American corporate culture based on interviews with CEOs and employees of many large American companies. Whyte argued that Americans in the post-World War II period had traded a philosophy of individualism, which rewarded risk-taking and creativity, for one of collectivism in which it is assumed large organizations know what is best for us. Whyte argued against this idea.

The book was extremely influential. It caused a rethinking of corporate culture and in particular shaped the organization of Silicon Valley technology companies, which largely rebelled against the structures Whyte described. It also combined with Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit to create the popular picture of mid-century America as a time of conformity with surface prosperity masking discontent.

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