The Transients (Fortune, 1953)

December 25, 2015, 3:00 PM UTC

Editor’s note: This holiday week, Fortune is publishing some of our favorite stories from our archives. The following article, which was written by noted sociologist William Whyte for our May 1953 issue, focuses on the rise of “the organization man,” a term Whyte coined to describe a burgeoning cohort of middle class business managers who left their hometowns to launch careers; the development of corporate culture; and the suburbs that were built to accommodate these workers’ lifestyles. In 1956, Whyte published a highly influential book on the topic, called The Organization Man.

For a quick twinge of superiority there is nothing quite like driving past one of the new Levittown-like suburbs. To visitors from older communities, the sight of rank after rank of little boxes stretching off to infinity, one hardly distinguishable from the other, is weird, and if they drive along the streets at dusk, when the little blue lights of the television sets begin to shine out of the picture windows, they can speculate that if they were to blink their eyes in proper rhythm the scene flashing by would freeze into one motionless picture. Appalling! If this is progress, God help us … 1984. But, onlookers are also likely to conclude, one must be sympathetic too; after all, it is a Step up in life for the people who live there, and one should not begrudge them the opiate of TV; here, obviously, is a group of anonymous beings submerged in a system they do not understand.

The onlooker had better wipe the sympathy off his face. Underneath the television aerials lies a revolution. What he has seen is not the home of little cogs and drones. What he has seen is the dormitory of the next managerial class.

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The most important single group in these communities is what has been variously called business bureaucrats, industrial civil servants, technicians of society—the junior executives, research workers, young corporation lawyers, engineers, salesmen. The bond they share is that they are (1) between twenty- five and thirty-five, (2) organization men, (3) and all on the move. It is significant enough that there are now so many of them that whole towns have to be built to hold them; more significant, it is these unostentatious, salaried nomads who will be running our business society twenty years from now.

Many future managers, of course, do not live in such places; and many work for companies that don’t require them to move. Nevertheless, it may be the new suburban communities that provide the sharpest picture of tomorrow’s management. Not only are managerial transients concentrated here, they are concentrated almost totally free of the pressures of older traditions and older people that would affect them elsewhere. In such propinquity, they bring out in each other—perhaps at times caricature—tendencies latent elsewhere, and one sees in bold relief what might be almost invisible in more conventional environments. To an older eye, perhaps the picture is abnormal, but what may be abnormal today is very likely to be normal tomorrow.

For some months Fortune has been making an intensive study of four of the new suburbs. As we will report in succeeding issues, there is a remarkable similarity, in attitudes toward politics, education, economics, sex, religion, from suburb to suburb. Almost a new way of life is in the making in these communities, and it is not a synthetic way of life “sold” by mass producers of suburbs; it is the expression of the younger people’s needs and wants.

Before looking under the TV aerials, however, there are some immediate questions to take up: How has this new mobility been brought to pass? Is it likely to decline or increase? Does it signal the rise of a new and eventually inbred caste? To attempt a definitive answer to any of these would be presumptuous. But on one thing at least the evidence is clear: America’s social structure is going through a shake-up the full effects of which are yet to be felt.

Escape by emigration

Thirty years ago the notion that the U.S. had a fairly fluid society would not have been particularly controversial—”classless” America, indeed, was almost a universal cliché. Today, however, the dominant school of thought on American society maintains that the country’s pride in “classlessness” and in the idea that a good man can always rise is illusion. After two centuries, some social students hold, the American system is finally shaking down into a fixed, stable hierarchy.

As interpreted in terms of the six ranks of anthropologist Lloyd Warner,* American society is a traditional community in which the Hill, local business ties, and interlocking family relationships firmly fix the individual’s position, from which he can move upward (from the Elks, say, to the Rotary) only by sanction of the next-upper group. Furthermore, other studies indicate, what with the unionization of labor and the professionalization of management, the way up the ladder is growing tougher. The solution, it has been argued, lies not in the individual’s cherishing illusions that he’s going to go up but in adjusting to the realities of his home environment.

We do not agree. Such studies have done a service in sensitizing Americans to class and status factors they like to pretend don’t exist. Their very emphasis on what is static, however, has obscured what is dynamic. What about the people who leave home?

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It is the thesis of this article that the man who leaves home is not the exception in American society, but the key to it. Almost by definition, the management man is a man who left home, and like the man who went from the Midwest to Harvard, kept on going. There have always been, of course, people who left home, but the number of them has increased—and so vastly that those who stay put are as affected by the emigration as those who leave.

The growing importance of the transients has been obscured by a sort of economic time lag; organization people don’t make the big money, and they are making less real income than they did ten years ago. But though it may be the automobile dealer and the owner of the local bottling franchise who drive the Cadillacs, it is the organization man who now makes the decisions that most affect the lives of others. “Those fat cats around here are falling all over themselves entertaining Charlie,” says the wife of a plant engineer. “They could buy and sell us twice over, but he’s going to decide the location of the new chemical plant.” The story has endless variations; from the man in the investment division of an insurance company whose brief may decide a whole industry’s future to the new-product engineer, Organization Man is becoming dominant.

Even if part of the American Dream is still true, one big chunk of it is dead, finished, kaput. For the future will be determined not by the independent entrepreneur or the “rugged individualist” whom our folklore so venerates; the future will be determined by Organization Man. It is not occasion for cheer; but neither is it occasion for pessimism. It is, however, occasion for reflection. Wherever it is we are going, we are going there very, very fast.

The moving-van era

After the war, one thing looked sure. Americans had had their bellyful of moving; now, everybody agreed, they were going to settle down and stop this damned traipsing around. Here is the way things worked out:

Americans are moving more than ever before: Never have long-distance movers had it so good; according to figures provided by the five leading firms, moving is now at a rate even higher than in wartime. And compared with prewar, the five firms are all moving at least three times as many families, and one is moving ten times as many. Furthermore, not only are more families moving, those who move move more frequently; one out of every seven of its customers, Allied Van Lines reports, will within a year pick up stakes and move again to a new state, and seven out of ten will be “repeaters” within the next five years.

This is not just a matter of moving from one part of town to another; in 1951, 7 per cent of all male adults moved away from their county, and of these roughly half moved out of the state entirely. Concentrate on the twenty-five to thirty-five-year-old group and the figure goes up sharply; in 1951 roughly 12 per cent of men twenty-five to thirty-five years old moved outside of their county, and 6 per cent moved to a new state.

The more education, the more mobility: If a man goes to college now, the chances are almost even that he won’t work in his home state. Recent census figures and Time’s study, They Went to College, indicate that the educational level is higher among migrants than among non-migrants, and the higher the educational level, the more intensive the migration. In the twenty-five to thirty-five-year-old group, to extrapolate from census figures, about sixteen out of every hundred men who have only a high-school education have been interstate migrants, vs. 29 per cent of those who have had at least one year of college. Of men who complete college, 46 per cent move. Of those who worked their way through in a college outside their home state, about 70 per cent don’t go back. And for all college men, incidentally, the higher the grades, the more likely they are to go to work elsewhere than in their home states.

Organization people move the most: To judge from studies by direct-mail experts of Time, Life, Fortune, and McGraw-Hill, the greatest amount of address changing occurs among managerial people. Similarly, records of long-distance movers show that the greatest single group among their customers, upwards of 40 per cent, consists of corporation people being transferred from one post to another (with the employer usually footing the bill). If to this group are added government, Army, and Navy people, and men joining new companies, over 70 per cent of all moves are accounted for by members of large institutions.

“I’ll never go back”

The impact of this transiency on U.S. society is incalculable. The small town, for example, has long exported some of its youth; but what was once a stream has become a flood. It is no longer a case of the special boy who had to get out of town to cross the tracks or find an outlet for his energies; now as many as three-quarters of the town’s young college men may be in the same position. Where are they to go after college? Back home? Lawyers and doctors can, and the majority do; they are in the happy position of being able to go home, to keep professionally alert, and to make a good bit of money at the same time. But for the others, opportunity seems to be elsewhere—not just for the delivery boy who became an Air Force lieutenant, but for the young man on the Hill who’s gone off to join du Pont.

In terms of status it is difficult to say whether the migrants have gone up or down. But they have moved more than geographically; what is taking place is a horizontal movement in which the transients have come together in a new kind of group that fits none of the old social categories.

And they will never go back. Once the cord is broken, a return carries overtones of failure. “I’m fed up
with New York,” says one executive, “but if I went back to Taylorston I know damned well they’d think my tail was between my legs.” The point is that he probably would think so too; one of the great tacit bonds the transients share is a feeling, justifiable or not, that by moving they acquire an intellectual sophistication that will forever widen the gap between them and their home towns. “Dave and I thought often about going back to East Wells,” a successful young executive’s wife explains. “It is a beautiful old New England town and we both had such happy times there. But all the people who had anything on the ball seem to have left. There are a few who took over their fathers’ businesses, but the rest—well, I hate to sound so snobbish, but dammit, I do feel superior to them.”

It is curious how much the transients think about the home town. A majority of the people interviewed by Fortune spontaneously brought it up, and the phrase “No, I’ll never go back” was repeated almost verbatim scores of times. Many transients left a lot behind them or at least in retrospect it seems so to them; most came from reasonably prosperous families and when they look back they recall the kinfolk and friends about, and the reassuring feeling that they were in that fortunate group who counted. But local prestige, they now well know, is not for export. “This is quite a conflict today,” says anthropologist Lloyd Warner. “John Marquand shows this very well. Why does Charles Gray in Point of No Return go back to visit Newburyport? Why does John, for that matter? That’s something all of us want to do, to keep the old image of our position.”

Even if by chance the company sends the transients back, they can never really go home. As one puts it, “Because of this last transfer I’m back here, almost by accident, where I was born. It ought to be a setup; frankly, my family is as old guard around here as they come. Well, it’s a lot of crap, sure, but I must say I get a good bit of pleasure knowing that I can join the City Club and my boss can’t. But it’s damned privately I think about it. If I am going to go ahead in this organization, the people I’ve got to get along with are the office crowd, and don’t think I wouldn’t get the business if they started reading about me in the social columns.” Says another, “It’s odd. Here I’ve got a social position a lot of people would give a fortune to get, but the minute I joined the corporation I had to turn my back on it. We’re sort of declassed, and as far as Amy and I are concerned, it is as if we weren’t born here at all.”

But the most important reason they can’t go home is that they won’t find it there if they do. In the rapid growth of the metropolitan areas, once self-contained market towns have been transformed into suburbs, and more important yet, the plant expansion of U.S. industry has turned others into industrial towns. In many towns, as a result, the migration of the young people has been offset by such an influx of newcomers that those who have stayed put are in the position of being abroad at home.

The “new people”

For some towns the tensions have been near explosive. Even though the influx swells local coffers, the townspeople, in somewhat the way natives view the “summer people,” view with apprehension the people moving into the developments nearby, and the fact that many of the “new people” have no intention of staying long doesn’t make them easier to take. And the townspeople’s attitude is reciprocated enough so that the developments going up around the town often form a ring of animosity. A study by New York University’s Dr. Marie Jahoda reveals that over 45 per cent of the people in Fairless Hills, in lower Bucks County, Pennsylvania, believe that the county people dislike them. They are probably right; citizens of the older communities know something has hit them, and though they’re not exactly sure just what it is, they sense, correctly, that those “horrid developments” despoiling the old so-and-so place are the symbol of it.

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The “new people” and the corporation that brought them have not only upset the historic wage structure of the small town; more abrading, they have upset the whole local hierarchy. Locally blue as the blood of some townspeople may be, the general manager of the corporation plant, simply by virtue of his position, wields key power, and they know it. It is little wonder that corporations think long and hard about the tact of the proconsuls—and proconsular wives—they send to the small town.

In different degree the same process has been going on in the great metropolitan centers. Considering the greater number of opportunities available, why should young people leave the big cities? One might assume that the city would find enough of its own home-grown talent to staff the managerial echelons. Even here, however, the natives have been outnumbered. Philadelphia, for example, has long been considered somewhat inbred, yet a study by sociologist Digby Baltzell reveals that as early as 1940, 64 per cent of the Philadelphia business and professional leaders listed in Who’s Who were born outside of the Philadelphia area. Today the proportion is even higher and so it is in many other cities. As the seats of economic power have shifted from local institutions to national organizations, membership in the elite of any city or town is being determined more and more by current functional rank. Not only are national institutions sending in new people, native institutions are being opened to outsiders more than ever before. The urban elite, in short, has become an ex officio elite.

The recruiters

The shift to organization power that has brought so much of this about has been in the making a long
time. As sociologist Max Weber long ago noted, before the turn of the century the trend to a “bureaucratic” organization of society was already in high motion. Since then the trend has been steadily accentuated, until today most college men almost automatically see their future in terms of the salaried life of an organization.

The reasons are obvious enough. While there is an undue assumption by many young men that entrepreneurship equals insecurity, if the young man has no independent income or capital what is he to do? The big organization wants him; wants more of him, in fact, than are available. Its recruiters go to him before he graduates from college, and they promise good starting salaries (currently: $275 to $335 a month), good extra training, and a secure future. To join up seems not only the line of least resistance but the logical course as well.

Clearly, the big organization is now the prime vehicle for a career, and in more institutions than the corporations. At their present size, the armed forces, a great institutional career in themselves, are in effect a great training ground for indoctrinating each new age group in the organization way. So are the government bureaus. Even in the professions the emphasis has switched to the organization; of the professional men who graduated in the last decade, only about one in five is working for himself; the bulk are to be found in group clinics, law factories, AEC labs, corporation staff departments, and the like. Academic life has been similarly affected; what with the growth of foundations and huge government research grants, academics now find it’s easier to obtain $200,000 for a group project than a few thousand for somebody doing something all by himself—if the businessman were to eavesdrop on some of the grant-raising shoptalk of the academics he wouldn’t throw the term “ivory tower” around so loosely.

Post to post

In the wake of this shift to the big organization is the moving van. Certainly the recruit does not join up because he wants to move a lot, and it is often in spite of it. But moving, he knows, has become part of the bargain, and unsettling as transfer might be, even more unsettling are the implications of not being asked to transfer. “We never plan to transfer,” as one company president explains, a bit dryly, “and we never make a man move. Of course, he kills his career if he doesn’t. But we never make him do it.” The fact is well understood; it is with a smile that the recruit moves—and keeps on moving, year after year; until, perhaps, that distant day when he is summoned back to Rome.

It is not just more moves per man. Even companies reporting no increase in the number of times each individual moves report an increase in the sheer number of men being moved. GE (GE) has compared a cross section of its forty-five-year-old executives with one of its thirty-five-year-olds; in the ten years after they were twenty-five, 42 per cent of the older group had moved at least once; during the same age period, 58 per cent of the younger had moved.

Corporations never planned it quite that way. Decentralization and expansion, rather than deliberate personnel policy, have determined the pattern. Companies have systematized it, to be sure; moves are settling into more of a rhythm, almost invariably they are sweetened with a raise, and in some companies, sweetened by special departments that handle all the housekeeping fuss of the trip. By and large, however, the question of the man’s personal development—however emphasized when the boss breaks the news to him—has been secondary to the day-to-day necessity of filling vacancies out in the empire.

That is, up until now. Periodic transfer, some companies are coming to believe, is a positive good in itself; and even where no immediate functional reason exists, it might often be important to move the man anyway. What better way, they ask, to produce the well-rounded executive?

Instead of leaving transfer to be determined haphazardly by different departments, some companies, like GE, have made such decisions part of a systematic managerial program. By thus making a man’s “permanent” assignment (i.e., one lasting at least three years) part of a deliberate rotation policy, the man is given “more choices in life to make,” and the company, as a result, is given a pool of seasoned talent. Other companies agree; by deliberately exposing a man to a succession of environments, they best obtain that necessity of the large organization—the man who can fit in anywhere. “The training,” as an IBM (IBM) executive succinctly puts it, “makes our men interchangeable.”

For all the training, it should be noted, there are still a number of environments in which executives don’t fit in—and some in which they fit in all too well. A good many companies have belatedly realized they have lost some of their best men by carelessly assigning them to San Francisco or Los Angeles for a spell. Even mouth-watering salary boosts often fail to achieve repatriation; once tasted, the California way of life dulls such appetites—a fact that has found its way into the West Coast salary structure, generally lower than in the East. When Shell Chemical moved its head office to New York from San Francisco some of its management group resigned rather than go along, and several who did go along eventually decided to go back. Another company recently located a lab on the coast in spite of “economic” considerations, they privately admit, to hang on to talent they might otherwise lose.

On the other hand, there are some kinds of environments many people can’t be tempted into trying at all. This has been particularly evident in the postwar moves of entire headquarters to the hinterlands. Making a small town a way station on the executive route is one thing; making it Mecca, another. An organization’s creative and professional people, recent incidents indicate, will move permanently to a small town only if it is in striking distance of a large city and the professional contacts it affords. Similarly, almost any executive is likely to balk—for a while at least—if the town is so small that the influx of the company threatens a resurgence of the paternalistic company town.

“It’s a small world”

But these obstacles are residues of the past, not portents of the future. For there is a momentum to mobility that, in a sort of chicken-and-egg sequence, goes something like this: the more people move about, the more similar the American-environments become; and the more similar they become, the easier still it is to move about.

Increasingly, the young couple who move do so only physically; with each transfer the decor and the architecture may change, the faces and the names may change; but the people, the conversation, and the values do not, and sometimes the decor and the architecture don’t either. If there are no company people to help the newcomers break the ice, there are almost bound to be some fellow transients nearby, and the chances are pretty good that some of them will be couples that the most recent arrivals have run into somewhere else in this great new freemasonry of transients. “I just jump to read the new-arrivals list in the local paper,” says a typical transient. “We’ve already run up against a couple from our Cambridge days at the Business School, and we’re sure that some from Park Fairfax or Fresh Meadows will be along soon too.” It is, as transients like to observe, a small world.

The rate at which mobility will continue to increase will depend greatly, of course, on the amount of plant expansion that will take place in the years ahead. But turnover is not just a function of industrial expansion. Turnover begets turnover; as some companies’ attitudes indicate, the necessity of movement has a way of becoming a virtue, and this applies to the individual as well as the company. The emotions with which transients look on moving are highly mixed; they don’t want to move, and yet in a way they do—and the thought can become father to the wish. “I swear to myself I hate it,” one young transient explains, “yet I know I’ll be moving, and, well, that affects me. You know, we went right close by the Grand Canyon and we didn’t go out of our way to see it. Why? Because we knew we’d be by there again, and—I know it’s hard to understand—but somehow we wouldn’t like it if we didn’t feel that way.”

In the midst of this constant movement the problem of personal stability, of a meaningful continuity in his life, becomes pressing for the individual. For this reason some people prophesy that the transients will identify themselves more completely with the Organization. With the new emphasis on human relations, college-to-grave security, extracurricular benefits, and the like, the ideal of an organization so beneficent that it provokes the total allegiance of its members has become more than a possibility; it is, in the eyes of some, the constant the individual must have to keep himself on keel in a world changing so fast.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not such fealty is desirable, is it coming to pass? Here we must look at all age brackets of management, and look at their loyalties in terms of actual behavior. Are the younger brackets showing more desire than their elders for one lifetime job?

The switchers

A good index is the amount of movement from one company to another. To judge by the figures Fortune has gathered, the facts are quite the opposite of what is generally assumed. There seems to be more, not less, job switching, and the figures indicate that the trend is likely to continue.

According to a new study by the management-consultant firm Booz, Allen & Hamilton, there are now 29 more personnel changes per 100 management jobs than before the war, and a great part of the increase is caused by switches from one company to another. An analysis of the alumni records of several colleges reveals the same trend. Of the men who graduated in the late Thirties, the number who have worked for only one corporation are in a minority (between 20 and 35 per cent). A hefty majority have changed jobs two or three times; among men fifteen years and more out of college the men who have worked for four or more corporations is likely to outnumber those who have worked for only one. Similarly, a great many men are shifting out of their original fields entirely. In twenty-five years four out of every ten Harvard ’26ers have switched fields; in only ten years three out of ten ’39ers have switched.

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Are job changers the unsuccessful, the “floaters”? Some of them are, of course, but many of the job changers are among the most obviously successful of their age group. A Fortune study of older executives (“The Nine Hundred,” November, 1952) reveals that while a third of America’s leading corporation executives are in the same firm they started with, 43 per cent of the chief executives were hired directly into their present positions from another company—and for many of these men this was only one of a long series of moves.

As the growing number of business-school graduates go up the ranks, furthermore, top management may become even more fluid. The Harvard Business School has made available to Fortune the preliminary returns from an exhaustive study of alumni of selected classes since 1911; making allowances for the different time lapse for each class and the disruption of the war, the record of job changes indicates that the professional manager is shifting companies—and fields— with increasing facility. The class of ’36 is typical of the developing pattern; only 22 per cent have stuck with one company since graduation, 26 per cent have worked for two, 24 per cent for three, and 28 per cent for four or more. Later classes haven’t had as much chance to move, but they seem to anticipate that they will; of the 137 members of the class of 1951, only 28 per cent said that they expected to stay with their present companies.

Pensions—a trap?

But what of the corporations’ pension and benefit programs? Do they not lead, as it is now fashionable to complain, to a certain entrapment? To a degree, yes, but for the simple reason that most large organizations have remarkably similar programs, this adhesive factor tends to wash out. It is true, of course, that the longer a man stays, the more equity in the form of company-paid annuities and deferred profit sharing he builds up, and he cannot take all this with him. But how all important to him, really, is this kind of security?

The research department of Booz, Allen & Hamilton has been analyzing the attitudes of some 422 executives who have made the jump. The findings appear to come together on one vital point: in the majority of cases the primary reason for switching was not money, increased security or location. The executives switched most often because advancement was blocked. With executives checking only one reason for switching, the order was: (1) bigger job, more responsibility; (2) don’t like present management policies; (3) advancement in company uncertain; (4) change of activity desired. In seventh place: increased income. It is clear between the lines that the great motivating factor was the sense of a ceiling, psychological or actual, in one job and the need for more self-expression through another. Security is rarely mentioned.

Talent scouting

The executive’s own dissatisfactions are not the only factors stimulating switching. Though the executive may not know it, if he has been doing a notably good job his name is very probably in the card files of one or more of the management-consultant firms. And the files are active; if an executive is getting restless the intelligence has a way of reaching the consultants, and even if he isn’t restless they might approach him anyway. To a degree not commonly recognized, a great proportion of consultants’ work consists of matching such men with clients dissatisfied with some of their own people—and the secret talent hunt that has resulted is not abating. “More than they used to,” one consultant says, “corporations seem to feel that around the corner is the dream boy.”

The fact is not unnoticed within companies. Since so many corporations do look elsewhere for their top executives, many men shy at committing their psyche wholly to the company because they know that when the time comes for their crack at a particular spot the company is as likely as not to go out and hire a banker or a lawyer or some other outsider to fill it. The result is a good bit of almost premature restlessness. “I have to battle with my clients to keep them from changing jobs too much,” says a veteran of a big placement agency. “My boys see this going on all around them and they get restless. There is one top man who has made five different connections in eight years, each time being lured away by another of the consultants at a bigger salary.”

Ironically, it is the corporation itself that taught the executives how to fly. Because it has exposed its young men to a succession of environments and new contacts, cutting old roots has not the terrors for them that it does for those who have never moved. Yet for the corporation as well as the individual, the individual’s ability to move is profoundly necessary.

The fact that ties are increasingly easy to sever acts as a counter-force against the tendency for an organization to inbreed itself into a static, encompassing bureaucracy. As long as corporations have any life in them, they will always be productive of conflicts and tensions, and thus mobility, or the prospect of it, is a necessary safety valve. Complete allegiance is a snare; for all the injunctions to “get along” with people, it is important for the organization that the executive know that there are times when he damn well ought not to get along. And to be able to dissent, to champion the unpopular view, he must be able to move. He may not move —but the knowledge that he can, that he is psychologically capable of it, is the guarantee that he can maintain his independence.

The new elite?

The fact that managers circulate so easily does inhibit the growth of total fealty to the company; conceivably, however, it could stimulate another kind of fealty. Might not this freemasonry of organization men evolve into a circulating national elite more and more closed to outsiders? Some observers so fear. We would like to note several developments, however, that suggest that such an elite may never have a chance to jell.

Back in 1932 Taussig and Joslyn in their notable study of executives forecast that by the mid-century more than two-thirds of the top businessmen in the U.S. would be the sons of business owners and executives. Their prophecy has been almost on the nose. Of the 900 top executives in the U.S. today, roughly 62 per cent are the sons of businessmen; and the figure is even higher, 68 per cent, for executives under fifty. Out of all proportion, it might appear, a small group in our country will be supplying a majority of the executives of the future.

The widening middle class

An inbred elite, however, has not been the result. If the rest of the population had stood still, yes; but it has not. As the new generation of management has been maturing, whole groups, not merely individuals, have moved into the middle class. The fact, for example, that a declining number of businessmen come from farm homes is not due to oligarchy so much as to the decrease in the proportion of farmers in the U.S. population.

Few men, to be sure, are rising directly from the shop into management, but we tend to exaggerate the number who ever did. If we go back to 1870, we find, contrary to American mythology, that very few of the business leaders of that time had been laborers or even laborers’ sons. As a study by Gregory and Neu** shows, the business leaders of that day were overwhelmingly of middle or upper-class background, and more, not less, of them were sons of heads of companies than today.

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As the middle class has expanded, the hereditary advantages of the upper strata have declined drastically. The spread of American education, the growing accessibility to culture, have so ironed out regional and social differences that a vastly greater number of Americans can now compete on even terms in what might be called a national society. And not only are more people available for the managerial group; the prestige and income differences between it and other groups have been greatly lessened. Joining it now is hardly cause for exultation or a sense of special caste; so many people have been moving up that what might seem to be advancement for a particular individual may be nothing more than keeping even with great numbers of other people. From farmer’s son to $8,000-a-year management man may once have been quite a contrast; today, as a drive through the Indiana farm country might call to mind, it is something less than spectacular. Who’s advanced over whom?

Technique vs. ideology

But the fact that the managerial group is open to all comers does not in itself dispel the specter of an inbred elite. What of the question of values? Might not management people share a common outlook to such an extent that they will cohere without consciously planning the matter at all? Already, as they so frequently put it, they feel “in the same boat,” and the more their transiency mixes them together, the more they are likely to feel so.

But they have no collective sense of direction. They have none because their organizations have none: owing to essential differences in functions and goals and, not unimportant, the American inability to put things together into a tidy world view, our many different hierarchies are not so compatible as might appear. Like the union man who becomes an industrial-relations executive, the ex-government lawyer turned corporation counsel, the erstwhile blue blood who becomes a sales trainee, many organization men have a conflict in loyalties they must resolve. The men who move are not vouchsafed a common, all- purpose religion.

It is in the development of their professional techniques, not in ideology, that they find continuity—and this, perhaps, is one more reason why managerial people have not coalesced into a ruling class. “They have not taken over the governing functions,” Max Lerner recently reassured an academic audience, “nor is there any sign that they want to or can. They have concentrated on the fact of their skills rather than on the uses to which their skills are put. The question of the cui bono the technician regards as beyond his technical competence.” If they are to be an elite, in short, they will he an elite in spite of themselves.

The great checker game

For the individual, this luck of fixed guideposts often produces a keen sense of temporariness. “One of the hazards of the kind of life we lead,” says a mail now poised at the threshold of the top management of one of our largest corporations, “is the loss of well-defined objectives. What is the purpose? What is the end? I was deeply a part of my job in the chemical division. My wife and f were deeply a part of the community; I was contribution and was effective. Then they asked me to come to New York—the V.P. in charge told me that by coming here I’d have a box seat in the ‘Big Time.’ If his guess has been bad, it’s a terrible waste. I hope the company isn’t playing checkers with me, I feel a lack. I don’t know what I’m being groomed for. I don’t know what contacts to keep alive. A sales manager knows he should keep his customer contacts, but in the broad management philosophy you can’t do this. You have to guess. I felt I had trained for twenty years for a tremendous job that had plenty of challenge, and I was in it for only nine months. Somehow I feel this more is out of my pattern—whatever that is. I’d hate to lose all that’s behind me because somebody is playing checkers with me.”

Younger executives have yet to recognize that there ever will be such dilemmas to face. The great expansion of our economy has created so many new slots to be filled that the young man of moderate ability bas appeared to be rising vertically for a fairly long while. The succession of salary raises stimulated by inflation has further confirmed the illusion. The corporate organization, of course, remains a pyramid; but if one were to draft an organization chart based on some junior-executive bull sessions, the chart would look strangely like a series of parallel lines, the lines going up and up until they disappear into a sort of mist.

“I get so depressed listening to the hot shots on the 8:06,” says one somewhat disenchanted executive. “Very few of them are really destined for top management. But they don’t see it that way. They don’t know about the pyramid yet I don’t think the colleges have got this across to them.”


What has already happened to the salaried transient suggests that if mobility continues to increase it may produce a rootlessness that can have far-reaching consequences. What, in the years to come, will be the effect on the younger members of management, on their children—and on the organizations some will one day head—of a way of life so much more nomadic than that of their elders? The development of new values in the transients’ suburban villages indicates that the effect will be profound. As Fortune will report next mouth, the young organization people in many ways have made a surprisingly good adjustment to their transiency, yet, under the congenial surface, there boil some tensions which hint that more changes are yet to come.

How much to the good, or bad, this change will be is a question we must defer. There is no virtue, certainly, in change per se; whether or not it is to be for the good depends on what the change is to. But for the moment at least, there is one hopeful conclusion we can draw. If the sheer fact of change is true, the picture of a society gradually stratifying is wrong. Those are mistaken who hold that the routes of mobility are being closed; that we are finally shaking down into a stable system: that we are, at last, on a plateau. Quite the opposite; the evidence indicates that our society has never been more dynamic—and the best thing about our system, perhaps, is that there isn’t too much of it. Not just yet, anyway.

*Whose “upper upper,” “lower upper,” etc., classification of Newburyport, Massachusetts, was handled so roughly by ex-Newburyporter John P. Marquand in Point of No Return.

**In “Men in Business,” edited by William Miller; a publication of the Research Center in Enterpreneurial History, Harvard University, 1952.

This article was originally published in the May 1953 issue of Fortune.

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