As the American economy adapted to the sudden industrial heydey of the post-war 1940’s and 1950’s, education rose to the forefront as the great guarantor of job success. A post-war college degree was widely hailed as a ticket out of blue collar drudgery into a cushy white collar office job. The baby boom produced candidates by the millions, banks created a network of ubiquitous loan programs to pay tuition, and the rush to crank out college grads was on. The ’50’s dream of a suburban existence in executive management became the new ideal.
But economic growth couldn’t keep up with all those new college grads forever. Such employees must be appeased with regular promotion, but a glass ceiling was in place, preventing competent-but-not-brilliant risers from breaking into the upper management aristocracy. The limited number of jobs at the topmost level were seldom up for grabs. The constant push to promote from below expanded middle management jobs and overloaded American firms. Whole departments arose, managers managing other managers like an ever-expanding layer cake. The American business landscape grew bloated with well paid, under-utilized middle managers whose existence funded an artificially-expanded middle class.
Like all bubbles, eventually this one had to pop. It began to collapse during the late 1960’s and early ’70’s, with the unanticipated reemergence of long-suppressed foreign work forces becoming competitive again. Suddenly America could no longer dictate world prices… leaner, hungrier forces were at play overseas, more efficient and productive… with no swollen corps of extraneous middle management to support.
The cutthroat ’80’s adopted “lean and mean” as the panicked mantra of American executives who desperately read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” to decode the fierce success of their Japanese counterparts. What many failed to understand was that internal competition for scarce white collar jobs is the very paradigm that honed Japanese killer corporate culture into its new hyper-efficient form: in many American companies during the 1970’s, there was one manager for every 4 workers. In Japanese companies of comparable size the ratio was 1:25.
Meanwhile the adult children of retiring baby boomers discovered their expensive college degrees no longer automatically opened the doors to upward mobility. Universities, now monetized, consorted with banks to ensure a constant flow of inflated tuition for degrees of dubious merit. Such diploma factories devalued college degrees until they became essentially mandatory for white collar positions (while standards dropped so low they no longer meant much apart from filling an expected space on an applicant’s resume).
Something had to give. American companies eventually began eliminating middle management in bulk, pressuring longtime employees into early retirement. Entire departments were downsized out of existence, their workload spread over a decreasing pool of workers. Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, middle management was slowly squeezed ever smaller, a factor that contributed to corresponding shrinkage of what had traditionally comprised the American middle class for decades.
That process might possibly have stabilized at a more efficient ratio… until the recession of 2008. Companies responded by slashing their payrolls to the bare bone, cutting deepest in the thinning ranks of middle management. Five years later, the economy is rebounding, but companies have learned they can get away with crushing their work force under a reduced crew of ruthless managers (the leanest of the lot, many of whom survived the downsizing of 2008-2010 by metaphorically climbing atop the bodies of their fired colleagues).
But those endless offices full of mid-range executives in short sleeved white shirts and ties?
Those jobs are gone, and they aren’t ever coming back.
(Thursday: The Parasitic Taskmasters)