The Chronicle Review

White-Collar World

What the office 
has done 
to American life

David Plunkert for The Chronicle Review

April 14, 2014

But this white collar book: ah, there’s a book for the people; it is everybody’s book. … It is all about the new little man in the big world of the 20th century. It is about that little man and how he lives and what he suffers and what his chances are going to be; and it is also about the world he lives in, has to live, doesn’t want to live in. It is, as I said, going to be everybody’s book. For, in truth, who is not a little man?
—C. Wright Mills, 
letter to his parents (1946)

In or around the year 1956, the percentage of American workers who were "white collar" exceeded the percentage that were blue collar for the first time. Although labor statistics had long foretold this outcome, what the shift meant was unclear, and little theoretical work had prepared anyone to understand it. In the preceding years, the United States had quickly built itself up as an industrial powerhouse, emerging from World War II as the world’s leading source of manufactured goods. Much of its national identity was predicated on the idea that it made things. But thanks in part to advances in automation, job growth on the shop floor had slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, the world of administration and clerical work, and new fields like public relations and marketing, grew inexorably—a paperwork empire annexing whole swaths of the labor force, as people exchanged assembly lines for metal desks, overalls for gray-flannel suits.

It’s hard to retrieve what this moment must have been like: An America that was ever not dominated by white-collar work is pretty difficult to recall. Where cities haven’t fallen prey to deindustrialization and blight, they have gentrified with white-collar workers, expelling what remains of their working classes to peripheries. The old factory lofts, when occupied, play host to meeting rooms and computers; with the spread of wireless technology, nearly every surface can be turned into a desk, every place into an office. We are a nation of paper pushers.

What it means to be a paper pusher, of course, seems to have changed dramatically (not least because actual paper isn’t getting carted around as much as it used to). The success of a show like Mad Men capitalizes on our sense of profound distance from the drinking, smoking, serial-philandering executive egos idolized in the era of the organization man. Many of the problems associated with white-collar work in midcentury—bureaucracy, social conformity, male chauvinism—have, if not gone away, at least come into open question and been seriously challenged. It would be hard to accuse the colorful, open, dog-friendly campuses of Silicon Valley of the beehivelike sameness and drabness that characterized so many 1950s offices, with their steno pools and all-white employees. On the surface, contemporary office life exudes a stronger measure of freedom than it ever did: More and more women have come to occupy higher rungs of the corporate ladder; working from home has become a more common reality, helping to give employees more ostensible control over their workday; people no longer get a job and stick with it, leading to more movement between companies.

At the same time, we are undergoing one of the most prolonged and agonizing desiccations of the white-collar, middle-class ideal in American history. Layoffs feel as common to late capitalist offices as they were to Gilded Age factories; freedom in one’s choice of workplace really reflects the abrogation of a company’s sense of loyalty to its employees; and insecurity has helped to enforce a regime of wage stagnation. In universities, the very phrase "academic labor" has become a byword for dwindling job protection. White-collar workers report experiencing higher levels of stress than their blue-collar counterparts do, and many work long hours without overtime pay. The increasingly darkening mood of frantic busyness—punctuated by bouts of desperate yoga—that has settled over American life owes much to the country’s overall shift to a white-collar world, where the rules resemble very little those of the world it left behind.

In other words, what the office has done to American life should be a topic of central importance. But there is still only one book, now more than 60 years old, that has tried to figure out what the new dominance of white-collar work means for society: White Collar: The American Middle Classes, by C. Wright Mills.

Few books inaugurate a field of study and continue to tower over it in the way White Collar has; its title alone is authoritative. It sums up and it commands. Even if we are not all white-collar workers now, white-collar work has become central to social life in ways so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Mills was practically the first to notice this and to explore its ramifications. His findings not only stand alone in the literature on the subject but loom over the others in its eerie prescience and power.

It helped his book that, as a personality, Mills, in his mid-30s when the book came out, was far from any dry middle-manager drone he analyzed, let alone the tweedy sonorousness of his Columbia colleagues Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun. Students who witnessed his arrival at class would see him dismount a motorcycle and adjust his leather jacket, lugging a duffel bag crammed with books that he would fling onto the seminar table. His unprofessorial style corresponded to an intellectual nonconformism. A scourge of the blandly complacent, "value neutral" social theory that formed the academic consensus of his day, Mills was also hostile to the orthodox Marxist accents that had been fashionable in the speech of the 1930s. Unfortunately, the dominance especially of the latter made it impossible to understand what class position white-collar workers belonged to, and what it meant. Under the most popular (or "vulgar") version of Marxism, the various strata of clerical and professional workers grouped under the heading "white collar" were supposed to dissolve eventually into the working class: In the terms of left-wing German sociology, they were a Stehkragen, or "stiff collar," proletariat.

Mills was unimpressed by all that. The more he looked at white-collar workers, the more he saw that their work made their lives qualitatively different from those of manual workers. Where manual workers exhibited relatively high rates of unionization—solidarity, in other words—white-collar workers tended to rely on themselves, to insist on their own individual capacity to rise through the ranks—to keep themselves isolated. The kind of work they did was partly rationalized, the labor divided to within an inch of its life. Mills constantly emphasized the tremendous growth of corporations and bureaucracies, the sheer massiveness of American institutions—words like "huge" and "giant" seem to appear on every page of his book. At the same time, so much of their work was incalculably more social than manual labor, a factor that particularly afflicted the roles afforded to female white-collar workers: Salesgirls had to sell their personalities in order to sell their products; women in the office were prized as much for their looks or demeanor as for their skills or capabilities.

What Mills realized was that, where backbreaking labor was the chief problem for industrial workers, psychological instability was the trial that white-collar workers endured, and on a daily basis:

The new Little Man seems to have no firm roots, no sure loyalties to sustain his life and give it a center. He is not aware of having any history, his past being as brief as it is unheroic; he has lived through no golden age he can recall in time of trouble. Perhaps because he does not know where he is going, he is in a frantic hurry; perhaps because he does not know what frightens him, he is paralyzed with fear. This is especially a feature of his political life, where the paralysis results in the most profound apathy of modern times.

It was a tremendously forceful, powerfully bleak assessment of the situation, delivered with the sort of pungency and mercilessness that made Mills one of the most distinctive stylists of his time. In Mills’s view, if you wanted to find out what was wrong with American society and politics, you had to look to the white-collar worker. And if you were honest with yourself, what you saw would explain why American politics had drifted into such a deadly passivity, such a frenzied and unholy stasis. In the finest tradition of social critique, the book was directed against its day, and it spoke in the accents, the shaggy, bearded tenor, of genuine prophecy; it was sociology that sought the status of literature.

White Collar forcefully reorients our entire picture of how people’s occupations affect their class, and how class, in turn, determines politics. For many decades (and arguably still today) to speak about class in an American political context was rare and unwelcome. Not a few commentators suggested that a strong welfare state, with relatively high rates of unionization and social mobility, had upended traditional forms of stratification. What America had instead, under this rubric, was a central, amorphous middle class—expanding, viscous and bloblike, to swallow everyone.

White Collar not only challenged this tacit consensus but explained why it had come to be. For white-collar work, Mills discovered, was explicitly predicated on the denial of the salience of class. Even when they seemed to be proletarian in their income levels or in the level of rationalization of their work, these workers were middle class in their attitudes and self-conception. And being in the middle meant being passive, accepting, politically directionless. Ostensibly doing clean work in conditions of relative comfort and security, white-collar workers in Mills’s view were in some ways the most exploited and dominated members of society.

Mills’s research, a submerged mix of interviews and sociological synthesis, led him to depict white-collar workers as people objectively alienated from the products of their work—they produced only paper—who often labored in conditions that were like factories: The enormous steno pools and legal bureaucracies were nothing like the small businesses of the old middle class. "In the case of the white-collar man," he writes, "the alienation of the wage-worker from the products of his work is carried one step nearer to its Kafka-like completion." And that alienation leads to a joyless life of frenetic consumption: "Being alienated from any product of his labor, and going year after year through the same paper routine, he turns his leisure all the more frenziedly to the ersatz diversion that is sold him, and partakes of the synthetic excitement that neither eases nor releases. He is bored at work and restless at play, and this terrible alternation wears him out."

And yet, Mills noted, those workers almost never felt the need to organize or revolt. Why? He found an answer—still powerfully explanatory today—in the white-collar workplace’s regime of status. Alienated by the kind of work they had to do, white-collar workers found comfort in prestige: Even when the work of a middle manager was mind-numbing, the carpet on his floor, the wood trim on his desk, and the way he was treated by his secretary or his peers supposedly compensated. In one of his most resonant arguments, Mills demonstrates that managerial control extends to sociability itself—in this new era, emotions and language become subject to hidden control:

Not only the great bureaucratic structures of modern society, themselves means of manipulation as well as authority, but also the means of mass communication are involved in the shift. The managerial demiurge extends to opinion and emotion and even to the mood and atmosphere of given acts.

In statements like that, one finds the early origins of the study of "affective" labor—the amount of energy spent trying to sell one’s personality in one’s job—later explored by Arlie Russell Hochschild and others. Salespeople, managers, academics, professionals, clerical workers: All of them, the white-collar masses, were dominated in their workplaces by demanding psychological requirements and by bureaucracy.

What one sees in White Collar is the attempt to show how an entire society was being white-collarized. Status and prestige, emotional games and office politics: These were leaking out of the workplace and into the world, coloring the entire way people interacted and organized their time and leisure. The frankly confrontational style of blue-collar work and industrial unions was disappearing. White-collar workers accepted the idea that they lived in a meritocracy—indeed, the very architecture of offices, with their massed desks and corner offices, literalized the climb up the class ladder. Still, the claims of white-collar work to operate according to the rules of meritocracy were obscuring the way class persisted and still ruled the country.

Mills’s aim, however, was political. So much left-wing thought in his time had been derived from the idea that the working classes were in confrontation with business: Labor and capital were usually the two major constituencies said to determine the future course of politics. But white-collar workers fit into this picture uneasily—they seemed to be somewhere between capital and labor. Mills argued that the ambiguity of white-collar workers’ self-conception would fatally compromise any attempt to develop an independent white-collar politics: They would instead, he argued, practice a politics of the "rear guard," which—consistent with their derivative, dependent situation—would follow whatever team happened to be winning.

It would doubtless appeal to the ironist in Mills that recent years have witnessed the devastation of the white-collar middle class—thanks, in part, to the sorts of critiques he had lodged against its spiritually impoverished condition. Mills argued that the shadow of bureaucracy dominated the office world, and that white-collar workers were slotted into forms of specialization far from his own ideals of "self-cultivation" and craftsmanship. As it happened, many management theorists in the 1960s agreed with him. It turned out to be relatively easy to repurpose Mills’s deep critique of bureaucracy (echoed in the work of others, like William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man) into a shallow antagonism toward overstuffed managerial ranks. Figures like the management theorist Peter Drucker began to speak of the emergence of "knowledge workers," who turned research into commodities. Later, Robert Reich would laud the same group as the future of the American economy, calling them "symbolic analysts"—a term as briefly influential as it was terminally vague.

It was in the hope of fostering and encouraging knowledge workers that mass layoffs began to afflict the white-collar world. By the 1980s, "lean form" (described by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. in In Search of Excellence) and an entrepreneurial spirit were the ideals, bureaucracy the enemy, flexible labor markets the answer. A precarious world of temps and independent contractors sprang up, and bouts of unemployment and shifts between jobs became normal, on a scale and regularity unknown to, and unforeseen by, Mills’s generation. Craftsmanship, as an aesthetic ideal, also proved susceptible to repurposing, with insecure freelancing seen as somehow delivering on the ideal. Only recently did social theory begin to address the meaning of this reversal, with figures like Richard Sennett (The Culture of the New Capitalism), and Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (The New Spirit of Capitalism) registering, in a similar vein, the way an aesthetic critique of bureaucracy became the justification for undermining the defenses of the world of work.

For example, one might think that the proliferation of office jobs signals the achievement of a middle-class society, the white collar having long been a sign of respectability—and yet this is a time when the ground of middle-class stability is widely seen to be eroding, and when the average white-collar job earns you not much more, and often less, than a place on an automobile assembly line. Workplaces supposedly filled with "knowledge workers," with more potential control over their work, have not become more democratic or equal ones: Bosses fire workers, and more of them at once, with more impunity than ever before; the ones who don’t get fired are temps or contractors, who enjoy even less in the way of security. If the paradigmatic midcentury white-collar novel was The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, in which one of the central struggles was whether the protagonist could successfully rezone his enormous inherited property, meant for four houses, into a suburban development for 80 houses (spoiler: he succeeds), the defining work of our era has been Mike Judge’s Office Space, a movie in which arbitrary layoffs, mindless work in gray cubicles, and desires for revenge and sabotage curdle the "middle class" atmosphere.

In the face of this onslaught, it has been hard to see the response of white-collar workers as anything but passive. No organizations fight against the culture of layoffs, at the same time that the social safety net has been allowed to erode. In academe, temporary work by adjunct professors is simply accepted as the new normal in a violently unstable "job market" (truly one of the more mealy-mouthed and ideological phrases of our time). The Occupy movement represented an exhilarating moment of political visibility for declassed white-collar workers, allied as they were with unions and other institutions of the even more embattled working class. One can only hope that the repression that the police visited on the movement has only stifled, and not killed, its calls for real autonomy in the workplace and for an end to the harried, fearful aspects of the life of the white-collar worker that Mills diagnosed in 1951, and whose political consequences he feared. The success of such movements may yet lay to rest Mills’s pessimism about the force and power of white-collar politics. So far, however, in this respect, as in so many others, C. Wright Mills has been sadly prophetic.

Nikil Saval is an editor of n+1 and the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday), out this month. He is completing a Ph.D. in English at Stanford University.