How the Yes Man Learned to Say No

By Alan Ehrenhalt, the executive editor of Governing magazine, is the author of “The United States of Ambition” and “The Lost City” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 26/11/06):

MOST of us know what conformity is. We know what individualism is. We understand at some level that civilized society is based on a continuing tension between them. And many of us look back at the second half of the 20th century as a drama about that tension: the conformist, white-bread 1950s yielding to the individualist rebellion of the 1960s, and to the eccentricities of the baby boom generation that dominated the two decades after that.

These things are conventional wisdom now, but they didn’t always seem so obvious. Most Americans of the 1950s didn’t even think of themselves as conformists — until William H. Whyte Jr. came along, 50 years ago today, and explained it all to them in “The Organization Man.”

Whyte didn’t invent the terms he used — “organization man,” “yes man,” “togetherness” — but he assembled them into a hugely influential package that ended up not only defining a decade but framing a debate that has gone on ever since. “The Organization Man” is worth thinking about on its 50th birthday — both for the insights it provided about its time and for a lesson into the pitfalls of predicting the future.

Whyte’s book wasn’t an instant sensation. The sociologist C. Wright Mills panned it in The Times. But within six months, the book’s ideas were embedded in the intellectual currency of academia, journalism and the day-to-day conversation of educated people.

By the following spring, it was hard to find a college commencement speaker who didn’t devote his remarks to the conformity crisis and its implications. “We hope for nonconformists among you,” the theologian Paul Tillich told one audience of graduates, “for your sake, for the sake of the nation, and for the sake of humanity.” The president of Yale, A. Whitney Griswold, talked about a “nightmare picture of a whole nation of yes men.” One way or another, virtually every social critic in America in that season of peace and prosperity felt compelled to refer to the troubling diagnosis of William H. Whyte.

The ideas themselves grew out of reporting projects that Whyte had undertaken in the previous two years for Fortune magazine. One of them was an examination of the values of middle and senior managers in major corporations. The other was a prolonged period of field work in Park Forest, Ill., a brand-new, split-level suburb in which some of those managers were raising their families.

Wherever he looked, Whyte found what he called the “social ethic,” a set of values that “makes morally legitimate the pressures of society against the individual.” In the boardroom, in the office cubicles, in the Park Forest cul-de-sacs, in the schools and churches, the young adults of the 1950s were being trained to think and act in unison, to absorb the values of the team, to suppress any truly innovative ideas in the interest of harmony. “In our attention to making organization work,” he complained, “we have come close to deifying it.”

Not only that, but the American middle class was transmitting the ethic of mindless conformity to the children it was raising. When parents in Park Forest were asked what they thought the schools there should emphasize, most responded that schools should teach children “how to get along with other people.”

One might spend an interesting evening debating whether Whyte really captured midcentury American culture with the precision that most critics applauded — or whether he simply defined it in terms so vivid that they achieved a status as intellectual dogma impervious to challenge.

What we can say with confidence half a century later is that Whyte got the future almost entirely wrong. He saw conformity and the social ethic as the values that would shape America — much to its detriment — for the remainder of the century. He urged his readers to fight the good fight against them, one by one — but without much hope that they would succeed.

At the time “The Organization Man” was published, the first wave of baby boomers was still in elementary school. A decade later, instead of absorbing the conformist lessons of their education, members of the youthful intellectual elite were beginning an individualist rebellion on almost every social front — against parents, against professors, against sexual restriction, against the idea of authority in general.

What seems clearest about “The Organization Man,” half a century after publication, is that it mistook the end of something for the beginning of something. If the “social ethic” really did dominate mid-’50s America — and there is plenty of evidence besides Whyte’s book to testify that it did — it was the last act in a long period of national cohesion. As the historian Warren Susman characterized it, Americans stuck together to fight the Depression; then to fight the Nazis; then simply because they were used to it; eventually they just got tired of sticking together. That is as succinct and persuasive an explanation of the social upheaval of the 1960s as I have ever heard. Whyte didn’t see it coming; but then it’s hard to imagine any way he could have seen it coming.

The first decade of the 21st century is now more than two-thirds over, and we are still waiting for a convincing explanation of what it is all about. It is the decade of terrorism, one might say — but really it isn’t: Except when we travel on airplanes, the threat of terrorism doesn’t determine the way we live our daily lives. It is the era of cellphones, BlackBerries and iPods, and we sense that these technologies are changing the nature of social interaction — but it seems too early to say exactly how.

It is a safe bet, though, that before too long, someone will write a book or an article or a novel, place a label on the time we are living in, and give us a debate topic for many years to come. If it is as sharp and eloquent as “The Organization Man,” it will tell us a great deal about where we are. It just won’t tell us much about where we are going.