How Firms Like McKinsey Contributed to the Decline of the Middle Class

In the middle of the last century, management saturated American corporations. Every worker, from the CEO down to production personnel, served partly as a manager, participating in planning and coordination along an unbroken continuum in which each job closely resembled its nearest neighbor. Elaborately layered middle managers—or “organization men”—coordinated production among long-term employees. In turn, companies taught workers the skills they needed to rise up the ranks. At IBM, for example, a 40-year worker might spend more than four years, or 10 percent, of his work life in fully paid, IBM-provided training.

…The mid-century corporation’s workplace training and many-layered hierarchy built a pipeline through which the top jobs might be filled.

…Middle managers, able to plan and coordinate production independently of elite-executive control, shared not just the responsibilities but also the income and status gained from running their companies. Top executives enjoyed commensurately less control and captured lower incomes. This democratic approach to management compressed the distribution of income and status. In fact, a mid-century study of General Motors published in the Harvard Business Review—completed, in a portent of what was to come, by McKinsey’s Arch Patton—found that from 1939 to 1950, hourly workers’ wages rose roughly three times faster than elite executives’ pay. The management function’s wide diffusion throughout the workforce substantially built the mid-century middle class.

…In 1965 and 1966, [McKinsey] placed help-wanted ads in The New York Times and Time magazine, with the goal of generating applications that it could then reject, to establish its own eliteness. McKinsey’s competitors followed suit, as when the Boston Consulting Group’s Bruce Henderson took out ads in the Harvard Business School student newspaper seeking to hire “not just the run-of-that-mill but, instead, scholars—Rhodes Scholars, Marshall Scholars, Baker Scholars (the top 5 percent of the class).”

A new ideal of shareholder primacy, powerfully championed by Milton Friedman in a 1970 New York Times Magazine article entitled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” gave the newly ambitious management consultants a guiding purpose. According to this ideal, in language eventually adopted by the Business Roundtable, “the paramount duty of management and of boards of directors is to the corporation’s stockholders.” During the 1970s, and accelerating into the ’80s and ’90s, the upgraded management consultants pursued this duty by expressly and relentlessly taking aim at the middle managers who had dominated mid-century firms, and whose wages weighed down the bottom line.

As the business journalist Walter Kiechel put it in his book Lords of Strategy, consultants openly sought to “foment a stratification within companies and society” by concentrating the management function in elite executives, aided (of course) by advisers from consultants’ own ranks.

…In effect, management consulting is a tool that allows corporations to replace lifetime employees with short-term, part-time, and even subcontracted workers, hired under ever more tightly controlled arrangements, who sell particular skills and even specified outputs, and who manage nothing at all.

…Today, top executives boast immense powers of command—and, as a result, capture virtually all of management’s economic returns. Whereas at mid-century a typical large-company CEO made 20 times a production worker’s income, today’s CEOs make nearly 300 times as much.

…When restructurings eradicated workplace training and purged the middle rungs of the corporate ladder, they also forced companies to look beyond their walls for managerial talent—to elite colleges, business schools, and (of course) to management-consulting firms. That is to say: The administrative techniques that management consultants invented created a huge demand for precisely the services that the consultants supply.

…When management consulting untethered executives from particular industries or firms and tied them instead to management in general, it also led them to embrace the one thing common to all corporations: making money for shareholders. Executives raised on the new, untethered model of management aim exclusively and directly at profit: their education, their career arc, and their professional role conspire to isolate them from other workers and train them single-mindedly on the bottom line.

How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class – The Atlantic



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