The less one could believe “one’s own eyes”—and the new world of science continually prompted that feeling—the more receptive one became to seeing the world through the eyes of those who claimed specialized, technical knowledge, validated by communities of their peers.
Paul Starr, “The Social Origins of Professional Sovereignty”
As a rising tide lifted all boats after World War II, a new class emerged in size and power, a professional segment of free wage labor that gained power, especially cultural power, as it placed itself between (and, when it could, above) capital and labor. This middle class was initially defined by its middleness between what had been seen for a century as the two main social and economic forces of a modern capitalist society. This was not a traditional petty bourgeoisie of small businesses and shopkeepers or of independent doctors and lawyers but rather a group of wage workers who were paid salaries and were given substantial autonomy at work based on their professional credentials, knowledge, and skills—a professional middle class of people who had authority over others even as they themselves answered to bosses. This class came to have a comfortable standard of living by which it is sometimes identified, but its power was based in the way it mediated between the social and economic interests of capital and labor and, above all, by the way it advanced a meritocratic culture of knowledge, talent, and work effort, formally and informally enforced by an achievement-oriented ethic of professionalism. This is the class I worked hard to become part of at a time when it was especially easy to do so.
At the same time, the traditional part of free wage labor—the working class—was being transformed by union-won increases in wages, living standards, and working conditions. As more clerical, retail, cleaning, caring, and cooking jobs emerged as part of an expanding service economy, those workers had lower wages than factory workers but increasing standards of living as well; plus, many of them wore white collars and had relatively pleasant working conditions. Though blue-collar employment was becoming a smaller portion of the overall economy, it was still expanding its absolute number of jobs, and additional opportunities for these jobs were provided as many blue-collar workers, almost exclusively white and male, moved out of them and into the increasing levels and number of management positions where they worked.1
As we began to describe ourselves as a “middle-class society”—in some versions, “the world’s first middle-class society”—there was a fundamental confusion of collar colors, income levels, educational attainment, and race and gender. “Middle class” often referred simply to a supposed majority of people having incomes sufficient to buy things beyond the necessities, and by the 1960s this included steelworkers, autoworkers, and many other members of both the traditional industrial working class and the emerging service-economy working class. In this usage there was no “working class.” Factory workers had become “middle class” because they had the discretionary incomes that made them sought-after consumers, and clerical and retail workers, usually women, were “middle class” because they dressed up to go to work in a variety of collar colors. But just as often, especially as the period progressed, “middle class” assumed that a person had a college education and was part of the self-disciplined, forward-looking aspirational culture that was inculcated through the rapidly expanding higher education of those days—even though at the time many management jobs did not require a bachelor’s degree, and neither did emerging categories of “technical” jobs that would eventually be redefined as “professional” (e.g., engineers and computer programmers). Racial and gender stereotypes further complicated things. A white woman clerical worker with business-appropriate dress and manners, for example, would be defined as undoubtedly middle class, while a black woman with the same job, dress, and manners might be suspected of being “poor” although both were paid less, often much less, than male factory workers and were expected to be informally as well as formally subordinate to their male bosses. To further complicate our class confusion, all this was changing both economically and culturally, so year to year it was not that noticeable, but decade by decade it was. The world of 1955 was very different from 1945, and by 1975 the social-class world of thirty years before was hardly recognizable, even though many of us still thought in old categories.
This class confusion, the broad amalgamation into seeing almost everybody as middle class, furthered by blacks and women demanding opportunities to be in that middle, was fostered by a general downplaying of rank and hierarchy in popular culture, especially with the emergence of rock and roll in the mid-1950s. All this was part of the glory of the time, especially after the mid-1960s successes of the civil rights movement, as it seemed like we were moving toward that general happy “Mediocrity” Benjamin Franklin had mistakenly thought had already been achieved at the beginning. But within this confusion, sometimes embracing but often resisting the erosion of rank, hierarchy, and distinction, a middle-class professionalism was emerging as the mainstream or dominant culture. At the core of that culture was a college education and its relation to the growing number of professional and managerial jobs.
Just before I was born during World War II, in the United States only 5 percent of people ages twenty-five to twenty-nine had college educations (indeed, only about 40 percent had completed high school). By the time I turned thirty that proportion had increased to about 25 percent, and I was among them.2 Job growth stalled in the 1970s, but by then getting a bachelor’s degree was a golden ticket to one of the twenty million new professional and managerial jobs that had grown in tandem with the rise of the college educated.3 It took me a little longer than most, but by 1977 in my midthirties I had one of those too. Besides being another glory of the Glorious Thirty, the wild increase in college educations and professional and managerial jobs is a historical development of enormous—and mostly overlooked—significance: from one of twenty of us being college educated and one of ten having professional or managerial jobs to one of four for each.
Though this rise of a “new class” was sometimes noted at the time, it has been largely ignored by historians looking back.4 The rise itself is usually straightforwardly reported, especially the rapid increase in higher education attainment rates, but there is seldom any attempt to assess how this changed class structures and relations. Rather, what gains attention is the rise of an “affluent” middle class that confuses absolute and relative upward mobility as, for example, both (white) accountants and (white) autoworkers moved from city to suburb, often living in the same places. The general rise in the standard of living was so unprecedented and spectacular, so widely shared, that class relations no longer seemed a relevant topic at the time or for historians looking back—especially since the stirring rise of the black freedom movement put race at center stage of US history for the first time since the American Civil War and Reconstruction. But the numbers are stunning, a sufficiently large change in quantity that we should expect it also to be a change in quality.
Though the growth of professional and managerial jobs was a long-term trend of the twentieth century, going from one of seventeen jobs in 1900 to more than one of three now, their period of greatest growth was during the Glorious Thirty, captured in table 2.1 here in census years across the four decades from just before World War II to just before the Reagan Revolution. Professional and managerial jobs tripled during the first four decades of the century, while the labor force as a whole increased by only 80 percent. But while the labor force doubled in the next four decades, professional and managerial jobs increased fivefold, from five million to twenty-five million and from 11 percent to 26 percent of all jobs. As higher education exploded during these years to try to keep pace, a college education gradually came to be seen as essential for securing one of these jobs. This in turn greatly increased the social and cultural power of the professoriate, which was itself one of the fastest-growing professional occupations. In the immediate postwar years a broad liberal education reigned, but by 1980 business schools and other more practically oriented programs such as computer science and a variety of communications programs were firmly ensconced in even the most elite universities. Though there were conflicts and divisions between and within academic disciplines, a broad professional middle-class worldview focusing life on individual achievement and personal accomplishment was purveyed both in the curriculum and in the social life of higher education, even at state universities that were growing like weeds at the time.5
“Professionalism” is rightly associated with early twentieth-century progressivism, its hyped commitment to empirical reasoning and its practical application in the social as well as the natural sciences—secular and virtuous but pragmatic, data-driven problem solvers. Across the century you can see the emergence of this class in the middle between capital and labor, often allying itself with the poor and laboring classes in appealing to the ruling class but in the process making a place for itself (ourselves) as the dominant class culturally, defining work as a career with professional autonomy and life as primarily a series of achievements and transformations, doing and becoming. When it saw hierarchy, which it did not always embrace during the Glorious Thirty, this culture insisted it be based on merit, especially certified merit.6
Across the century, management itself was redefined as a profession or set of professions, with the rise of business schools and the MBA as certification of broad business knowledge as well as a pragmatic, empirical, and “well-rounded” mind-set and personality. Management aspired to be “scientific” not merely in the narrow sense of the industrial engineer, with his time-and-motion studies, but more broadly as decision making driven by evidence and reasoning that revealed potentials and opportunities not only in products and markets but also in organizational process and “the human element.” Being a profession required a substantial degree of autonomy from owners (capitalists and shareholders) and even from higher levels of management. This was the managerial capitalism that defined the Glorious Thirty, referring primarily to the authority of line managers. But staff professionals were seen to require autonomy too; within the overall direction of line management, staff had both day-to-day autonomy in executing specific functions and reasoned input into the determination of the overall direction based on their specific knowledge and expertise.7 Line managers and staff professionals together constituted the larger group that John Kenneth Galbraith tagged as a “technostructure.” While Galbraith may have overestimated its actual authority and autonomy, he surely captured the ethos of middle-class professionalism and its struggle to be the dominant force by mediating between capital and “society”—workers as both workers and consumers. Because they were seen as being in the middle, technostructure workers “saw both sides” and were not, both as individuals and as a group, that different from the workers they managed or the customers they sold to.8 By 1960 they seemed like the natural leadership group of “general happy Mediocrity” in the United States, working their way up the corporate ladder based not on their ownership of land or capital but instead on their talent and merit as proven in documented accomplishment both in school and in the workplace.
Some in the corporate technostructure are listed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as “managerial,” but many others are listed as “professionals” because they do not supervise anybody. There are many subdivisions within the professional middle class, but this is an important one. Line managers exist as part of a formally well-defined chain of command, whereas staff professionals without managerial responsibilities are “off to the side,” and though subject to the chain of command, they are not responsible for enforcing it, giving them some independence from it in both thought and action. Together, however, they constitute a business wing of the professional middle class, broadly reflecting a business ethos and understanding of the world. During the Glorious Thirty they were rising in power and influence within corporate structures and therefore within society, but culturally the main action in forming a distinctively professional middle-class culture was driven by a communications/education wing. Here the rise of the university and its Glorious Thirty insistence on autonomy provided an independent power base for the development of a professional middle-class culture, often explicitly opposing business-wing tendencies even while feeding most of its graduates into the technostucture. While the labor force as a whole doubled and the entire group of managerial and professional workers increased fivefold, higher education faculty and other professional staff grew nearly sevenfold.9 Likewise, other culture worker jobs grew at least somewhat more rapidly than professionals and managers as a whole: for example, editors and reporters at more than fivefold, designers at fourteenfold, personnel and labor relations at twelvefold, and “therapists and healers” at tenfold. Even “authors” and “artists and art teachers” greatly outpaced general job growth, doubling and tripling their numbers.10 Some of these occupations had large rates of increase from relatively small bases, but much larger groups of professionals such as elementary and secondary teachers nearly tripled their already large numbers, and they all had to pass through the university.11
For most of the Glorious Thirty, there was a glorious tension between the business and communications/education wings of this wildly emergent professional middle class. What’s more, the massification of higher education combined with a consumer-driven popular culture that overwhelmed the producer-driven one with rock-and-roll music, paperback books, television, and cars and record players for almost everyone.12 “Affluence” (i.e., the spread of discretionary income and time) was more than a necessary condition for a flood of horizon-expanding soul searching; it was a motivating factor pushing Tocqueville’s logic of new expectations leading to discontent, especially for young parents and children in the emerging professional middle class. Corporate business rigorously tried to enforce a uniformity and conformism in everything from dress codes and business practices to personality types and the character of “corporate wives” even while—and possibly because—it recognized the need for professional and managerial autonomy in getting its work done. The university meanwhile was exposing its students to Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, then Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Allen Ginsberg and forcing even its business students to read The Lonely Crowd and The Organization Man. Just as popular culture made new strains of music and soulfulness available to wider and wider audiences—everything from Chuck Berry and Miles Davis to West Side Story and La Boehme—paperback best sellers were often what Sarah Bakewell calls “authenticity dramas” such as Catcher in the Rye and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. All this refers to the intellectual ferment of the 1950s, a time still seen as conservative, placid, conformist, and excessively normal, which is the way it was experienced by many of those who lived through it, but they also left a record of their “moral panic … about … faceless, mindless conformism” in their opposition to what they were privileged to experience as dull and meaningless.13
I went to college in the 1960s (off and on for the entire decade and more), by which time the relentless drive for success clashed in multiple and crazy ways with the prohibition against “selling out” and the beatnik-inspired rejection of “the bitch goddess of success.” Some went determinedly in one direction, others just as determinedly in the other; some dabbled in each, while others (like me) swung back and forth and sometimes went in both directions at the same time.14 In the 1960s the soul searching spawned by affluence met the necessity for protest and action spawned by the black freedom movement, an unjust war, a patriarchal society, and one injustice after another—all of which ended not just with a simple backlash but also in an adjustment in expectations whereby both business uniformity and communications/education free thinking gained some ground by giving some. This was the activity of a new class in formation. Free wage labor though it was, it carved out a sense of self, of self-actualization, meritocracy, and at least for a while “making a difference” that was new and powerful. We would end up with a more egalitarian and democratic society, one more firmly rooted in the power of a middle-class professionalism that officially valued critical thinking, especially if that thinking focused on the individual self and its continuous improvement.
By centering on the dialectic between a technocratic business wing and a communications/education wing during the Glorious Thirty, I’m neglecting other dramas of professional middle-class class formation—such as what was happening to the traditional middle class of doctors, lawyers, and clergy. The growth of professional and managerial jobs from 1940 to 1980 was not mostly in these traditional professions, which either merely kept pace with overall job growth (clergy), did more than a little better than overall job growth (doctors), or did only three times better (lawyers) versus the fivefold increase of professional and managerial workers as a whole.15 But the economic, political, and cultural power of these professions persisted even as over time they lost some of their economic independence with increasing numbers joining the ranks of free wage labor. Another important group I’m neglecting is the wide variety of engineers, many of whom received trade school certifications for specific engineering tasks (heating/air-conditioning, computer hardware maintenance, etc.), while bachelor’s degrees in mechanical, electrical, and civil engineering flourished as well, resulting in a sixfold increase in these occupations across those forty years. In my own observation there was (and maybe still is) a distinct engineering occupational culture, one with a kind of purity in its relations with nonnatural physical reality and the way things work and one about equally disdainful of the “know-nothing” business wing and the “artsy-fartsy” communications/education wing. But these and other growing professional jobs also illustrate how sloppily open, in flux, and dynamic a middle class in formation, or in reformation, was during the Glorious Thirty. New opportunities for professionalism proliferated, and within those opportunities autonomous spaces were as yet unsupervised or even unknown within the chains of command.
A new kind of professional middle class was being formed on the ground, so to speak, by the managers, business professionals, doctors, lawyers, and engineers, but the communications/education wing had outsized power and influence over the culture as everybody was challenged spiritually, morally, and culturally by what British social scientist Avner Offer has so richly detailed as “the challenge of affluence.”16 Living without scarcity, working without tight supervision at work you (usually or at least often) enjoyed doing, expanding your horizons, and feeling the real possibility of becoming something you were not yet—this was exhilarating, but it was not as easy or as uncomplicatedly liberating as most of us had anticipated. With discretionary time and money, how should you use it? With wider horizons, which way should you go? What could you become, and what should you if you could? In these conditions the communications/education wing spoke to and for this class in formation, with a popular culture that assumed widespread literacy routinely contesting with the supposedly free-thinking but carefully certifying culture of the university. There was excitement and anxiety, conformism and liberation, freedom and confusion, the exhilaration of doors that had been closed now being swung open and the fear of walking through one of those doors. What is on the other side, and what will be lost if that door closes behind me once I walk through? Writers, teachers, artists, and other producers and reproducers of culture had the new class’s attention and a special role in helping us think about and eventually navigate this altogether new terrain. It was Camus versus Playboy, Bob Dylan versus Father Knows Best, Norman Mailer versus Walter Cronkite, and Betty Friedan versus Anita Bryant.17
From a bird’s-eye view, middle-class professionals constituted a new class arising between capital and labor, a broader version of Galbraith’s technostructure. But if you look at it as a transformation in the composition of free wage labor, it’s also an unprecedented rise of a significant part of the proletariat—a promotion, if you will. Though some of those twenty million new free wage–labor professional and managerial jobs were taken by the children of small-hold farmers moving off the land and by doctors and lawyers giving up their own practices to be employed by larger partnerships and firms, the majority must have been people like me leaving the working class.18 Some working-class young people were running headlong into an exciting future, others ambivalently backing into opportunities they could not afford to avoid, and still others, like me, doing some of each by turns. From that bird’s-eye view we all were simply the sparks created by the explosion of higher education in the postwar United States, but for each of us as individuals it was a fraught drama full of personal turmoil—adjusting, adopting, adapting, rejecting, and holding on to one of two broad ways of living a life.
One way saw life as lived within a tangled web of relationships, valued loyalty to kith and kin, and found drama in the struggle to simply be yourself, to at least pull your own weight within your circle of family, friends, and workmates—a kind of fatalism about who you are or were “meant to be” awkwardly combined with a commitment to being strong and true, “a good person” within your personal and socially entangled limitations. The other way defined the self much more expansively and individualistically, more independent and more open to self-directed change with greater freedom from the constraints of entangled relationships. In this view you could make yourself who you wanted to be, or at least it was important to try to be somebody you were not yet. The dramatic rise of middle-class professionalism during the Glorious Thirty meant that this second way gained more and more traction as the years and decades went by. By 1975 it was something like hegemonic, the stuff of university commencement speeches for sure but also a kind of constant cultural reminder spreading out from the university to both elite and popular culture “not to sell yourself short,” that all people had more potential than they were using and that each of us had a duty—or at least an opportunity—to achieve that potential. For common folks, mediocrities like me, this kind of universalizing of potential was new and “modern” and both exciting and existentially anxious. For me there was a working-class counterculture, however, that warned don’t get ahead of yourself, don’t be thinking you’re better than others, and even don’t expect too much of yourself or of life in general and above all don’t try to be something you’re not. As Jason Isbell’s father insisted, “don’t try to change who you are, boy, and don’t try to be who you ain’t.”19
This working-class counter is now widely viewed as a cultural disability within a more hegemonic and elitist professional middle-class culture, and though I am ideologically opposed to that classist prejudice, within my own family I practice it anyway. The stakes were too high to allow my son and grandsons to think there might be an option to going to college, for example—it’s either that or a life that is nasty, brutish, and short. I know better than that, but I’m not about to tell them. What was different when I was coming up was that both ways worked. You could be yourself tried and true, eschew the cultural washing of hearts and brains involved in going to college, and still get ahead, have a good life, including expanding your horizons, not dramatically maybe but bit by bit. Today that is less the case with each passing year, and that’s not just a problem for working-class life and culture and thus for the majority of people, but for us privileged middle-class folks as well. During the Glorious Thirty an expanding professional middle class lived alongside and often against a vital cultural alternative that a prosperous and economically powerful working class provided. Whether complement or antagonist, this alternative culture enriched middle-class professionalism in those days. But now if it’s true, as I think, that the power of us middle-class professionals is based on our value in mediating between a ruling class and a confidently strong and self-representing working class, then we are becoming less and less valuable as the working class is weakened economically, politically, and culturally. Especially if we’re not excellent, not among the highly talented, just mediocre, our true nature as free wage labor becomes more and more apparent as working-class conditions deteriorate.
Working-class ways enriched professional middle-class culture during its period of formation, when the culture was still open, experimental, and exploratory, still trying to find its way; when middle-class professionals themselves were likely to have working-class origins in grandparents if not parents; and when middle-class culture’s achievement orientation and status consciousness were actively challenged by those who scorned them as “the bitch goddess of success” and were proud to sing that they were “not sleepy and there is no place I’m going to.” How to live in a world with discretionary time and money seemed like a universal problem then, and there was more than one legitimate answer to it—more troubling, soul-wrenching questions then but also more possibilities for more people than now. Now it seems our middle-class professionalism is simply a cultural shield to keep our discretion to ourselves and pass it on to our progeny. I don’t want to go back to all the intellectual ferment of the 1950s or to the political and cultural turmoil of the transvaluation of all values in the 1960s, but I do want to recover that progress we were making toward a general happy mediocrity when a rising tide was lifting so many different boats.