From Boom To Bust: Roots of Disillusionment

Submitted by ludd on January 23, 2010

How do I fill my days? A force called "Hard Cash" moves my feet
—Gang of Four, 1982, "Call Me Up"

From the vantage point of the "Raw Deal" eighties it's hard even to imagine the expectations people in their teens and twenties had in the decade after World War II. The U.S. was unchallenged ruler of half the world, wages were rising rapidly if not steadily, and after 1947 inflation was a minor annoyance. Buying a home and starting a family were easier than they had ever been before.

The prosperity of the post WWII era coincided with the birth of 76 million people between 1947 and 1964—the biggest "baby boom" in U.S. history. New consumer goods and the suburbanization of a large part of the working class provided the basis for a much-touted "upward mobility." Capitalism's ideologues announced an era of unlimited economic growth in which all good citizens could expect to participate.

The new generation grew up amid ubiquitous encouragement from radio, TV, magazines and newspapers to define success and happiness in terms of material commodities. In exchange for accepting the responsibilities of work and family life, anyone, it was thought, could attain "middle class" status. "Upward mobility" generally meant getting out of the blue collar and into the white collar, out of the city and into the suburbs, off the bus or train and into the private car, etc.

Parents who saw only marginal improvements in their own living standards focused their aspirations on their kids' futures. For millions of American workers, the only way to participate in the glories of an expanding capitalist economy was to ensure a better job for their children. Being the father or mother of a lawyer was somehow considered a just reward for parents who spent their own working lives as auto workers or seamstresses. It was widely accepted that a college education guaranteed a good job with steadily increasing income, status and responsibilities. As living standards improved and fears of economic depression receded, many parents were able to set aside money to help send their kids to college.

Governments at all levels helped establish a college education as a status elevator and meal ticket by building many public universities and creating demand for colleges via grants, loans, G.I. bill, etc. This in turn presented job opportunities for college graduates in government and universities. By 1969 higher education had become an industry employing more workers than either auto or steel.

Unlike past generations, a large minority of the 76 million baby boomers attended college. The proportion of students to non-students peaked in 1969 when one-half of all college-age white males were enrolled. This was the first generation in which many considered it normal to stay at home until age 18 or 19 and then go on to some kind of higher education. For some, the university experience itself was the "fruit of the American Dream." Most schools were endowed with an array of facilities, structures, and equipment beyond the reach of the average citizen. These "luxuries" were added to the luxury of the students' several years of relative freedom prior to donning the responsibilities of job and family (though it is true that most students had to work at lousy, low-paying jobs in order to help fund their training for "something better").

But in spite of efforts to inculcate blind nationalism and conformism at an early age with daily recitations of Pledges of Allegiance and Star Spangled Banners, complemented by regimented leisure activities like Boy and Girl Scouts, in spite of the proliferation of role models like Barbie and Ken and G.I. Joe, somewhere along the Great White American Way the socialization process broke down. The very generation brought up to enjoy the fruits of the new consumer society began rejecting it in earnest as they watched the American Dream fade into a Nightmare of boredom and banality.

Promises of the Joys of new dishwashing liquids and of the freedom provided by modern conveniences were countered with the poverty of spiritual and emotional life in the new suburban ghettoes. The revolt coalesced into a social movement that left few areas of daily life unchallenged as people experimented with ideas and lifestyles that escaped (at least temporarily) the mold of the "buy-or-die" economy.

An important impetus for this breakdown came from far beyond the world of suburban tract homes and spanking new campuses. It came from the Black revolt which, beginning in Alabama and Mississippi, flared through the Southern states and across the Mason-Dixon Line to the industrial ghettoes of the North. Hundreds of young whites shared as Freedom Riders the experience of Black solidarity, dignity and courage against the brutality of police and vigilantes. Not only did they participate in a community different from anything they had ever known but they were abruptly compelled to view the "forces of order" as guardians of an unjust, exploitative and routinely violent system.

This encounter with the Civil Rights movement—whose aspirations ranged from social revolution to a mere equal incorporation of Blacks into "consumer society"—pushed huge numbers of white youth to revolt against the generally subtler constraints and repressions of their own lives. "Do not bend, fold, spindle or mutilate me, " cried the partisans of Berkeley's 1964 Free Speech Movement, while Students for a Democratic Society, founded two years earlier, shifted from mild, left-liberalism to increasingly radical critiques of the whole social order and a commitment to mass participatory democracy in its own activities (though it's true they didn't always carry out these principles).

Alongside and within the Black, student and "counterculture" revolts grew mass opposition to the Vietnam War. Awareness of the atrocities committed by the U.S. military opened up a whole series of related issues: the imperialist nature of U.S. foreign policy, the inhuman misery and poverty associated with corporate America's exploitation of the Third World, the government's complicity in bolstering repressive regimes that facilitated multinational corporate profits, and the destructive uses of modern technology both in its military and its industrial applications.

As ghetto after ghetto exploded in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination, white youth fought in the streets against the war and the way of life which gave rise to it. An unstable community developed based on common values and symbols that were articulated in a flurry of underground publications as well as in rock-songs and movies. These new cultural activities were themselves a lively critique of the commercialization and homogenization of "leisure time".

In the rag-tag laboratories of the East Village, the Haight-Ashbury and a few other such centers the experimenters, many of whom became known as "hippies," broke with all the established goals and norms they could think of. Using drugs, music and visionary art, they tried to purge themselves of their parents' obsession with work, money and possessions.

Already the more radical hippies had denounced marriage and the nuclear family as breeding-grounds for neurosis and repression. Now small groups of feminists criticized the masculine privilege built into hippie "free-love" ethos and the macho, authoritarian behavior of many male activists. Thousands more girls and women soon began rejecting sex roles in all kinds of ways—from insisting on wearing pants to school and refusing to take "home ec'' classes, to attacking beauty contests and forming "consciousness raising" groups where they could throw off the age-old domination of "their" men and discover their own power and creativity. At about the same time, many homosexuals refused to conceal their orientation any longer and rebelled violently against discrimination and police harassment in the famous Stonewall riot of 1969.

Together these youth created temporary and partial alternatives to wage-labor, the life-blood of capitalist society. Collectives, cooperatives, and communal farms provided many "dropouts" with a way of eking out a living on the margins of the commodity economy. While small networks of such groups still exist in the U.S. today, many have been broken by the tribulations of the money economy, or have had to tighten up and become more "business-like" so that they now differ little from "straight" business operations. Still others have collapsed under the weight of isolation or in-fighting, undoubtedly exacerbated by lack of money, time, and space. An "alternative" business loses its appeal when it ends up requiring more energy and effort to sustain than a regular job in a corporate office or shop floor.

The impossibility of preserving an alternative society within the capitalist economy contributed to the disintegration of the '60s movements. The end of the Vietnam War and the Watergate purges also defused political opposition, by removing favorite targets of the protest movements.

Once separated from the multi-faceted critique of daily life, the cultural creations of the movement became commodities like any other. rock promoters, drug-pushers, hip New Age entrepreneurs and Self-Help merchants all profited from the co-optation of the counter-culture. The language and symbols of the disintegrating community of "drop-outs" were absorbed by the mainstream where their subversive meanings were neutralized. "Feminism" came to be represented in the media by the image of a dressed-for-success woman executive. At the same time, channeled through anti-war activism into a fight on behalf of others, and lacking an adequate theory of its own, the political wing of the movement fell an easy prey to authoritarian Old Leftist ideologies like Maoism and Trotskyism.

Aspirations for a complete transformation of society gave way to a quest for novelty and vague desires to be "different." Pop-psychologists, "Me-Decade" hacks and other propagandists of the status quo rationalized the demise of radicalism as the sober reaction of mature individuals to the "excesses" of their youthful "idealism". They prescribed pseudophilosophies of "Positive Thinking" to help obliterate social consciousness and alleviate prevalent feelings of anger, frustration and failure. The common social problems faced by everyone were supposedly "solvable" by "changing your lifestyle". In an ironic parallel with the politicos, the spiritual seekers likewise succumbed to authoritarianism and dogma. A whole crop of gurus and spiritual leaders cashed in on the self-sacrificial ideology of anti-consumerism., and the widespread spiritual poverty, turning thousands of confused, disoriented young people into their zombie slaves.

Despite the co-optation of the '60s movements, it is undeniable that they left an imprint on popular consciousness, especially among still younger people who were not directly involved in the events themselves. This is particularly clear in the gut-level distrust for authority and government that millions still feel.

The post-war economic boom gave way in the seventies to inflation and depression. Alternatives to the regular job-market dried up, just when millions of college-educated babyboomers began entering it. Reductions in student grants further closed off opportunities for even temporary respite from wage-work, and job opportunities in the government and academic worlds—traditional employers of college grads—have been on the decline for years.

Where have these millions of new economic draftees gone to seek employment? Those who responded to seventies' economic projections by specializing in business, computers, and sciences, have usually found jobs in those fields. But what of the millions who resisted the dictates of the market? It has become something of a cliché to refer to the cab-driver with a Master's Degree in English literature, but it is true that the expansion of employment has mostly occurred in the so-called "service" sector of the economy.

Within the service sector, by far the greatest growth has come in "information services" within and between businesses and government. The number of people working at white-collar jobs has more than doubled in the past twenty-five years, now comprising over 53 % of the workforce. The largest increases have been in the clerical realm, where there are now 18 1/2 million people working, and "professional and technical work" where there are now nearly 17 million workers (this latter category includes occupations as varied in income and status as computer programmer, health worker, technician, lawyer, school teacher). Coincidentally, the primary "skill" learned from a contemporary university education has been at least a rudimentary ability to "handle information"—a skill one needs simply to get through the educational bureaucracy.


In the post-WWII era, big U.S. companies were growing by leaps and bounds. To take advantage of the geographically large U.S. market, many companies built facilities all across the country. Often this led to greater and more complex flows of raw materials, semi-finished, and finished products. Similarly, many companies began moving their plants to Europe, Asia, and Latin America to take advantage of those markets, as well as of the lower wages and the absence of governmental. regulation. Dispersion of a corporation's production and distribution facilities throughout the world complicates record-keeping at all levels, creating ever greater needs for "administrative support" (read, office work).

Along with expanding markets came the need to publicize new products. Advertising, which first came into its own in the 1920s, really grew in the '50s and '60s along with TV and other new media. Entertainment, constantly interrupted by advertisements, glamorized ever newer and fancier consumer goods. Industries like film, recording, publishing and advertising, geared to the production and dissemination of "information" hired thousands of workers to design products and publicity, and to buy and sell these information commodities.

Innumerable disputes and conflicts evolved from the complex relationships within and between different businesses and business sectors. These, plus the ever-growing load of governmental regulation and constantly changing tax laws, led to the extraordinary growth of legal work and its millions of lawyers, researchers, clerks, reporters, examiners, etc. The vast majority of litigation involve corporations and government agencies, and focuses on their control of markets, products, and profits. Partly to protect themselves in court, all companies now produce and maintain at least duplicate records of everything (triplicate and quadruplicate records are common in accounting and legal firms). Memos and contracts have become the final proof of what is "real." All of this calls for millions of workers to write, type, copy, file, and retrieve the information.

Another participant in the litigation merry-go-round has been the insurance industry. The increasingly complex economy has created more possibilities for things to go wrong, which in turn has caused the insurance industry to boom. Since everything that goes wrong implies a financial liability for someone, it isn't surprising that everyone wants to buy protection from potentially catastrophic losses due to accident (or due to the consequences of deliberately cutting corners in the scramble to get an advantage over competitors—see for example Love Canal or the Ford Pinto). Nor is it surprising that insurance companies have spent a good deal of money on lawsuits to avoid paying even more money to beneficiaries and/or victims. Insurance companies now employ millions of office workers and wield enormous power in investment decisions through their control of premium money. Because of their importance as money managers, the insurance and banking industries have begun to converge.

One of the much-publicized features of the past 35 years has been the astounding growth of government of bureaucracies at every level—municipal, county, state, and federal. In spite of the current attempts to curb governmental growth this sector of the economy still employs more than 6 million information workers.

Yet another contributing factor to the growth of office employment has been 15 years of merger-mania—the remarkable rise of conglomerates, or large holding companies which own numerous manufacturing, distribution and/or financial subsidiaries. Bureaucracy grows as each subsidiary has to devote time and money to comply with the information needs of its parent. Meanwhile parent companies become pure bureaucracies, interested only in the flow of data coming in from the subsidiaries.

The last and most important sector of "information work" is banking. This primarily used to consist of taking in corporate and individual deposits and loaning it out on interest. But recently, fiercer competition for scarce investment funds has made possible higher returns than banking has traditionally offered. Higher earnings for investments have led to an inflow of funds and this, in turn, has stimulated the beginnings of the capitalist concentration process—the big companies absorb the small and begin fighting each other for market shares. The government is taking its first steps towards the gradual national de-regulation of banking.

The trend toward concentration in consumer investment services is exemplified in the recent acquisitions and mergers between big banks, insurance companies, credit card companies, stock brokerages, real estate firms, commodities brokerages, and even retail giants like Sears. We are now seeing the creation of the ostensibly broader category, "financial services," which includes not just demand deposit banking and consumer and corporate credit, but also data processing and computer services, speculative investment in real estate, stock markets, money markets, commodities, etc., and such consumer services as insurance, credit cards, retirement accounts, and travelers' checks.

Remarkably, in spite of the more than 5 million workers already involved in finance, insurance, and real estate and in spite of the advent of office automation, most projections of future employment possibilities continue to stress the field of financial services. They urge computer literacy as the primary prerequisite. This assumes that as these new financial service conglomerates begin to battle for the consumers' dollar there will be an unprecedented expansion in ways to shuffle all the money around. In other words, IRA's, All-Savers Certificates of Deposit, money markets, etc. are only the beginning, and the "financial services" industry will need thousands, if not millions, more workers to handle all this additional "information." In line with these projections, the Reagan administration's Labor Department recently offered for public comment before adoption some new rules regarding child labor. Fourteen and fifteen year olds will be allowed to work as data entry clerks (among other jobs) after school for four hours a day, probably at less than minimum wage.


For years, people from poor and working class backgrounds, especially women, have struggled to get white collar jobs as a step up in social status (if not income) . The system's ideologues have encouraged this effort, saluting the rise of white collar work as the expansion of the "middle class." But the reality of office work makes the illusion of white-collar professionalism hard to maintain.

The vast majority of white collar workers have inherited a workaday life consisting of repetitive, meaningless tasks, subordination to petty, coercive authority and grinding anxiety. Creativity has been systematically eliminated from most jobs through years of scientific management, speed-up and automation. The relentless assembly-line logic of productivity is riding automation into its new frontiers of low-to-middle management and professional and technical workers. It is not hard to imagine that in the very near future most people will carry out their jobs in front of TV screens.

Beyond these generalizations, though, the office workforce is divided into variegated, complex and overlapping hierarchies of pay, status and function. Lowest on the totem-pole from almost every point of view are the "information processors"—data entry and file clerks in particular. Career ladders out of this layer are virtually nonexistent, the pay is often appalling and the work rivals the assembly-line for sheer monotony, anxiety and exhaustion. Not surprisingly, most key entry and data processing rooms are filled with younger women, especially Blacks, Chicanas and immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

On the other side of the hierarchy are the trainee-junior and middle managers. The lowest of this group are typically products of night-school courses or in-house training and despite their often ferocious ambition are unlikely to rise much further, since they lack either the general education or the connections required. The Bachelors in business administration, most of whom these days are working in dead-end lower management positions, often plan to go back to school for their MBAs.

Management aspirants come from all layers of the workforce, having in common only ambition, authoritarianism, and the other rather twisted attitudes toward life and the living required for the role. John Lennon summed it up in "Working Class Hero": "There's room at the top, They are telling you still, But first you must learn, To smile as you kill."

Between the sterile ghetto of "information processing" and the rat-maze of management are the secretaries and "support staff." The older generation of secretaries are mostly white women, well-schooled in the traditional secretarial role, which combines aspects of wife, mother and military aide-de-camp. This old-style secretary typically has to know every aspect of her boss' job that relates to the office itself. She has not only to answer the phones, take dictation and type letters and memoranda, but to organize her boss' entire working life and provide crucial emotional support as well.

As automation clicks and chirps its way up from the key entry room into the managerial suites, secretarial work is being downgraded. Admittedly, some former secretaries become NCO's of the clerical army word processing, supervisors, data base administrators, and other fancy sounding occupations. These low-level supervisory jobs are just as controlled and watched as the positions they supervise, and don't represent any real control, although they do indicate a certain compliance with the status quo on the part of the person holding the job. Non-supervisory secretaries, meanwhile, are being gradually reduced in status as their old tasks of memory and organization are taken on by microprocessors.

All the same, in most offices the secretary or administrative assistant still has rather more variety and more pay and rather less direct supervision, than her number-crunching colleagues downstairs. And it is in these secretarial and "support" jobs that a large proportion of "sixties rebels" have settled (the ones who have learned to type anyway—others have found their way into less automated clerical niches like the mail room). Lacking the drive to manage, but educated and versatile enough to avoid the data processing departments, they have become the new breed of secretarial worker—restless and mobile, if not officially "temporary," and far less identified with the job than their traditional counterparts. If Processed World has a typical reader s/he is one of these.

As the depression takes hold, the situation for all of these groups is deteriorating. The "information processors" are forced to accept ever larger workloads which are monitored impersonally by keystroke-counters built into their machines. Aspiring executive-types find the corporate career ladders increasingly "clogged," as the Wall Street Journal puts it. This year, college grads are being offered 19% fewer jobs than last. The most adventurous climbers try to move up by diagonal hops between companies; a risky business. Many others can expect at best stagnation, at worst a fast ride down to the street as their functions are taken over by a terminal in the suite upstairs.

The new-style secretaries are feeling the crunch in their own way. Often cynical about their jobs, they have illusions of a different sort. Many are artists, musicians or actors looking for the Big Break, which is now increasingly unlikely to arrive as the cultural markets too have turned bearish. The most rebellious, the habitual absentees and job-hoppers, are finding that work takes longer to find and are correspondingly cleaning up their acts. Once-choosy temps are more reluctant to turn assignments down.

In the short term it looks as if at least outward conformity is going to sweep OfficeLand as people get frightened about survival. Certainly the single biggest response of U.S. workers to the economic crisis so far has been increasing caution and privatism. Grin and bear it at work, then seek pleasure and self-fulfillment in free time. But it takes an immense effort to overcome the fatigue and numbness that sets in at the end of the work/day week. People end up flopped in front of the TV or other forms of passive consumption trying to muster the strength for the next go-round.

In this context, creative thought about one's predicament is very difficult. Public space is colonized by the entertainment industry, which profits from our need to forget, to escape. In the cinemas and concert-halls where we consume its products, we are "alone together," isolated from each other even as we occupy the same space. The few scenes where some genuine community exists can't really compensate for the dreariness of the working week.

It's no wonder so many people feel their lives are being wasted by countless hours of boring, uncreative toil. Office workers are in a particularly good position to recognize this. Most office labor is "useful" only for realizing the political and economic priorities of governments and corporations. One need only consider how few people ever benefit from the millions of money transactions that occupy millions of workers daily in brokerage companies, banks, law firms and other corporate offices. The "services" provided by these institutions are "needed" because of the insecurity and scarcity that the money system creates in the first place.

The wastefulness of information work is only the latest development of a social system that has made waste its primary product for most of this century. The ecological and psychological problems attendant to an automobile/suburban "throw-away" society are well documented, as is the planned obsolescence of many allegedly useful goods and tools. Likewise, the vast military-related industries use billions of hours of potentially creative human labor for the production of means of mass destruction, misery, and terror. Even where this system has produced incredible abundance, as it has in food (though often of dubious nutritional value and at the expense of the planet's ecology), significant amounts are systematically destroyed to preserve the present system.

A great many people will readily agree to all this, and many will even agree that the problem lies at the core of the existing set-up. But most can't really envision any other way of doing things. On the one hand, they view state-dominated societies like the USSR with understandable distaste and dread. On the other, the idea of a freely, genuinely cooperative and communal world, in which the individual would be realized rather than suppressed, is totally alien to their experience. How to imagine collective, equal responsibility for social decision-making in a world of universal hierarchy and irrational violence, hatred and fear? How to take seriously a vision of creatively satisfying work, directly controlled by those who do it, when people now must be driven to work by the cattleprod of the wage system?

In the movements of the sixties, such ideas, confused as they may have been, were partly naive idealism. More important, though, they grew out of the actual experience of the movement itself—out of organizing demonstrations, sit-ins, boycotts and strikes, as well as communal households, food co-ops, free music gigs and so on. Some of these experiences were disillusioning too—a good many former activists and communards turned sourly conservative after concluding that free collectivity was impossible. But others still remember the successes, partial as they were, the moments when people felt they had the power together to make their own history, to become anything they might desire to be. They carry with them a blurred snapshot of utopia.

Today the sixties survivors, along with younger people who have developed similar feelings and attitudes in response to this society, are being pressured to knuckle down and forget even the remnants of their dreams, preserved by some through work avoidance and the "artist" and "activist" roles. But this pressure will probably increase their dissatisfaction. They are likely to be joined in this dissatisfaction by many from the key entry rooms, the data centers, and even the lower-level management offices, as all levels of the office-worker hierarchy find their work harder and duller, their pay poorer and their aspirations thwarted. Here is common ground on which to begin questioning in earnest the life we are forced to share and the fight for a better one. Perhaps, after all, the muddled and sometimes easily co-opted hopes of the Baby Boom generation will not simply be lost in the corporate machinery. Perhaps they will reappear, immeasurably strengthened and clarified out of a new social movement both broad and coherent enough to realize them.

by Lucius Cabins, Maxine Holz, and Louis Michaelson