The Knowledge Worker Mind & The Birth Of Careerism

Climbing the career ladder

Modern work critics blame Frederick Taylor for the hyper-optimization of the modern workplace. The accepted narrative is that Taylor kicked off a movement that looked at work as something that could be optimized and managed and that his efforts kick-started a 100+ year movement of steadily increasing optimization.

Sounds good but its not true. Today’s hyper-optimized workplace would not exist except for the emergence of a new kind of worker: the career-driven knowledge worker.

Taylor was mostly concerned with the manufacturing world and he believed that an embrace of his principles would help not only managers, but production workers:

“The principal object of management should be to secure the maximum prosperity for the employer, coupled with the maximum prosperity for each employee.

Frederick Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, 1911

He wrote in a time in which the kind of service and knowledge work that is common today barely existed. While his techniques did gain popularity in manufacturing, it would take another 30 to 40 years for analytical and measurement techniques to gain widespread adoption.

It took the emergence of a new kind of work.

The Career Path & The Need To Perform

After world-war II as the US repurposed its military workforce there was a boom in employment in the business world and for the first time. the goal of working for a big corporation became a common goal.

William Whyte famously called them “Organization Men” and wrote more than 400 pages making sense of this new type of worker that started to identify with a company above any other affiliation in their life:

The ones I am talking about belong to it as well. They are the ones of our middle class who have left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life, and it is they who are the mind and soul of our great self-perpetuating institutions.

William Whyte, The Organization Man, 1956

This was a dramatic shift from the age-old conflict between labor and the owners of capital. Once that had existed from the earliest days of capitalism.

While the manufacturing workers of Taylor’s time had a strong “class consciousness,” these “white collar” workers in the 1950s were not sure who they were:

White-collar workers rarely knew where they were, whom they should identify with. It was an enduring dilemma, rooted in what might be called a class unconsciousness, that would characterize the world of the office worker until the present day.

Cubed, A Secret History of the Workplace

Despite attempts throughout the 20th century for labor movements to include these workers, knowledge workers distanced themselves from organized blue-collar workers.  Instead of labor unions, they formed “associations” and increasingly saw themselves as aspiring business people who might one day become business owners.

Taylor wanted to close the divide between labor and capital. These workers had no interest in seeing that divide in the first place.

The knowledge worker was focused on managing a career, developing skills and acquiring achievements or as Merriam-Webster now defines it, “pursuit of consecutive progressive achievement.”

People saw themselves not as a part of an organization but as someone with a first-person account of achievements and contributions and over time, that narrative was something that could be (and eventually, needed to be) carried from employer to employer. 

And as the job morphed into a career, the worker shifted from someone merely doing their job to someone that needed to perform. 

Continuous Improvement & The “Theatre Of Work”

Before the 1960’s the idea of a “career path” was not a thing. Workers hoped to merely keep their jobs. Early uses of the term seem to have been aimed at two audiences: men joining the military and women joining the workforce.

Over time, the idea of a promising career path was connected to the end of a college education and over the 2nd half of the 20th century, it would become common knowledge that the whole point of going to college was to land a good job.

Whyte, writing in The Organization Man writes, “The union between the world of organization and the college has been so cemented that today’s seniors can see a continuity between the college and the life thereafter that we never did”

The idea that a young person was to orient around a good career became increasingly popular. It was not until the 1980s, however, that the analytical tools became central to such a career. This is when new “schools” of business thinking like Total Quality Management, Six Sigma and Lean entered the scene. 

Emergence of "career path" google ngram books results

These programs gave the career-driven person language and initiatives to “proof” they needed and guaranteed that career success and analytical measurement of that success would become inseparable.

Every aspirational leader attached their careers to these programs in the 1980’s, most notably Jack Welch.  In 1989, he gave an interview in which he detailed GE’s newly launched “work out” program:

We want 300,000 people with different career objectives, different family aspirations, different financial goals, to share directly in this company’s vision, the information, the decision-making process, and the rewards

For someone at GE, it was very clear that you would need to get involved in one of these programs if you hoped to progress at the company. By the end of the 1990’s every large company had similar programs and employees had figured out that to get ahead you needed to document your progress.

In today’s working world, the reality of work is that good work does not pay off. You also need to share that success in something consultant Tom Critchlow calls this the “theatre of work”:

Many people aspire to “silent success” at work – to do work that “speaks for itself”. Unfortunately this is the wrong move in the theatre of work. Instead we should aspire to the opposite – for knowledge work, the performance of the work is the work.

Continuous Improvement programs helped complete the shift of work into a performance and kept workers in a non-stop search for problems that need to be fixed.

A New Kind of Worker

The point of all of this is not really to decide whether or not Frederick Taylor is to blame for our hyper-analytical workplace.

It is to make you aware that a unique set of circumstances emerged in the second half of the 20th century that birthed a new type of worker: the knowledge worker.

Despite knowledge work still only being half of the workforce (estimates vary), these workers have a dominant hold on our current myths and stories about what it means to work and what is means to be a human in the modern age.

Consider the changes in our mindsets that resulted from this new type of worker:

  • The point of college is to get a job
  • One should always be growing and improving at work
  • Finding deeper meaning and belonging at work is vital
  • The most important battles of freedom are for increased labor right
  • Doing good work is not enough, you also need to self-promote

There are many subtle shifts that have emerged in the last 50-70 years but what makes them remarkable is that we all seem to accept that this is the way things have always been. Modern criticism of capitalism often miss this point. They don’t realize that work and a career was not always so central to our existence. It is only when work is the center that blowing everything up seems logical.

The emergence of knowledge work and the wealth that is has enabled many to generate across the world has been a huge positive in terms of freeing many people from having to worry about putting food on the table each week.

Yet the shift in consciousness that arose around the emergence of this new kind of work has led us into many traps. We look for belonging and meaning at work but never seem to grasp it. We crave the deeper truths of life but our schools only teach practical skills to get you hired. We fight for freedom for more people to work but find ourselves lacking the deeper things that give our lives meaning like connection, community and relationships.

I don’t have a utopian vision of what new work beliefs should look like but I can sense that they are starting to emerge. The majority of knowledge workers around the world are now working from their homes. They are finding that our scripts about the role work is supposed to play in our lives are outdated but they don’t have a better answer.

Whyte was a keen observer of the dark side of this new side of work when he was writing in the 1950s. He saw that the draw of aligning oneself with an organization and a certain kind of work was appealing

In a world changing so fast, in a world in which he must forever be on the move, the individual desperately needs roots, and The Organization is a logical place to develop them.

We still need those roots but after 65 years its time to realize that work is not going to deliver them.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

Leave a Comment