How to Succeed in Assistance, An Essay by Walter Bilderback - Part Two
In the 1950s, this office-based knowledge worker was “The Organization Man” or “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” as two best sellers of the period named him. In the 1960s, the next generation became the ubiquitous “junior executive,” whether with Bob Newhart’s “buttoned-down mind,” the reluctant conscience of Jack Lemmon’s “Buddy Boy” Baxter in The Apartment, or the amoral charm and WASP chutzpah of Bobby Morse’s J. Pierpont Finch in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. These men (for they were almost all men outside the steno pool) diligently filled their cubicle every day, briefcase in hand, performing tasks that were nebulous but apparently essential to the functioning of firms such as How To Succeed’s Worldwide Wicket Company. The really skillful, including the Finches of the world, could rise to the top of their enterprise. In the sort of large corporations Drucker emphasized, the price of mediocrity was plateauing somewhere in the limbo/purgatory of “middle management,” but with job security, a nice house in the suburbs, and a guaranteed pension.
Fifty years later, many of these workplaces have evolved radically. There is more gender equity, give or take, and academic credentials are essential even for unpaid internships. But even in the large corporations, job security is usually a thing of the past: the successful know how to move, vertically or laterally, between related jobs and companies. The 5 o’clock cocktail hour falls victim to the 24/7 workweek. The mind (and job uniform) is no longer “buttoned-down,” but constantly connected to the workplace via cellphone, email, texts, etc. And the product of much of this labor is so intangible as to make Worldwide Wickets feel consequential.
Leslye Headland brings the 21st century workplace to the stage drawing upon the brio of screwball comedy (she’s likened the play to “His Girl Friday meets No Exit”). Her well-educated, ambitious Millennials may not be succeeding like their forebear J. Pierpont Finch, but they’re really, really trying.
Photos: The Apartment, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying