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How McKinsey Destroyed the Middle Class

Technocratic management, no matter how brilliant, cannot unwind structural inequalities

Source | | Daniel Markovits

When Pete Buttigieg accepted a position at the management consultancy McKinsey & Company, he already had sterling credentials: high-school valedictorian, a bachelor’s degree from Harvard, a Rhodes Scholarship. He could have taken any number of jobs and, moreover, had no obvious interest in business. Nevertheless, he joined the firm.

This move was predictable, not eccentric: The top graduates of elite colleges typically pass through McKinsey or a similar firm before settling into their adult career. But the conventional nature of the career path makes it more, not less, worthy of examination. How did this come to pass? And what consequences has the rise of management consulting had for the organization of American business and the lives of American workers?

The answers to these questions put management consultants at the epicenter of economic inequality and the destruction of the American middle class. The answers also explain why the Democratic Party’s left wing is so suspicious of the nice and obviously impressive young man who wishes to be president.

Management consultants advise managers on how to run companies; McKinsey alone serves management at 90 of the world’s 100 largest corporations. Managers do not produce goods or deliver services. Instead, they plan what goods and services a company will provide, and they coordinate the production workers who make the output. Because complex goods and services require much planning and coordination, management (even though it is only indirectly productive) adds a great deal of value. And managers as a class capture much of this value as pay. This makes the question of who gets to be a manager extremely consequential.

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.

Mid-century labor unions (which represented a third of the private-sector workforce), organized the lower rungs of a company’s hierarchy into an additional control center—as part of what the United States Supreme Court, writing in 1960, called “industrial self-government”—and in this way also contributed to the management function. Even production workers became, on account of lifetime employment and workplace training, functionally the lowest-level managers. They were charged with planning and coordinating the development of their own skills to serve the long-run interests of their employers.

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