Magazine article Workforce Management

TALKIN' ABOUT THEIR GENERATIONS: THE WORKFORCE OF THE '50S AND TODAY

Magazine article Workforce Management

TALKIN' ABOUT THEIR GENERATIONS: THE WORKFORCE OF THE '50S AND TODAY

Article excerpt

To celebrate Workforce Management's 90th anniversary, we're running a series of articles looking at important workforce-related issues with a then-and-now theme. This installment examines generational issues in the workplace in the 1950s. Next month, we look at the 1960s and the civil rights movement. To read the full version of this story, go to workforce.com/1950s.

IN 1958, MEL BLOOM started working for the CBS owned-and-operated television station in Chicago. The young journalist was eager to work in the fast-growing medium. After all, almost 90 percent of U.S. households owned a television by then, a tenfold increase since the decade's dawn.

Bloom's generation became known as the conformist "company men" portrayed most recently in the popular cable show Mad Men. His peers have largely left the workforce by now, but their experience is a reminder of the way each American generation finds its way into the world of work--and in doing so presents challenges both to previous generations and to employers.

Dubbed the "Silent Generation" by Time magazine, those born between 1925 and 1942 had their entrance into careers eased by a thriving economy. Consumers were not only buying televisions but also cars and other big-ticket items unavailable during wartime shortages. Fueling spending, the postwar population was growing at a historic pace. Builders raced to meet the demand for houses as new parents left cities for the plush parks and new schools of suburbs.

TV networks catered to their children--a generation later dubbed "the baby boomers" who, today, are at or nearing retirement age in unprecedented numbers--with a roster of series that would become part of the nation's lexicon: The Howdy Doody Show on NBC, Disneyland and later The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC, and Captain Kangaroo on CBS.

Off the air, CBS' WBBM-TV, which was then located a couple of blocks east of Chicago's iconic Magnificent Mile, was like most offices of the 1950s: Bloom and his colleagues were expected to wear crisply ironed dress shirts with ties and to keep a suit coat within arm's reach.

Bloom joined WBBM as an intern and, upon completing his master's degree from Northwestern University, became a full-time news writer. Some of the older workers grumbled about the new guys, he says. After all, many of the younger workers weren't old enough to remember the Great Depression and hadn't fought in World War II.

In general, the workplaces of the 1950s enjoyed intergenerational harmony, labor historians say. Young workers of the 1950s gained a reputation for following rules and obeying authority. In fact, Fortune magazine lamented their penchant for "taking no chances."

"They were very fatalistic of what authority required of them," says Neil Howe, president of the consulting firm LifeCourse Associates. "The idea was: Trust these big institutions built by all these people who sacrificed so much and try to get ahead by playing by the rules."

Young professionals of the 1950s "wanted to hunker down and be the experts," Howe says. They married young, started families quickly, and rarely--if ever--jumped ship to another company.

Although employers in the 1950s took a paternalistic view and valued workforce stability, many firms required employees to retire at age 65. Such policies reflected a commonly held assumption that performance decreased as age increased.

But with more Americans relatively healthy at 65, researchers began to question that belief. …

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