in Profiles | 09 SEP 98
Featured in
Issue 42

Executive Stress

Charting the unhappy lot of the modern office worker

in Profiles | 09 SEP 98

Released in 1960, Billy Wilder's moral comedy of corporate manners, The Apartment, begins with an opening narration from C.C. Baxter, Jack Lemmon's classic Manhattan office worker. With a mixture of cynical confidence and caffeine-wired anxiety, he announces: 'I know facts like this because I work for an Insurance Company - Consolidated Life of New York. We are one of the top five companies in the country. Last year we wrote nine point three billion dollars worth of policies. Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi, or Gallup, New Mexico. I work on the 19th floor - Ordinary Policy department - Premium Accounting division - Section W - desk number 861.'

The urban comedy of The Apartment made a definitive advance on the nightmarish, Kafkaesque symbolism of office life which had begun with King Vidor's 1928 The Crowd. In Baxter's dilemma - how to accelerate his progress from second administrative assistant to executive proper - we find the template for many a sit-com's modest plot, spanning the social embarrassment of Samantha's corporate husband Darren in Bewitched, to the existential crises of Britain's Reginald Perrin as he questions the point of his job at Sunshine Desserts.

In The Apartment's portrait of corporate America, the office becomes the universe and one's position within it a consequence of profound and complex factors. Here the status of executive - the summit of Baxter's initial ambitions - carries a glamour that belies its etymological roots: traditionally, 'to authorise' (and, tellingly, 'to punish'). The 60s and 70s saw the currency of 'executive' as a social term expand to encompass an entire mythology of the urban - but specifically metropolitan - officer class. Coinciding with the rise to power of Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire and the subsequent expansion and reinvention of the men's magazine market, this mythologising of the executive would be marketed to suggest a specifically male, virile, sexually dominant, sophisticated connoisseur of fine living. By the mid-60s, even our secret agents and super villains were glamorised members of the executive lifestyle, as could be seen in such films as The Man From U.N.C.L.E: One Of Our Spies Is Missing (1966) - with its subterranean office reflecting the quiet efficiency of I.B.M. rather than the grim austerity of the Pentagon - and even The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), in which Steve McQueen's Crown reflects on bloodless crime as the ultimate executive toy.

The thick gloss of glamour attached to the early years of executive mythology succeeded in focussing the aspirations of several generations of middle managers, but later it began to prompt a sense of crisis which had been prophesised in the founding theology of The Apartment. As early as 1956, in fact, the neuroses within the executive type had been identified by the American revisionist sociologist, William H. Whyte, in his study of corporate life, The Organization Man: 'Executives admit that they impose exactly the same kind of pressure on their own subordinates', states Whyte in his chapter entitled 'The Executive: Non-Well-Rounded Man'; 'Some lean toward praising men pointedly for extra work, others prefer to set impossible goals or to use the eager-beaver as a "rate-busting" example to others. "What it boils down to is this", one executive puts it, "you promote the guy who takes his problem home with him."'

In these few lines, Whyte would set in place the principal concerns of management practice, as they have come to dominate the proliferation of business studies publishing in the late 90s: that the executive, as a modern type, should attempt a quasi-mystic personal training in order to manage corporate ambition. Whyte puts his case even more clearly: "'The ideal', one company president recently advised a group of young men, ''is to be an individualist privately and a conformist publicly.'" The management of such a necessary compromise, which began with C.C.Baxter, lies at the heart of the contemporary executive's neuroses.

Thus The Apartment can be seen as a monochromatic premonition of the yuppie fables of the late 80s, such as Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987) and Mike Nichols' romantic tale of self-promotion, Working Girl (1988). Ironically, it was Nichols who had described, precisely 20 years earlier, a hatred and mistrust of the executive promise of fulfilment in his film The Graduate (1968), mythologising 'dropping out' with even greater potency than Working Girl glamorised the yuppie ideal. 'I've got just one word to say to you Benjamin,' confides a neighbour of the young graduate, 'Plastics.' Benjamin's subsequent rejection of the corporate dream would be echoed on Joni Mitchell's LP of 1975, The Hissing of Summer Lawns, in the lyric of an executive wife's disaffection, 'Harry's House: Centre Piece': 'To tell him like she did today, just what he could do with Harry's house - and Harry's take-home pay.'

In Wall Street's presentation of cultural materialism as a Faustian struggle between good and evil, and Working Girl's triumphant closing shots that describe 'getting one's own office' as the pinnacle of human achievement, the dynamics of executive empowerment were temporarily rehabilitated for an era of bullish ambition. The literary equivalents of these quests for status could be found in the 'brat-pack' fiction of the late 80s - Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho and Jay McInerney's Brightness Falls - the former translating advanced capitalist greed into psychopathic serial torture and the latter proposing a Fitzgeraldian moment of collapse in the sealed pressure cooker of Manhattan's ventures investment market.

By 1988, the seismic Black Monday market crash of October 19th 1987 had created an enduring tremor across not only the daily practise of global business but also the mythological world of the executive handbook. In addition to this, as Peter York pointed out in his personal thesis, The Eighties (1997), the decade that saw the cultural fetishising of 'professionalisation' in everything from contemporary art to retail engineering suddenly became culturally demonised. '"How was it for you? What did it feel like?", writes York. 'What emerged was that many of them were in denial, as our psychological friends say; they didn't want to think about it and they almost didn't want to admit that they were there.'

In terms of executive stress-management, the business evangelism of Tom Peters had given way, temporarily, to the business dystopia of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of The Vanities (1987). Caught between a vogue for Japanese management techniques and occidental 'doomsday theories', the executive began to search for enlightenment in a neurasthenic business community which was adjusting itself to a recession economy and political revisionism, as even Homer Simpson would discover during his accidental promotion to executive status at Springfield Nuclear Plant: 'I can't work any harder - I'm a natural under-achiever'.

It was in this climate that Robert Heller wrote Culture Shock: The Office Revolution (1990), in which he suggested the survival of the most computer-literate. The book could now be seen as a precursor to the current trend of 'millennium bug' publications, where the business world's contract with Information Technology is described in virtually Faustian terms - and it's time to pay back the loan. Heller's analysis of the high-tech office had the portentous prose style of an apocalyptic short story: 'In 1989, every computer supplier, from mainframes to minis, was committed to alliances that would make the complete corporate system possible, and with it the transformation of the office. That commitment means that, in a future that is almost upon the industry as I write, users will take it for granted that their information systems will be totally cohesive. That, in turn, will exploit the powers of networks to the full - and networking is the key to the third computer age'.

The late 90s definition of the executive can be seen nowhere more clearly than in the contemporary boom in business and management handbook publishing. The morass of books now being published reveal the development of not only a new language - a kind of Zen techno-speak underwritten with the objectivity of an army training manual - but also the reinvention of the old mythological character of the self-made tycoon, whose rise to power in the tradition of a Rockefeller, or even a Branson, can be studied, absorbed and cloned.

The touchstone of the executive manual is the salesman's promise that you are buying into a secret formula for success - or, if not a secret formula, then a precise way of looking at your position within the office as universe that will empower your status, sales and profile. In most management handbooks, the objective points of each particular executive method are animated by mythological parables of success and failure, the collective power of which create a land of business fable in which the terrors of redundancy and bankruptcy are countered by the possibility of living happily ever after in a fiscal turnaround. Narrative is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, while fear, in fact, becomes the motivating force behind much executive counselling.

In Tim Drake's Wearing The Coat of Change: a Handbook for Personal Survival and Prosperity in the Unpredictable World of Work (1998) or The Age of Insecurity (1998) by Larry Elliott, the reader is confronted with an essentially treacherous world of business back-stabbing and office politics, in which only the carefully trained will survive. One is being presented with a classic piece of executive infantilism: the office as universe as computer game - the Mortal Kombat of Middle Management.

As a response to the infinite practical and psychological complexities of office life - to say nothing of the stresses and financial pressures of running a business - one witnesses an unlikely marriage between self-help therapies as the practice of personal empowerment, and the more traditional concerns of how to make a great deal of money. In executive-speak, if the individual is their own corporation, then this conflation of spirituality and pragmatism - an objective and subjective mix - is the exercise of 'individual turnaround'. You are bringing your entire being back from the brink of collapse; you are trouble-shooting your own self concept. And that, in a concentrated form, is the historic 'spirit mission' of the executive as a modern type: in order to succeed on the material plain, the ambitious executive must be able to create the circumstances of their own advancement.

But this is also a period of high insecurity for the executive classes, and many of these new titles reflect a sense of crisis to which various analyses, mindsets and psycho-therapeutic 'programming' can be the reactive response. This movement could be seen as a partial consequence of the ethos for spiritual hygiene that has typified aspects of the social and corporate culture of the 90s. Prevalent amongst these therapies is Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which began at the University of California at Santa Cruz in the early 70s, when John Grinder, a professor of linguistics, got together with Richard Bandler, a psychologist. In Joseph O'Connor and Ian McDermott's Principles of NLP (1996), there is a concise list of 'presuppositions of NLP' which contains a working definition of NLP itself: 'Modelling successful performance leads to excellence. If one person can do something it is possible to model it and teach it to others.' This 'modelling' of achievement or behaviour is attempted in NLP by deconstructing our presuppositions about language and behaviour in order to rebuild those suppositions within a positive and targeted outlook.

The attraction of Neuro-Linguistic Programming to the business world, and to the pressurised executive in particular, lies in its mixture of serenity and logic. NLP is the basis for the teachings of Anthony Robbins, the business and personal development guru, who typically created his own version, Neuro-Associative Conditioning, trademarking the term en route. In many ways, Robbins represents the latest phase in the conflation of personal and corporate skills. He corresponds precisely to the mythological construction of the self-made tycoon, and his extraordinary success as a management consultant - to AT&T, American Express and, spookily, the United States Army - is underwritten in humanist terms by the 'Anthony Robbins Foundation' - a charitable trust working in prisons, schools and old people's associations. His personal development handbooks, Unlimited Power! (1988) and Awaken The Giant Within (1992) have become best-sellers in 13 languages; his brand of positivity and social responsibility represents a kind of secular mysticism, in which belief in oneself will one day network outwards, via a global belief in the corporation, to a collective belief in the planet and the whole of the human race. The Michael Jackson of the business community - and twice as successful - he concludes Awaken The Giant Within: 'Til then remember to expect miracles ... because you are one. Be a bearer of the light and a force for good. I now pass the torch on to you. Share your gifts; share your passion. And may God bless you.'