Seeing like a Corporation: The Changing Conception of the Employee, 1920-2000

Carly Knight, New York University (NYU)
Nathan Wilmers, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

The rise of industrial capitalism was expected to dissolve the ties of long-term economic dependence that defined pre-capitalist economies. Critics and supporters of this transformation alike agreed: the freedom and instability of wage labor contrasted sharply with the lifelong dependence of serfdom, chattel slavery or even free peasantry. If Marx emphasized that wage laborers were still dependent on capital, he celebrated that they were no longer beholden to any particular capitalist. And yet by the late 19th century, first railroads, then manufacturers, began implementing policies like seniority lay-off and re-hire provisions, old-age pensions, and work guarantees. By the early 20th century, companies were investing in housing, welfare departments, and promotion ladders. By the 1960s, these stable, lifetime employment and its encumbrances had become institutionalized. But how could employers reconcile the proliferation of costly employment commitments, with profit maximization? To answer this question, we turn to a novel source of data: corporate annual reports from the 1870s to the 1980s. In these reports, companies describe their workforce and employment relations. Moreover, they do so for an audience for whom this contradiction between employment commitments and cost minimization is sharpest: their shareholders. Through automated text analysis we uncover variation in corporate reporting on their workers. Companies variously characterized their employees as costs to be minimized, assets to invest in, or even stakeholders to be listened to. But we also find a common vernacular for justifying these expenditures. In the early 20th century, companies sometimes foregrounded hard metrics like turnover rates; other reports indicate paternalistic familial commitment. By the 1940s, programs like pensions were described as emblems of managerial modernity. By studying the past, we show how implicit contracts and higher employment costs can be rhetorically reconciled with the strictures of market efficiency.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 229. New History of Capitalism