Fewer people are making friends at work: does this mean the end of “corporate culture”?

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of The Organization Man, William H. Whyte’s landmark study of the corporate American lifestyle. Based on interviews with CEOs of major companies, the book described a culture in which loyalty to the corporation was the key driver of everything — including social relationships. Companies interviewed not only the actual candidates for executive positions, but also their wives; it was important to make sure they would fit in — at the PTA, at the country club, on the charity boards. Your work life and your personal life were tightly interwoven.

Twenty years later — even with the anti-corporate upheaval of Vietnam and the hippie culture — a majority of Americans still wanted and relied on the workplace as a major source of friendship. Half of Americans said they had close friends at work, and about the same number of high school seniors said it was important to find a job in which they could make new friends.

But today, as a recent report in the New York Times demonstrates, that attitude is disappearing:

In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, this was true for only 30 percent. And in nationally representative surveys of American high school seniors, the proportion who said it was very important to find a job where they could make friends dropped from 54 percent in 1976, to 48 percent in 1991, to 41 percent in 2006.

We may start companies with our friends, but we don’t become friends with our co-workers. “We are not only ‘bowling alone,’ ” Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford, observes, “we are increasingly ‘working alone.’ ”

Focusing our friendship efforts outside work isn’t the norm around the world. In surveys across three countries, Americans reported inviting 32 percent of their closest colleagues to their homes, compared with 66 percent in Poland and 71 percent in India. Americans have gone on vacation with 6 percent of their closest co-workers, versus 25 percent in Poland and 45 percent in India.

The article suggests a few causes, such as the increasingly contract-driven nature of employment (The Gig Economy) and the rise in “telecommuting” or working from home. We also know from many other studies that there are profound differences in how Millennials view employers and how Baby Boomers do. There is generally a marked decrease not only in loyalty to a company, but to the whole notion of viewing the company from any other standpoint than a narrow transactional one. The whole idea of “corporate culture” — of any kind — looks more and more like a quaint relic of the past.

This is just another example of how social trends are upsetting the classic “consumer lifestage” marketing model.



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. Vice President, Zoomer Media Ltd. . Author of "The New Old" . 30 years experience in marketing communications, advertising, media . Speaker, writer, commentator on the revolution in aging and how to market to Boomers and seniors

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