Making It in the World Today

by Editors


Making It in the World Today:

Musings on the Historical Definition of Success

By Sarah Katherine Mergel

Recently, while writing lectures on both Thomas Jefferson’s vision for a republic of successful independent farmers and the life during the Great Depression, I began to muse about the meaning of success in the American past. Americans in both eras essentially wanted to achieve what colonial Americans called a competence, where they could provide for the needs of their families. In part because of the depression, in the years following World War II American intellectuals frequently examined the traditional definitions of success. More specifically, social thinkers, including Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, Christopher Lasch and others, addressed what it meant to succeed and how in turn striving for success impacted the “successful” and those around them.

Independence and self-sufficiency, historically speaking, served as the primary measures of success in the United States. The Protestant Work Ethic-the pursuit of individual salvation through hard work-dominated the American conception of success well into the twentieth century. At heart, this work ethic stressed self-discipline and self-improvement. Success implied that a person met his social and familial responsibilities. Conventional wisdom also suggested that an individual who attained independence and self-sufficiency would experience upward social mobility. The American dream embodied the idea that hard working people would eventually ascend the social ladder.

The self-made man long symbolized success in American popular culture. Christopher Lasch noted in The Culture of Narcissism that Horatio Alger’s characters represented for many people the independent man who through hard work and dedication rose in social status. Lasch traced how the Protestant Work Ethic, so influential in American life, changed from the eighteenth century to the twentieth century. Self-sufficiency gave way to self-improvement that in turn gave way to self-culture and self-advancement. Advertisers in the 1920s, for example, used the ideas of self-help to sell products. By the middle of the twentieth century, “success appeared as an end in its own right.” Success no longer seemed about achieving a competence; victory over others became the one thing that retained the capacity to instill a sense of self-approval. [1]

The achievement of status through prestige provided another means to measure success. Upward social mobility increased the prestige one was likely to receive. C. Wright Mills in White Collar indicated that during economic booms, success for the American individual seemed a sure sign of social progress and exemplified personal virtue. The competitive nature of the quest for success formed the cradle of a self-reliant personality and the guarantee of economic and political democracy. The entrepreneurial pattern of success rested upon an economy of many small businesses (just like Jefferson’s yeoman farmer republic). The shift to a corporate system of monopoly capitalism provided the basis for the shift in the path and content of success. For the white-collar workers Mills described, the occupational climb replaced heroic tactics of the typical rags to riches story in the open competitive market. [2]

Success through gaining prestige was not just about moving up the social ladder. Prestige involved two persons: one to claim it and one to honor that claim. Almost anything could distinguish one person from another. In the status system of a society, people organized claims for prestige as rules and expectations. They regulated who could claim prestige from whom and on what basis. According to Mills, status position depended on a person’s chances in the commodity market, i.e., how well he could sell himself. Christopher Lasch sounded a similar note about prestige when he noted that “self-approval depends on public recognition and acclaim.” By the late 1970s, men sought approval that applauded not “their actions, but their personal attributes.” [3]

Education served as one mechanism for becoming successful. According to Mills, education strengthened the feeling of status equality, aided in Americanizing the immigrant, and strengthened old middle class ideologies. Yet, mass education was also one of the major social mechanisms of the rise of the new middle-class occupations, for these occupations required the skills provided by education. In essence, in the white-collar world education became the key to occupational fate. Americans demanded equal educational opportunity for all and more secure positions for those educated. [4]

Crime emerged as another mechanism for becoming a successful American. Daniel Bell in The End of Ideology argued that crime was “one of the queer ladders of social mobility in American life.” The main drift of American society in the first part of the twentieth century had been toward the rationalization of industry. Gambling, which became important for institutionalized crime in the 1940s, underwent a transition parallel to the changes in American enterprise as a whole. The bosses of illegal activity “sought to organize crime as a source of regular income.” Crime shifted its emphasis from production to consumption just like American capitalism. However, most Americans failed to recognize that mobsters simply wanted to become quasi-respectable and establish for themselves an American way of life. As with earlier eras, organized illegality became a stepladder of social ascent. Members of organized crime “polished up their manners and sought recognition and respectability in their own ethnic as well as general community,” in a way similar to other new money individuals. Ultimately, Bell concluded that the elite members of organized crime were no different than many distinguished older Americans in that respect. [5]

The flipside of success in American life was often equated with poverty. Those not achieving upward social mobility or at a minimum economic independence did not achieve success by American standards. Thus the lack of self-sufficiency customarily played a role in the American conception of poverty. Into the 1960s, people believed that the individual was somehow responsible for his impoverished state. Thus it would appear easy to define failure as simply the opposite of success, but failure manifested itself in more ways than just poverty.

In addition to not achieving self-sufficiency, failure could also result in the deviation from social norms. Barbara Ehrenreich argued in The Hearts of MenPlayboy crowd; and the Beats. The gray-flannel suit resented his job. The playboy resisted marriage. The Beat rejected both job and marriage. These dissenters represented the different ways of opting out of the breadwinner role. [6] that adult masculinity became synonymous with the breadwinner role. Therefore the man who failed to achieve this role was not fully an adult or not fully masculine. The rebellious person was essentially the immature person. Frustration with the demand of success in the 1950s resulted in three groups of rebels: the gray-flannel suits; the

While Daniel Bell saw organized crime as a means to achieve success, not all crime reflected an attempt to move up the social scale. Crime, a deviation from conventional cultural norms, could also be a manifestation of failure. Standard cultural norms relaxed by the 1960s, and yet, many Americans were still concerned about the increase of deviant behavior. Paul Goodman in Growing Up Absurd argued that the failure to succeed as defined by dominant culture resulted from a lack of meaningful work leaving no way to become fulfilled. The options given youth did not encourage a productive life. Among young people in the 1950s, there was an overwhelming indication that they did not want to do anything. Young men recognized they probably would do something, but they had no aspirations. Two groups-the Beats and juvenile delinquents-chose to opt out of society. Something in these lifestyles provided more than what the dominant society could offer. [7]

Intellectuals correctly noted in the early 1950s that the meaning of success and achievement had changed with the rise of industrialization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, three additional factors helped to modify the American conception of success from the 1950s to the 1980s. First, due to postwar prosperity more people seemed to be succeeding and consequently prestige lost some of its meaning. Second, those unsatisfied with the definition of success and its implied responsibility put forward alternative versions of the concept. Finally, the American conception of poverty changed.

Both C. Wright Mills and Daniel Bell pointed out that in years following World War II prosperity brought more people into the ranks of the middle and upper-middle classes. Mills maintained that every basis on which the prestige claims of white-collar employees had historically rested declined in firmness and stability by the early 1950s. As more people joined the middle class, the less prestige one received from belonging. Many of the trends in the postwar years pointed to a “status proletarianization” for white-collar workers. As the bases of white-collar prestige became more delicate, the middle class became more inclined to emphasize and endeavor for prestige. Reputation was no longer enough; it became necessary to display the tokens of economic worth. Thus, people used leisure activities to improve social standing. [8]

Daniel Bell noted that the seeming turbulence in the United States, at mid-century, came from prosperity not depression. Prosperity brought new anxieties, new strains, and new urgencies. Focusing on the victims of McCarthyism — soured patricians, the new rich, the rising middle — class strata of the various ethnic groups, and a small group of intellectuals who opened up an attack on liberalism-Bell saw the only explanation as status politics. The mass consumption economy of the twentieth century meant that older means of distinction were gone. It was largely through politics that those moving up the ladder asserted their new position and those moving down tried to preserve their old position. [9]

During the 1960s, the surface conformity of the 1950s melted away as the context and tone of American life shifted from consensus, balance, and progress to conflict, inequality, and oppression. Charles Reich in The Greening of America outlined the countercultures’ definition of success. Reich argued that there was a revolution coming in America. It was a movement to bring man’s thinking, his society, and his life to terms with the revolution of technology and science that had already taken place. A “change of consciousness” or a new way of living sat at the heart of this movement. Unreality seemed the true source of powerlessness. Thus, the country no longer understood the system under which it lived. The new age Reich saw emerging did not repudiate but fulfill the American dream. Ultimately, this new level of consciousness appeared more realistic than anything known in America for a century. It did not propose to abolish work, but to end irrational and involuntary servitude. It was “practical in the most profound sense because the historic time for man’s transcendence over the machine” had come. [10]

The counterculture helped to alter the conception of independence especially for men. In the 1960s, the movement of more women into the workforce accelerated the changing role of the breadwinner. Barbara Ehrenreich argued that the real lure of the counterculture — and the occasion for so much parental wrath — was its hedonism. What mass culture promised, counterculture delivered. It magnified and anticipated main steam culture rather than actually countering it. Never had the consumer culture been more congenial to men. Men therefore did not have to abandon work and material privileges to become independent. The promise of feminism-that there might be a future in which no adult person was either a “dependent creature” or an overburdened breadwinner-came at a time when the ideological supports for male conformity already began to crumble. The emergence of the counterculture meant that men would be free to follow the consumerist drift without having to drop out of society as their predecessors in the 1950s did. By the 1970s, the term “men’s lib” came to the forefront. Ultimately, it implied that male self-interest could now be presented as healthy and uplifting. The break from the breadwinner role appeared as a program of liberal middle-class reform. Men were freer to become “soft” because the definitions of social/sexual deviancy had changed. [11]

The final change in the 1960s impacting the definition of success was as John Kenneth Galbraith and Charles Murray noted the changing definition of poverty in the United States. The strict notion of blaming the victim started to dissipate in the 1960s as social thinkers argued that modern poverty resulted from structural poverty. Murray, in Losing Ground, indicated that structural poverty referred to poverty inherent in the American economic system that would not be cured by economic growth. Galbraith, in The Affluent Society, described what he called insular poverty as an “island of poverty” where individuals had been frustrated by some common factor of their environment such as race, poor education facilities, or the disintegration of family life. Insular poverty took the blame off the individual. The poor were no longer held liable for the failure to succeed, which meant to some extent that new definitions of success would have to follow. [12]

Of course, the impact of success was not always seen as positive by intellectuals writing in the 1950s and later. Some found that seeking success could have negative consequences. C. Wright Mills, for example, disdained the American view of success at mid-century. He believed that the white-collar ways of success had lost the moral component of the entrepreneurial pattern of success. Both models involved “remaking of personality for pecuniary ends, but in the entrepreneurial pattern money-success involved the acquisition of virtues good in themselves.” The white-collar pattern stressed acquiring tactics not virtues-the end was the money not good works. [13]

William Whyte’s work on the “Organization Man” fit in with Mill’s notion that success had lost its moral component. The Organization Man was not just employed by a corporation; he belonged to it as well. The corporation men were the ones who “left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life.” Society slowly moved away from the Protestant Work Ethic because in the 1950s the facts of organization life simply did not mesh with such traditional precepts. The Organization Man created a social ethic that rationalized his company’s demands for fidelity and gave those who offered it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication in doing so. The social ethic appeared to Whyte as the contemporary body of thought which made the pressures of society against the individuals morally legitimate. Essentially the social ethic was a utopian faith. It would never produce the peace of mind it offered. The social ethic concerned itself with the here and now. The Organization Man devoted himself not to bettering the larger society, but to bettering his organization. [14]

Success resulting from such ambition could lead to another problem-envy. In Making It, Norman Podhoretz described how he envied the social composure and self-assurance of his wealthier friends during his college years, while they likely begrudged his freedom from the code of manners governing them. Podhoretz, in retrospect, saw his friends as resentful because they recognized that success was a scarce commodity. His friends appreciated something he did not-striving for success was not only a means to better oneself, but also a competition against others. Some of what Podhoretz described in his memoirs appeared similar to the notion of status panic that both Daniel Bell and C. Wright Mills discussed in the 1950s. Bell specifically noted that the potential conflict between the “old” and “new” rich caused turbulence and increased anxiety as more people moved into the upper classes. [15]

Christopher Lasch also disparaged the later twentieth century view of success. Success through self-advancement eventually degenerated into narcissism. Lasch saw the competition for success extending from the workplace to the home. Personal life no longer served as a refuge because it contained as much stress as the marketplace. The hedonistic image of the 1960s and 1970s was a fraud. Americans did not become more sociable. Rather, they became “more adept at exploiting relations for their own benefit.” The mass media exacerbated these tendencies. The cult of celebrity intensified narcissistic dreams of fame and glory. It also led to increased consumerism because it sanctioned impulse gratification. Failure created an inner void as people attempted to live “more vicariously through others more brilliant” than themselves. This failure resulted in the development of the narcissist embodied by such characteristics as the ability to manage the impression giving to others, starving for admiration but also scornful of those manipulated into providing it, craving emotional experiences to fill an inner void, and finally, being afraid of aging and death. [16]

The act of opting out of society according to Barbara Ehrenreich and Paul Goodman emerged as another negative part of the competition for success. Women, to Ehrenreich, became especially vulnerable when men abandoned their responsibilities as the breadwinner. The American emphasis on the family wage meant that wives had no means of support when husbands abandoned the commitment to family. Goodman saw opting out as a negative consequence, but also a legitimate response of the young and disaffected when society failed to provide for their needs. His solution to prevent the need to opt out was to make the sense of community smaller and give individuals more meaningful work. [17]

Intellectual thinkers of the postwar era showed quite a bit of agreement on what success meant as well as the recognition that success could have negative consequences. C. Wright Mills and Daniel Bell, who did not agree on much, did concur that success in the 1950s was based on past notions of upward mobility and could lead to status anxiety or panic. Furthermore, despite the changes in the notion of poverty it would be hard to say that many of these intellectual thinkers would argue that economic independence was no longer the foundation of success. In that respect little changed between the 1950s and the 1980s. Social thinkers recognized that the moral component of the Protestant Work Ethic faded. However, most Americans-intellectuals included-never really gave up on the idea economic self-sufficiency. Poverty might not have the stigma it once had, but at the same time most people would not choose to be dependent. People want the economic independence and social mobility that success traditionally implied. E. J. Dionne’s suggestion in the 1990s-that Americans believed in self-reliance-is not all that different from what dominated social thought in the 1950s. Ultimately, the quest for success has not changed, but the way it is measured certainly has . [18]


Sarah Katherine Mergel, Ph.D., specializes in American political and intellectual history since the Civil War. Her primary area of research is the rise of modern conservatism and its effects on political developments, cultural trends, social issues, and international relations.


[1] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1979), 58.

[2]C. Wright Mills, White Collar: The American Middle Classes, 50th Anniversary Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 260-264.

[3]Mills, White Collar, 239-241; Lasch, Culture of Narcissism, 59.

[4]Mills, White Collar, 265-271.

[5] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 129-133, 138, 147-148.

[6] Barbara Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men (New York: Anchor Books, 1983), 14-24, 52.

[7]Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd (New York: Random House, 1956), 17-18, 34-35.

[8] Mills, White Collar, 249, 254-257.

[9] Bell, The End of Ideology, 118-119.

[10] Charles Reich, The Greening of America: How the Youth Revolution is Trying to Make America Livable (New York: Random House, 1970), 13-15, 22, 24, 306-312.

[11] Ehrenreich, The Hearts of Men, 113-116, 119, 129-130.

[12] Charles Murray, Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, 10th Anniversary Edition (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 27; John Kenneth Galbraith, The Affluent Society, 40th Anniversary Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), 236-238.

[13] Mills, White Collar, 264-265.

[14] William Whyte, The Organization Man (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1956), 3, 7-8.

[15]Norman Podhoretz, Making It (New York: Random House, 1967), 26-28, 43.

[16]Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 23, 38, 65-66.

[17] Goodman, Growing Up Absurd, 231-232.

[18] E. J. Dionne, Why Americans Hate Politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991).