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A World of Plenty, The Prosperous Fifties

sociologist William, Organization Man, mainframe computers, largest industries, defense spending

Eisenhower oversaw a productive and prosperous era. Government spending plus consumer demand boosted the gross national product (GNP). With 6 percent of the world’s population, the United States produced half the world’s goods. Technological advances, many achieved with federal aid, ushered in new industries and sped up the pace of production in old ones.

The nation’s five largest industries—autos, oil, aircraft, chemicals, and electronics—illustrated a leap in productivity. The auto industry, the nation’s largest, lowered labor costs by using more automated machines. Oil replaced coal as the nation’s major energy source. The aircraft industry profited from defense spending, space research, and commercial airlines’ shift to jet propulsion. The chemical industry offered new consumer goods, such as synthetic fibers, chemical fertilizers, and plastics. Computers, too, began to have an effect in the business world. By the mid-1960s, more than 30,000 mainframe computers were in use.

As productivity rose, the labor market changed. Fewer people held blue-collar jobs, and more did white-collar work. Employment grew rapidly in the service sector, which includes sales work, office work, and government jobs. More American wage earners worked for large corporations or for state or federal agencies than in small enterprise. Businesses expanded by swallowing weaker competitors, as happened in the steel, oil, chemical, and electrical machinery industries. Corporations formed huge new conglomerates (mergers of companies in unrelated industries). In addition, companies offering similar products or services in many locations, known as franchises, increased; the first McDonald’s franchise opened in 1955.

Some big corporations established overseas operations and became multinational. Producers in the United States depended on world markets to buy oil, iron, steel, and food that they exported. They also increased their overseas investments. Standard Oil (later Exxon), for instance, developed oil resources in Venezuela and the Middle East. Coca-Cola swept through Europe, where it set up bottling factories. New types of bureaucrats ran the big businesses of postwar America. In The Organization Man (1956), sociologist William H. Whyte wrote that employers sought managers who would adapt to corporate culture, which rewarded teamwork and conformity.

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