Decline of the Mandarin class

September 08, 1998|By Ronald Dworkin

A WRITER ONCE said that there are three ways to make money in America -- be a talent, be an organization man or be a Mandarin.

The talents are people like Michael Jordan and Madonna. They have exceptional natural abilities and rise to the top by sheer force of genius. One can't really work at becoming a talent. One simply has to be one.

The organization men (and women) are chief executive officers like Lee Iaccoca and Michael Eisner. These people ascend the hierarchies of large organizations and through a combination of luck and skill finally make it to the upper levels of management. There, they start making the big bucks.

The original Mandarins were civil servants in pre-Communist China who gained wealth and prominence through intellectual power rather than noble parentage or martial skill. They were essential to the smoother running of government, and made the day-to-day decisions that kept society moving forward on an even keel.

Our Mandarins can be found in the professions of law, medicine and accounting. Here, people with mastery over needed and highly valued analytical skills prosper.

Yet it is this third path -- that of the American Mandarin -- which has grown treacherous over the past decade. As a route to wealth and success, the Mandarin way is disappearing in this country and, along with it, crucial benefits that follow from having a robust Mandarin class.

Traditionally, the Mandarin path to success had certain distinct advantages.

Upwardly mobile

The most successful Mandarins were not as rich as the most successful talents and organization men. But it was easier for a Mandarin to punch his or her way into the upper-middle class.

This was the great disadvantage of trying to make it as a talent. For aspiring artists and entertainers, the future held either tremendous success or noble poverty. For them, there was no broad upper-middle class.

The organization man is better off than the talent. America's middle class is almost defined by organization men (and women). But early on in an organization man's career, entering the upper-middle class is a more difficult move. Also, he must live with the constant threat of being laid off.

The saying: "What do you call someone who graduates last in a class at medical school?" The answer: "Doctor" captures the security that traditionally has gone with being a Mandarin.

Another advantage once possessed by Mandarins is professional autonomy. The Mandarins rarely had to answer to anybody and their job in life was largely to supervise themselves, not others.

Many of them could never be what the organization man had to be -- the hand shakers, the joke tellers, the backslappers. Nor did they want to be. They were content to hang out their shingle and begin a professional practice in law or medicine, relying on their intellectual skills to advance and obtain clients. For them, social skills were not a prerequisite to success.

A third advantage of being a Mandarin was flexibility in career. Many young lawyers, for example, imagined straddling the two great spheres of private practice and public service. They emulated people like John Foster Dulles or Cyrus Vance -- lawyers who move in and out of government, making important policy decisions and leading interesting lives while, at the same time, enjoying other sources of income when their side was out of power.

For many of today's young, aspiring Mandarins, these benefits have all but disappeared.

After graduation, young lawyers spend 70- to 80-hour work-weeks in firms with little chance of making partner. Their salary, once it is divided by the numbers of hours worked, is middle-class, not upper-middle class. Around the water cooler, they call each other galley slaves or "proles" (short for proletarians). It is through cynicism and dark humor that their disappointment is numbed.

For many, the dream of straddling the two spheres of law and government fades quickly. Some firms confine their junior associates to a narrow aspect of the law. Rather than peering through the broad scope of humanity or thinking like social scientists, they become highly specialized technicians. Those who want to dabble in public service at mid-career find it increasingly difficult to do so. Such flexibility threatens the business operations of the firm.

For young doctors, the situation is just as serious. Saddled with a large financial debt because of the great expense of medical education (an $80,000 bill is commonplace), a young doctor goes to work in the new environment of managed care. The salaries are lower and when the number of hours worked is factored in, along with student loan repayments, the financial situation is about average.

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