Abstract: Business Culture in Postwar America

Marc Levinson


The culture of U.S. business in the post-war period was not one that admired cutthroat competition. Rather, it was a cautious culture, shaped by oligopoly, voluntary cooperation, and heavy government influence over the most routine business decisions. It was not deemed strange for the state to dictate the prices of natural gas and milk, to decide who could enter the trucking business, and to intervene in private-sector collective bargaining. This was a culture suited to the Golden Age, when strong economic growth, controlled inflation, and limited international competition made profits easy to come by.  But the culture of the postwar era adapted poorly to changing conditions. The Golden Age came to an abrupt end late in 1973, making for a much more difficult business environment. One political response, in the United States and many other countries, was to encourage competition within the economy.  The comparatively genteel business culture of the 1950s and 1960s was life-threatening to many firms in this far more hostile world. The times required a very different culture, one that gave much more emphasis to delivering returns to shareholders. Firms that were unable to develop this sort of culture quickly would pay a steep price.