How to Succeed in Assistance, An Essay by Walter Bilderback - Part One

The Wilma’s artistic staff was pleasantly surprised to realize that the center two plays of our season both took place in workplaces. While most of us spend a large portion of our waking lives at work, most plays give the workplace short shrift. And the two workplaces represented in Assistance and Under the Whaleback demonstrate,  in vibrant verbal and theatrical form, the sea change that work has gone through in many of our lifetimes. Under the Whaleback shows the end of the 20th century industrial model. Assistance is very much of the 21st century.

In a remarkable 1995 article titled “The Age of Social Transformation,” the management guru Peter F. Drucker wrote:

No century in recorded history has experienced so many social transformations and such radical ones as the twentieth century.…In the developed free-market countries…work and work force, society and polity, are all…qualitatively and quantitatively different not only from what they were in the first years of this century but also from what has existed at any other time in history…

He goes on to remark that these rapid social changes have produced “hardly any stir.” Think of it: A century ago, most people in this country lived in rural areas. Farming was the largest source of employment in every country, as it had been since the invention of agriculture. Industrial workers (“who make or move things,” in Drucker’s definition) rapidly supplanted farmers in the U.S. and Western Europe. By the end of the 1950s, 40% of American workers fit this category. At this high water mark for industrial workers, a new type, the “knowledge worker” (a term coined by Drucker in 1959) started to gain importance. Knowledge workers can take all sorts of shapes – a surgeon or a dental technician, a software designer or a humble programmer, a  hedge fund manager or a teacher. Or a dramaturg. But an important number of them have always worked in offices, the ancestors of Leslye Headland’s characters in Assistance.

Image: Peter F. Drucker

PART TWO

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