The End of an Era

by Colin Berkshire

I just realized that it has now been 40 years since the Bell System ceased to exist.

What’s significant about that is that it means that nobody that worked in the Bell System is employed. Even the youngest employees in the Bell System are past their retirement dates. The Bell System is no longer a memory, it is now just history. Nobody in any dependent company has any first-hand experience of what it was like to be in the Bell family, or how it was run as a “3 legged stool”.
Management would call it a 3-legged stool to illustrate that it was supported by three constituents, each of which was of equal importance and no one of which was more important:
1) The customers.
2) The employees.
3) The investors.
Even though each leg of the stool was of equal importance, we gave the least amount of thought to #3: the investors. They just came along for the ride, without any loyalty or thought of the long-term future. Their money would come and go, and we didn’t care. We paid them for their service, that was the end of it.
On the other hand, employees were all family. We knew we had employment for life, we knew that wherever in the country we would move there would always be a job waiting. We knew when we finally retired, we would be taken care of through the end of our life. And, because of this our co-workers all knew that our association at work would never be passing. Even if we transferred or moved we would retain the connection. While the organization chart was formal and rigid, much of the work actually got done because a co-worker had a friend who had a contact who knew the right person.
It was a little like modern companies like Google. But it was different. At Google you are there for the environment, the culture, and the money. But if another company comes along and offers $100K a year more then you are out-of-there. Bam!
At the Bell System, you knew you could always get more money elsewhere. But no other company could offer the safety, the family, and the knowledge that you were going to work with the same people for the entire rest of your life.
That era is entirely gone.
I do miss it.
(PS: I am still in touch with co-workers from 45 years ago. Those bonds were truly for life.)