Labour History

Managerial Capitalism and White-Collar Professions: Social Mobility in Australia’s Corporate Elite

Labour History (2021), 121, (1), 99–127.

Abstract

This article considers the interdependence of managerial capitalism with the historical constitution of professional work in Australia. Using data on the composition of the boards of Australia’s largest companies between 1910 and 2018, we show a deep connection between the managerial class and the top layers of professional hierarchies. Professionals in Australia forged a managerial-capitalist elite within large corporations, relying on a combination of professional expertise and signals of legitimacy that were enabled through higher education and accreditation structures. Relatively low levels of professional enclosure in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created opportunities for Australians from middle- and working-class backgrounds to move into the capitalist elite. These opportunities were reduced significantly from the 1980s onwards as pathways to managerial roles themselves enclosed and as managerialism - as a mode of production - increasingly dominated global capitalism. The result was that by the end of the twentieth century, Australia’s corporate elite more closely resembled the rest of the world’s in its homogeneity and inaccessibility. This demonstrates the central role of professions in the reproduction of Australian capitalism over time, and the influence of professional enclosure on social mobility and inequality.

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Author details

Wright, Claire

Forsyth, Hannah