For business, the label “big” is like a target. Big Tech, Big Finance, Big Pharma, Big Oil, Big Food and the Big Four accountancy firms are in the sights of regulators and campaigners.
No wonder millennials are said to favour the freedom and autonomy of entrepreneurship and self-employment over the draw of full-time roles at consultancies and investment banks.
To counter that temptation, big companies are bending themselves out of shape to behave like smaller enterprises. They are encouraging individual teams to take more decisions closer to the frontline. Agile management is all the rage. Head offices are either disappearing altogether or morphing into shared working spaces. Gigantic global groups hide behind individual labels that the customer associates with artisanship and local production rather than multinational mass manufacture. Think of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, part of Unilever, or the many craft beers, such as London’s Camden Town Brewery, that are in fact part of brewing behemoth AB InBev.
The truth is that many millennials end up at big companies. A 2016 survey by the US think-tank the Economic Innovation Group and EY found nearly two-thirds of American millennials had considered starting their own business, but only just over a fifth believed entrepreneurship was the best way to advance their career. In fact, 44 per cent thought staying with one company and working their way up the ladder — like their parents may have done — was the preferable route.
In uncertain times, this is not a surprise. In his 2002 book The Living Company, about why enterprises survive, Arie de Geus pointed out that his former employer Shell, along with large Dutch companies such as Unilever and Phillips, offered stability to young Dutch recruits after the second world war. A similar search for certainty helps explain why, when asked which places offer the best opportunities, UK graduates regularly rank the Big Four professional services firms and the likes of GlaxoSmithKline, the NHS and the Civil Service in the top 10 employers.
A new book, Big is Beautiful, by Robert Atkinson and Michael Lind, lays out some advantages of large companies. They pay more than smaller counterparts; their workers, at least in the US, receive better benefits, in overtime, bonuses, health insurance, holidays, parental leave, training and pensions; larger companies are on the whole more environmentally friendly, socially responsible and diverse; and they offer a safer and more cyber-secure workplace.
Atkinson and Lind’s statistics are wielded for political ends. They make the case that US policymakers have over recent decades shown an unjustified bias towards supporting smaller businesses. They date the change to the 1970s, when radical economist EF Schumacher wrote the influential Small is Beautiful, questioning the way the economic system depleted global resources and dehumanised workplaces. But “megalophobia” is counter-productive, they claim. They argue instead for a size-neutral approach to supporting a full range of businesses, big and small.
For those working for or applying to join big business, the sense that the grass is greener at the neighbouring buzzy start-up or funky small enterprise is bound to be strong. But remember that start-ups, in particular, are prone to failure. Small companies, Atkinson and Lind write, “create lots of jobs, but they destroy almost as many when so many of them fail”. And of course those new companies that do succeed usually have one ambition: to grow bigger.
The outlook is not wholly rosy for big company staff, to be sure. Big companies can still turn into faceless bureaucracies. They no longer offer the security they did. Mass lay-offs, such as those announced recently by BT and Rolls-Royce, are a fact of modern business life. The chances are low that millennials and younger generations will spend their entire careers at single large companies, as did many of those young people who joined Shell in the 1950s.
But there may never have been a better time to work for a big company. In their efforts to survive, and recruit and retain young staff, the best large employers are being forced to adapt. They are offering employees more independence, more purposeful work, the liberty to invent and innovate, and flexible working hours and spaces: in other words, they are striving to offer the best of both big and small.
In this respect, multinationals and other big groups are living up to the ambitions one prescient thinker of the last century laid out for them. He wrote that the ideal large organisation should “consist of many semi-autonomous units [each of which] will have a large amount of freedom, to give the greatest possible chance to creativity and entrepreneurship”. That was EF Schumacher, pointing out how small could be beautiful, even within big business.
Andrew Hill is the FT’s management editor