[This post is an entry in my Dictionary of Contemporary Evil, a work in progress.]
1) To reduce the size or scope of (a business operation or organization) in order to improve its financial performance, typically by cutting staff numbers. [OED]
2) To dismiss (a person) from employment, to make (a person) redundant, esp. as part of a downsizing process. [OED]
Though there are documented instances of its hyphenated use in the language of garment sizing in the late 1960s, “downsize” came into the popular consciousness via the automotive industry in the 1970s. In response to the 1973 oil crisis, Congress put in place the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 1975. These were regulations designed to improve fuel efficiency in every new car produced in the U.S., with tax penalties enforced for manufacturers who did not comply. Motor companies like Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors produced “downsized” versions of their vehicles with chassis smaller and lighter than on previous models, thus requiring less fuel to operate. The new models were highly publicized through advertising and trade journalism, and “downsize” made its way into the common vernacular.
After the business world acquired the concept, heads of industry realized its utility in euphemizing other types of shrinking. Growth is always the goal in corporate culture, as capital requires growth in order to survive (see entry: growth). So in the 1980s and 90s downsizing became the sleek, modern veneer used to cover the trend toward increasing shareholder value by cutting staff salary expenses, which companies consider a financial liability rather than an inextricable element of overhead. Whereas a company may have shied away from a public-relations disaster of “cutting jobs,” the concept of downsizing had an air of innovation about it (see entry: innovate). Use of the term implied that a company’s laid-off employees were simply dead weight, obstructions to the radical progress that computer-chip manufacturers and investment banks would be able to pursue in their svelte new forms.
In the 1990s downsizing became an acceptable approach in foul and fair weather alike. Even during periods of record profits, companies laid off staff out of adherence to a just-in-time employment model, in which workers do not remain employed for any longer than they are needed. It is always easier to hold on to inventory than staff.
Economists and business leaders cite varied justifications for downsizing even in boom times. They claim the deterioration of job security is actually a boon to the worker’s sense of freedom, as the worker can jump from one job to another in order to gain experience and seek out the best deal for themselves. However painful to the individual, the economists say, downsizing is important for the health of the general economy, as it keeps businesses lithe and able to quickly adapt to changes in global markets. They note too that the stock market rewards the intent behind a profitable company’s layoffs, as it signifies intent to trim down in pursuit of a greater rate of profit. Economists do not as readily note that it is not unusual—quite common, actually—for a large corporation to cut thousands of jobs and reward its executives and shareholders with bonuses all at once.
The downsizing euphemism did acquire a bit of an irksome stench after its heyday in the 80s and 90s. Instead of effecting curtailment of the actual practice, however, the term’s unpleasant associations yielded more advanced euphemisms: reduction in force, reorganization, restructuring, rightsizing, streamlining, or workforce optimization. Off-shoring and outsourcing are other ghastly mutations of the downsizing impetus (see entries: outsource, off-shore). Restructuring is the preferred name in the current moment, useful because it does not allude directly to layoffs (see entry: restructure).
Regardless of which trendy name it bears, downsizing remains one of the greatest innovations of the past century. It is a surefire, reproducible method by which the company manipulates its holdings while decimating the power of its workforce. In short, a great lot achieved by doing very little. What other organism has learned to accelerate its boundless growth by lopping off its limbs? None besides the corporation. Hail then the downsizer, nature’s usurper.