In "The Managers," Auden compares ordinary work life in 1948 to being an insect or a cog in a larger machine. Managers work "too hard in rooms that are too big": they are anonymous and dull, spending their time
reducing to figures
What is the matter, what is to be done.
The speaker implies that they themselves are reduced to figures or statistics: they are just numbers. Like the typewriters that surround them, they "never stop" but "whir like grasshoppers."
Auden contrasts these current managers and their regimented, bureaucratic lives to the old days, when it meant something to be a lord or manager of the universe. Then, managing the world was filled with poetry and flamboyant gestures. But today, the speaker asks,
Could one of them [a modern manager]
Be said to resemble
The Tragic Hero, The Platonic Saint,
Or would any painter
Portray one rising triumph from a lake
On a dolphin, naked,
Protected by an umbrella of cherubs?
Instead of grand meals, today's managers munch on sandwiches as they continue to work at their desks. They are ground down, ruled by an institution, that like the army, is bigger than one of them.
Great Britain was forced to retire from the world stage as its number one superpower after World War II, slowly dissolving its empire and handing the baton of world power over to the United States. Auden reflects this sense of diminishment in how the ruling class in Britain now lives in 1948. The managers are no longer bigger than life but of "heavy gait and careworn," while nobody feels "sorry" for them. The rest of the workers in these offices are also anonymous, swallowed by a bureaucracy.