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Dealing with life on a "plateau'

As far as Sandy Wales was concerned, up was the only direction to go. In a life that consisted almost entirely of work, her goal was to become a vice president of a large company. She was a market-research supervisor at Quaker Oats when her boss, the director, got sick. Wales filled in and was confident that she had demonstrated how well she could do the work. But when the director's job came open, it went to someone from outside. Wales quit. "I was so angry that I didn't want to be there. I felt I had done a good job, and I received no recognition," she recalls.

She switched fields, but the same thing happened again. She rose rapidly, then lost out to another candidate for a management post. Again, she quit. When a third company passed her over for promotion _ this time for someone younger _ Wales started thinking. Maybe she did not have the rules of the game figured right. Or maybe the rules had changed. Being good, it appeared, was no longer good enough. "I always thought that if I proved myself competent, there would be no stopping me," she says. "It's a rude and nasty thing to discover that there's a lid on you."

Psychologists describe what is going on as "plateauing." Plateauing is when you find out that the boss is younger than you are _ and for that matter, so is the boss' boss. Plateauing is the third time you get passed over for the same promotion. Often, plateauing has nothing to do with moving up _ you just want to move somewhere. Your job is getting tedious, and you are ready for a change, but when you reach for the next rung, you discover that someone took away the ladder.

A mental alarm goes off. Deadwood. Failure. For the most part, no one else seems to be going anywhere either.

Plateauing happens to just about everyone, and always has. But the hard truth is that for baby boomers it is occurring earlier and earlier. With the first of these boomers into their middle years, the fast track is starting to look like a busy freeway at rush hour. And it's going to get worse.

Notice that cloud of dust behind you? That's the second half of the boom. By the turn of the century, baby boomers _ whose ages will span 35 to 54 _ will make up 49 percent of the work force and will be at stages in their careers where they have the greatest expectations of moving up.

Fewer and fewer will realize that goal. The University of Southern California predicts that while there were about 10 potential candidates for every middle-management opening in 1975, the number will rise to 30 in 1995 and 50 by the year 2000. Where does that leave the vast majority who don't make it?

Actually, most plateaued people have not even figured out what the problem is, much less how to solve it. "I see the full spectrum of people who can't put labels on it, who don't know what's wrong. All they know is they are unhappy," says Eileen L. Brabender, a Los Angeles career counselor. "They call it being burned out. They complain about the repetition, the frustration, the boredom."

This is the generation, after all, that thought that intelligence, drive and the right education could guarantee anyone a spot near the top. And few doubted that was where they wanted to be.

In Culver City, Calif., Digital Equipment Corp.'s growth started slacking off a few years ago, and marketing manager Steve Sommer noticed something disturbing. "All the restructuring was causing career gridlock _ a lot of lateral moves, but not a lot of upward moves," says Sommer, who holds a master's degree in business from Harvard. "I also looked at how long people were resident in their positions. It seemed to be stretching out _ eight months, to 2{ years, to five years."

When a headhunter approached him with an offer of a much higher position with a struggling software company that was 120 times smaller than Digital, he took it. "It was the toughest career move I ever made," he says. "But I had the Harvard MBA paranoia, wondering, "Gee, will I be off the fast track if I stick around?' I was very conscious of how many levels there were between me and the senior VPs."

When people gauge their accomplishments this way, plateauing inevitably feels like failure _ a truth so painful that they often have difficulty facing or admitting it. However, plateauing generally has little to do with how smart you are or how valuable, career-development experts say. For most people, it is a matter of simple arithmetic, an equation in which demographics and economics add up to a lot of frustration.

"For a long time, history was on the side of the ambitious," writes Judith M. Bardwick, a La Jolla, Calif., psychologist.

From 1950 to 1975, America dominated the world market, and its businesses and institutions were expanding so rapidly that their major problem was finding enough qualified managers, she says. The available pool of candidates had been born around the time of the Depression, when the nation had its lowest birthrate ever. What is more, only white males were allowed into the executive fold. People began to talk about the Peter Principle _ the idea that they could rise to a level exceeding their abilities.

Then into the work force came the nearly 80-million people born between 1946 and 1965. Among them were large numbers of women and minorities, allowed to enter the competition for the first time. Never had so many positioned themselves on the management ladder: This year, for example, an estimated 70,000 people will receive MBAs _ more than 10 times the number who did in 1960. But before the oldest troops in the boomer army reached the halfway point in their careers, big companies started cutting the ranks by hundreds of thousands _ at least 3-million jobs vanished from the Fortune 500 during the past decade, by some estimates. Mid-level management positions _ the bureaucracy of most organizations _ often were the first to go.

So you can forget the Peter Principle, Bardwick says. Far from rising above their capabilities, most people will never even get the chance to perform up to their potential, especially in big organizations.

Women and minorities are likely to plateau sooner, increasingly by the time they are in their mid- to late-30s, Bardwick says, partly because of lingering discrimination. Separate studies this year by Opinion Research and Wick & Co. consultants showed that women are more likely than men to leave big corporations, not because of difficulties in juggling career and family demands, but because of lack of opportunity _ the infamous glass ceiling.

A few companies are beginning to recognize that they face big problems unless they deal with the frustrations and broken expectations of employees who are left behind. Some of their most valuable employees will leave, and those who remain, even top performers, are likely to become bitter, alienated and afraid. With promotion opportunities narrowing, former risk-takers are becoming more cautious, terrified of doing anything that could dampen their advancement chances even further. So, for American businesses, the plateau is also the precipice, and finding solutions to the problem is more than a matter of wanting to allay the psychic discomforts of disappointed baby boomers _ it is a matter of survival.

If a promotion is not in the cards, workers increasingly welcome a chance to try something new. Pacific Gas & Electric in San Francisco urges employees to take assignments in different areas of the company, moving sideways rather than up. During the past decade, 44-year-old Chris Joyce has made four lateral moves. They have taken her into diverse roles that have ranged from managing building maintenance crews to supervising PG&E's affirmative-action programs, her current job.

"I don't think I'm going to be the next vice president of any function at PG&E. I'm realistic about that," Joyce says. She considers herself a success and anticipates more lateral moves.

Still, many find no satisfaction in a career path that leads anywhere but up. That prompts companies to sell workers on lateral moves by making them sound like promotions. "Companies are reluctant to tell people they aren't going anywhere, because they're afraid they'll lose their motivation," says Harry Levinson, who directs the Levinson Institute, a Belmont, Mass., consulting firm that specializes in psychological aspects of management. Indeed, University of Connecticut management professor John Velga found that 85 percent of the managers he surveyed characterized their last job change as a promotion, but 60 percent of their companies described it as a lateral transfer or demotion.

Managers on the front lines are beginning to feel the urgency of finding solutions to plateauing, especially as they see valuable employees looking elsewhere. Businesses need satisfied employees if they hope to compete in a world where the quality of their work force will be their chief edge over competitors.

In Bardwick's view, the payoff for a job well done should be recognition and new responsibilities. That used to mean a promotion, but now employers are experimenting with new rewards. Among their innovative approaches: incentives for employees who take lateral moves; team projects that give workers a sense of power; bonuses to remind people that they are valuable even if they are not promoted; non-management career tracks, and assistance for those who want to leave.

But what is most needed, many experts agree, is a new honesty on the part of employers.

"In most of our companies, there is a level of graciousness that precludes telling the truth," Bardwick says. "People are not told that they are not likely to be promoted, and so they think they are doing well."

Surprisingly, Bardwick says, when managers talk honestly about a worker's prospects, "people say, "Thank you. Now I understand what is happening. Now I know I'm not a failure. I'm normal.'


Only then can people begin to assess their own values and write individual definitions of success. "Becoming plateaued," Bardwick writes, "is an opportunity to pause, reflect and change. It is a personal sabbatical, a time for self-examination that becomes our opportunity to grow in ways we never imagined."