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Book Review : Life in the Flat Lane: Aid for 'Plateaued People'

November 06, 1986|JOHN U. LOUDON

The Plateauing Trap: How to Avoid It in Your Career and Your Life by Judith M. Bardwick (American Management Assn.: $17.95)

Are you at the stage in your career where you haven't had a promotion in years, and the windows of opportunity are closing fast? Then, according to San Diego business psychologist Judith Bardwick, you're "structurally plateaued." Have you so mastered your job that it no longer represents a challenge, and you're getting increasingly bored? Then you're "content plateaued."

If your whole life feels mired in repetitive routines, freighted with uninspiring responsibilities, then you are "plateaued in life." If you're stuck in your career or your life, don't feel alone: Plateauing is a vital but largely ignored issue for millions of people and every large organization. And this helpful book provides an excellent diagnosis of the problems, along with effective advice on how to handle them.

First, the daunting realities. Yuppie baby boomers, your corporate-ladder-climbing days are numbered! The postwar U.S. economic expansion that lasted well into the '70s meant rapid advancement for talented managers. Demand outstripped supply, and it was easy to see the Peter Principle, according to which people rise to their level of incompetency, operative everywhere. Now, with corporate mergers, computerization, foreign competition, economic retrenchment and severe shrinking of middle management, the numbers of senior slots are dramatically decreasing precisely when the baby-boom generation is flooding business, government and education with extremely well-educated and ambitious people. Yuppies' aspirations are doomed to frustration unless they escape plateauing.

Resentful Employees

Since less than 1% of the people in an organization make it to the highest decision-making level, career plateauing is inevitable for virtually everyone; and it is happening earlier. Executives can no longer ignore the problem, because increasingly they are faced with resentful, disappointed and ultimately less productive employees.

But while most plateau in their careers, nobody needs to stay content-plateaued. In fact, the solution to structural plateauing, besides true appreciation for plateaued employees' contributions, is to enrich such employees' work by giving them challenging assignments, having them work in teams on new projects, and so on.

Life plateaus, which often coincide with onset of middle age and are reached by housewives and independent professionals as much as by business people, are really a challenge to expand and enhance areas of experience outside of work. Bardwick boldly identifies workaholism as corporate fools' gold: Although the organization seems to benefit from all that extra work, most workaholics are inefficient workers who easily burn out.

Focusing on Wants

Rather than denying the realities and working harder, plateaued people need to realize that they likely have fulfilled the basic obligations of the first half of life, and now have the chance to focus on what they want to do. Career plateaus are an invitation to deeper personal relationships, community involvement, creative expression, even whole new careers--to becoming a fuller person.

Must reading for personnel managers, "The Plateauing Trap" should join the ranks of books like "Megatrends" and "In Search of Excellence," which executives bought in bulk for planning meetings and key people. However, it is more than just a business book: Its savvy advice on redefining success, revitalizing our jobs and our lives and successfully transiting middle age would serve anyone well.

However, Bardwick does seem totally captive to corporate culture. Her book is curiously condescending toward women. For her, "women who work" are those with paying jobs outside the home. She also blames "hard-core feminism" for encouraging women to devote themselves totally to their careers, often at the expense of successful relationships and children, so that structural plateauing becomes devastating.

She perpetuates the notion that male power and success are "erotic to women." She is surprisingly condescending to plateaued employees themselves: Her references to "stars" vs. "solid citizens" and "Chiefs" vs. "Indians" reinforce the false assessment that non-climbers are inherently second-rate. Is it any secret that top executives are often not the best and the brightest in their corporations? Bardwick hardly broaches the possibility of radically revising organizations along less hierarchical, more egalitarian lines. Nor does she consider that what may be most frustrating is having one's talents and energies rewarded with more and more routine work rather than with increased status or compensation.

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