You go to a decent school. You graduate and get a job. You put in long hours, eager to show you've got the right stuff. Sometimes it's frustrating, but you inch your way up the ranks. The years pass. Your paycheck grows.
Then one day it hits you with the clarity of a morning alarm clock: You're not moving up anymore.
For more than 70 million Americans known as the baby boom generation--a group whose expectations can only be described as boundless--the scenario is starting to hit painfully close to home. Many of the older baby boomers are past 40 now. And they are beginning to understand that their climb up the corporate ladder will stop somewhere short of the top rung.
Members of the generation born after World War Two until about 1964--in many ways the beneficiaries of an adoring society--may find their career fortunes determined by cold, simple arithmetic:
"Instead of 10 candidates for a position in the '60s--and 20 in the '70s--there are 30 people wanting one management position," said Michael Jimerson, a manager of resources and planning at Rockwell International's aerospace operations in El Segundo. He added a warning note: "And this is just the beginning."
According to experts in human resources, it is the beginning of an era in which employees and their employers will view each other differently than they have in the past. They will expect different things of each other. And they no doubt will be bewildered at times, as a generation's limitless expectations collide with an economy's limited possibilities.
It is not as dismal as it sounds. More Americans are employed than at any time in history, and the economy continues to expand. In Southern California alone, 2.5 million jobs will be created by early in the next century, analysts predict.
And already, employers say they are enhancing opportunities for workers caught in the squeeze. Some optimists even foresee the dawning of a newly compassionate workplace where decision-making is more democratic and more employers provide day care and other services.
Universities and colleges, meanwhile, are helping people shift gears at mid-career with an emphasis on adult courses and career counseling. And the entrepreneurial surge that blossomed in the 1980s seems sure to beckon the discontented in the 1990s.
Clearly, workers will respond to the pressures in varied ways. For Donald Bailey, a one-time Los Angeles policeman, the career crunch forced a changing of priorities. "I realized everybody wasn't going to be sergeant or lieutenant--and there was nothing wrong with me if I didn't, " recalled Bailey, now 43. "There were just too many of us."
In July, 1986, Bailey left the Los Angeles Police Department after 17 years and opened a McDonald's restaurant downtown with his wife, Andrea. Today, he says the move has paid off handsomely: "I have a better understanding of what I want out of life."
Not everyone will respond by launching a new venture. Many, weary of the headaches, may focus instead on values outside the workplace, such as family, hobbies or their community. They are people like the Los Angeles marketing executive, 37, with a 21-month-old son, who said he may become a chef in order to find "regular, rewarding work that you can shut off when you leave the office."
Linda Short, a vice president of human resources at Bank of America in San Francisco, said the baby boomers provide special challenges: "This group expects more than a desk and a job. They're motivated, and they're after challenges. If they aren't intensely challenged, they'll become frustrated."
In order to keep the bad feelings to a minimum, "We'll offer more flexible work styles," she predicted. "We'll look at the ways career ladders work. We'll consider offering time off if they have special desires."
But she acknowledged: "We have not done much about it up to now."
How much needs to be done? The baby boom's march through the workplace guarantees some tensions and hassles. Other things, however, such as the health of the economy and conditions in a particular field, also will influence an individual's fortunes, said Peter A. Morrison, director of the Population Research Center at the RAND Corp., a think tank in Santa Monica.
"Demography isn't destiny," Morrison argued. "You can't avoid the conclusion that there is going to be congestion on the career ladder. But the adaptability of each member of the generation is probably going to determine the extent to which they get ahead."
Consider Catherine Bension. By her middle 30s, she had attained a high-level position at a big ad agency. But when she contemplated her future there, it looked like further advancement wouldn't come swiftly or easily. "There were a lot of people in the organization at my level--and a lot of them were ahead of me in line for the next opportunity," recalled Bension, 36.