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THE DEAD-END KIDS : Despite their degrees and expectations, few baby boomers will make it to the top

October 28, 1990|KAREN TUMULTY | Karen Tumulty, a Times staff writer based in New York, formerly covered finance from Los Angeles.

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 became open, it went to someone the company brought in 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 didn't 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."

For the record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 16, 1990 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 8 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 19 words Type of Material: Correction
The headquarters for Digital Equipment Corporation was misidentified in "The Dead-End Kids." It is located in Marlborough, Mass.

Psychologists describe what is going on here as plateauing. Plateauing is the day you find out that the boss is younger than you are--and for that matter, so is the boss's 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. Over the hill. On the shelf. Burned out. Used up. Me? But look around the department, especially at those stars who used to be promoted every year or so. For the most part, no one else seems to be going anywhere either, though they all seem to be working just as hard as ever.

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 aging wunderkinder well into their middle years, the fast track is starting to look like the San Diego Freeway at rush hour. And it is going to get worse. Notice that cloud of dust coming up behind you? That's the second half of the boom, the group whose values were hardened in the get-out-of-my-way 1980s. By the turn of the century, baby boomers--whose ages will span 35 to 54--will make up 49% 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. Barry D. Leskin, chairman of the USC Business School's management and organization department, throws out this grim forecast: 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. So where does that leave the vast majority who do not make it?

Actually, most plateaued people haven't 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. Unless you are the lead dog in the pack, they used to joke, the scenery never changes. Many don't find that crack so funny anymore.

"When I started here, I was one of nine MBAs who had been hired in my division," says one oil-company executive in his mid-30s. He joined the firm in the early 1980s, when the energy business seemed boundless, as did the ambitions of those drawn to it. Now, he and his co-workers are grateful just to have survived successive waves of layoffs. Those who remain are making lateral moves, which a few years ago would have been considered black marks on their resumes.

As vice president of human resources for Hughes Aircraft Co., Ted G. Westerman grapples every day with employees' expectations that don't match the opportunities available. "It's an issue every place," he says, particularly at companies such as Hughes that are cutting thousands of mid- and upper-level management positions from their payrolls to remain competitive in a changing global market. "(Workers continue) to expect that the way you keep score of how you are doing is whether you get promoted. But that is running in the face of the competitive pressure we are under to work better with less bureaucracy." When his daughter graduated from college two years ago, he warned her that she should consider herself successful if she received three promotions in her life.

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