BEATING THE MIDLIFE CAREER CRISIS How to succeed without really rising: Flattened organizations and their ambitious employees are finding new paths to job satisfaction and personal growth.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – MIDWAY ON the journey of your life, a thought stops you in your tracks: Your job bores you. Worse yet, you feel stuck. You and 30 others are competing for that same promotion. The opportunities must be better elsewhere, but you can never quite find where. Maybe -- just maybe -- you're not as talented as you thought you were. What to do? Tough as this time of life is, it's tougher now for Americans in that vast stretch between youth and old age. They are wrestling with all the normal midlife doubts at a time when a tight and unforgiving job market traps them. Consider what's new: -- Companies everywhere are pulling layers out of their organizations. That makes moving up harder. Many managers will never do so again. -- Yet finding a new job elsewhere has become far more difficult. Harvard economist James Medoff estimates there are roughly 50% fewer job openings for unemployed people at all levels today than in 1985.
-- Leaving a company can also mean a big sacrifice. Medoff says middle managers can expect their next employer to pay 10% less in real terms than their last. Don't count on a pension; companies are 20% less likely to provide one than in 1980. Understandable conclusion of many: Staying employed and frustrated is the best choice. Despite all the talk about how everyone will have multiple careers in the future, the experts confirm that Americans in midlife are switching jobs less often than they used to. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not updated its job mobility numbers lately, but assistant commissioner John Bregger agrees that inertia has set in. Says Medoff: ''Those who have a job are no more likely to throw it off than Linus would his blanket.'' Stuck these people may feel, but some felicitous forces are at work as the largest cohort in history thunders over the hill. Companies have an interest in reinvigorating diminished and demoralized ranks, so they are trying to spur productivity by offering employees a host of ways to juice up their jobs. Among them: additional training, lateral moves, short sabbaticals, and compensation based on a person's contribution, not title. All this is good & news, as San Diego psychologist and consultant Judith Bardwick points out: ''Plateauing is a lousy way to spend your life.'' Many companies need help keeping talented middle-aged workers engaged in an era of downsized opportunities. Move over, McKinsey -- the rescue squad of the Nineties is an army of 2,300 or so experts who will set up on-site career enrichment centers, replete with video and audiocassettes, self-assessment work sheets, and minicourses for managers and their teams. Topics include employee motivation, overcoming fear of success, and wardrobe and grooming tips. Typical fee for a full-blown, three-year program at a FORTUNE 500 company: $1 million. UNABLE to reward with raises and promotions as lavishly as before, corporate America is embracing the new career enhancement doctrines with a vengeance. Says Chevron's head of personnel development, Sarah Clemens: ''We're working to help people revitalize their jobs in a way that will benefit them and the company.'' Beverly Kaye, self-described ''inplacement consultant'' from Sherman Oaks, California, worked with Chevron for three years to set up its program. ''What you want is for employees to be productively plateaued,'' she says. ''They may not be moving up in an organization, but if they feel stuck, productivity suffers and absenteeism soars.'' Kaye's arsenal includes two 20- minute videos, Growing in Place and Up Is Not the Only Way, distributed by Barr Films of Irwindale, California (800-234-7878), at $595 a pop. Want a sneak preview? Employees can move several ways in an organization, says Kaye. Of course most still prefer the old-fashioned way -- up -- which brings a grander title, more prestige, and a bigger salary. But in today's less vertical corporate world, Kaye urges employees to consider other directions that may eventually lead to a higher plane. For example, they can move sideways, with no change in salary or title, to a more dynamic department; head for the exit and perhaps a more rewarding career elsewhere; stay put and make peace while they enhance their skills and explore new horizons; or move down -- move what? -- to a job that may carry less weight but promises more growth. Here's a twist Kaye didn't think of: a temporary blue-collar assignment to combat the drudgery of the desk. After 13 years of paperwork and writing proposals in the equal employment opportunity and customer billing offices at Alagasco, a Birmingham, Alabama, utility, Thomas L. Wilder Jr. was looking for a change. ''I wanted to see some more permanence to my work,'' he says, ''something I could show my kids or grandkids. Something tangible, like a bridge.''
While a trestle was out of the question, the trenches were wide open. In January, Wilder, 35, traded his suit and tie for company overalls and a hardhat. For six months he worked on Alagasco's construction crew, repairing gas lines and digging ditches. Says Wilder: ''I think some of the people saw me as the guy from the ivory tower, so I made sure I got down in those ditches and got just as dirty as they did.'' Newly returned to the air conditioning, Wilder says he feels ''refreshed and a lot less bored.'' His field experience, which forced him to brave a freak winter snow storm and blistering summer heat, helped him realize he has it pretty good. Other employers take note: ''If companies want to keep people like me and keep our minds on the work, they have to offer us something extra.'' So far, Alagasco has similarly reassigned 75 of its 1,300 employees, some to the United Way, others to summer jobs programs for disadvantaged youth. Explains President Michael Warren: ''Given how slowly the energy industry is growing, we had to come up with a way to combat the 'Is this all there is?' syndrome.'' Compensation, that great motivator, is another way flattened organizations are spurring enthusiasm. Broad banding, as the concept is called, rewards people with raises unaccompanied by promotions. The more skills you acquire and use, the more you can earn -- even if you don't jump to the next rung on the corporate ladder. Craig Ulrich, of the New York City human resources consulting firm William M. Mercer Inc. estimates that at least 10% of midsize to large companies have such a program, and close to half are considering one.
Among the first to jump on the broad-banding wagon was RJR Nabisco in 1989. Says compensation chief Lewis Nerish: ''We were coming off an entitlement mentality where everyone expected annual increases. But we had taken several levels out of the organization, and we couldn't promote as many people as we used to. Jobs got bigger, and broad banding seemed like the answer.'' As companies shed layers, reduce head counts, and turn up the pressure on those who remain, lateral moves have become the commonest way to reenergize the troops. Chevron, which has slimmed down by 6,500 employees in the past two years, has redeployed over 1,000 people to different areas of the company. Says CEO Kenneth Derr: ''That's not as easy as it sounds. Relocation and retraining expenses can run around $75,000 a person.'' General Motors, which by 1995 will have cut its vast white-collar work force nearly in half to about 70,000, is paying some $10 million a year for 6,100 employees to retrain and enhance their skills in everything from carpentry to the nuts and bolts of automotive design.
One GM side-stepper is Johanne Eberhardt, 43, who volunteered three years ago to give up her job managing the development of truck prototypes so she could learn how to design trucks. Having just completed two years of drafting courses at Macomb County Community College, near Detroit, she is about to begin another year of advanced training. ''I just saw it as a great chance,'' says Eberhardt. ''I couldn't see how it could hurt me. I think my horizons are broader now, and I have more opportunities.'' Eberhardt's resume reveals a career full of such creative moves. After graduating from Michigan State in 1972, she became a department manager at Sears. Promotions came quickly but didn't provide the rewards Eberhardt sought: ''I realized one day I was too smart to be doing this.'' She went back to school, got a graduate degree in psychology, and began her second career. But before long that also proved limiting. Eight years ago she moved to her supervisory position at GM. Says Eberhardt of her hopscotch career: ''The more you learn, the more salable you are.'' Corporate musical chairs may help enliven the ranks, but the main burdens -- and benefits -- of dealing with career limitations rest with the individual. Depending on how gutsy they are, people cope with midlife blues in ways that range from denial to derring-do. A stiff upper lip, pedestrian as that sounds, is probably the most common response to career disappointment. That's the report from a team of physicians, psychologists, sociologists, and demographers, sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, who have interviewed thousands of people between 35 and 60. Says social psychologist Gilbert Brim, who leads the team: ''Midlife is a tough period. And I don't necessarily mean tough on people. I mean when people are toughest.'' Consider the reaction of a 46-year-old geologist who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job. When she first signed on 11 years ago with her employer, a major Houston oil company, she looked forward to going to work in the morning. But then the industry collapsed, and a gush of layoffs followed. Work became a sort of hell for her, especially when she got promoted to manage her close-knit team of 12 geologists: Her first assignment was to fire half of them. Frantic about getting the ax herself, she wanted to quit. But geologists were begging for jobs in the weak oil market. She recalls: ''I felt trapped. I would come home and go to bed earlier and earlier so I wouldn't have to think about my job.'' Like most people afflicted with such midlife anxiety, she eventually snapped out of her funk. ''I just learned to live with it,'' she says. ''I decided if I get laid off, so be it. If my husband and I have to sell our house, it won't be the end of the world. There is something very freeing about letting go of those fears.'' In short order the stiff upper lip gives way to a more philosophical attitude: You make peace with your situation and reorient. Disappointments at work might have caused some teeth grinding at night, but they probably didn't take you by surprise. ''Most people are vigilant and do little reality checks all along the way,'' says University of Michigan sociologist Ronald Kessler. Ambitious as you are, you get the message over time that you won't get to hang your hat in the corner office. So you turn inward, or homeward. Listen to how AT&T industrial psychologist Michael Scofield, 42, downsized his expectations when passed over repeatedly for promotion: ''I wrestled with feelings of failure and frustration for a long time, mulling over my options. Daily resentment? Too painful. Lackadaisical performance? Too boring. A job change? Too risky.'' Scofield's salvation: He stuck with his job in AT&T's office in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, by day, while by night and on weekends he started coaching his son's Little League and daughter's basketball teams. ''Some would say I've lowered my goals to meet reality,'' says Scofield. ''I say I've exchanged career goals for a vision of life.''
Yoga has helped Apple Computer's Lee Collins handle the frustration he feels having done the same job for over a decade. ''I read a lot about ways to cope,'' he says. Collins, 43, manages a group of development engineers. After 11 years with the company, he thinks perhaps he should have taken more risk and ventured out on his own. But Apple's generous benefits package and his $100,000-plus salary have given him pause. ''Had I known I'd still be sitting ^ here looking at these same pale blue walls in the exact same office, I wouldn't have been here longer than a year. But knowing there is a tomorrow helps me get through, to keep positive.'' Chevron supervisor Michael DeGennaro says his ''therapy'' is rebuilding the 1932 Ford coupe in his driveway: ''I turn wrenches and hammer out sheet metal.'' A 24-year veteran of the San Francisco oil giant, DeGennaro, 48, oversees 65 people who troubleshoot for Chevron retailers when their computerized billing system breaks down. ''I'm capable of handling greater responsibility,'' he says. ''But Chevron is certainly not in a growth mode. And there aren't a lot of sterling opportunities out there. All you have to do is pick up the paper.'' With two children nearing college age, DeGennaro is counting on Chevron's generous retirement and profit sharing plans rather than looking for a more challenging job. Others who feel trapped at work may have fewer incentives to sit tight and make do -- or may feel stronger urges to bust out. Tony Proscio felt so stuck in his banking job that he would gulp antacid or hurl his telephone across the room, once slamming it so hard it broke off the edge of his desk. ''Every day I'd sit down and say, Christ, I wish I were working for a paper,'' says Proscio, 38. Though he knew from age 12 he wanted to be a journalist, he instead parlayed his master's in public affairs from Princeton into better- paying jobs with the Ford Foundation and New York Governor Cuomo's administration, where he worked on the homeless problem. Eventually he linked up with a banking consortium that invested in inner- city development projects. Proscio's job, for $81,000 a year, was to apply for government grants that the banks would match. But even with a large condo overlooking Miami's Biscayne Bay, season tickets to the opera, and regular jaunts to Europe, Proscio felt miscast. Finally he approached one of the consortium's advisers, Knight-Ridder CEO James Batten, for a job. Impressed with how well Proscio had written project proposals for the banks, Batten handed him the keys to the vault. He introduced him to the editor of the Miami Herald, who hired him -- at half his banker's wage -- to write editorials. Today Proscio takes a stand on subjects as varied as Santa Claus (against) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (for). And he says he's satisfied. One sign: ''My phone is completely intact.'' EVEN THOSE in the whirl of success want out sometimes. Like Proscio, < investment banker Lee Higdon, 47, is switching careers to pursue a youthful ambition. In October he'll leave his post as co-head of investment banking at Salomon Brothers in New York to become dean of the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration. Higdon caught the teaching bug early. When he graduated from Georgetown in 1968, he and his wife, Ann, signed on with the Peace Corps in Malawi, he as an English and history teacher, she as a chemistry teacher. Two years later Higdon entered the master's program in business administration at the University of Chicago. Academia nearly noosed him again when he graduated. He was admitted to Harvard's doctoral program in international business and had every intention of teaching when he finished. But he was deep in debt, he says, and had two children: ''I thought it would be best to earn a little money first. Here I am 21 years later.'' While Higdon insists that work still challenges him -- ''I'm not frustrated'' -- he acknowledges he is not in the running for the top job at Salomon Brothers. The firm has always selected its chief from the trading or sales side, not from the investment banking area. ''Running Darden,'' he says, ''will give me a chance to use my leadership skills.'' Others who want out of their niches leap even further -- into entrepreneurship. ''Just do it,'' says Debbie Rust, 39, to friends who say they feel stuck. Of course it is a lot easier if, like Rust, you don't have a big mortgage or children to raise. In 1990 she left an ''over-$45,000-a-year job plus benefits'' at Motorola to go into business for herself. Rust quit when the company shut down its closed-circuit television division and asked her to switch to another department. ''I'd been in the ((closed-circuit TV)) business so long, I just didn't want to leave it,'' she says. So she didn't. Her company, Alpha Communications Technologies in Warrenville, Illinois, sells and installs security systems in doorways, elevators, and parking lots. This year Rust expects to ring up sales of nearly $1 million and ''just about break even.'' One, two, three, jump. Off the edge. Into the deep. Nowhere to go. For real bravery look at what Joe Moroski, 46, did recently in response to his career frustrations. After 21 years at Premix, a plastics molding company in North Kingsville, Ohio, he up and quit as head of personnel. Says Moroski: ''Time comes when you have to make a change. When it happens, you know it.'' You're not necessarily suffering a midlife crisis. Says Moroski: ''I'm sure there were people in the community who were surprised. But I'm not an unstable person. I'm what you'd call a pillar of society.'' Moroski is chairman of his hometown hospital and served on the local mental health board for many years. Born in a small working-class town in Ohio, Moroski wanted to be a cowboy when he grew up. That he is. After college at Kent State, he worked on a ranch in Montana, spent two years as a parachutist with the U.S. Army's Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, then went to work at Premix operating the presses. Today he and his wife, Encie, an English teacher, raise Labradors and ride horses on their five-acre farm. Moroski says his working days aren't over. He has signed on with an outplacement firm that is helping him decide his next step. Perhaps he'll start his own business, he says, or work in the health care field. He's just not sure. ''When I tell people that, they wonder if I've been eating those funny mushrooms. I could be dead-ass wrong, but I really think I'll land on my feet in something I'll be happier doing.'' Is life without a tether scary? ''I've had some anxious moments,'' he says. ''But nothing comes close to the feeling I had jumping out of something bigger than a 747.'' Up may still be your destination. But in the usual sense, at your longtime employer, it may be less reachable than before. That means you'll be thinking more about your goals -- about where up really is. You may find it where you are, or someplace nearby. And just occasionally, you may discover it off in the wild blue yonder.