|Volume 1: No. 02|
Most of us grew up in post-war boom times. The United States was a manufacturing giant with global markets, small-team science and engineering were in their heyday, and jobs were relatively easy to come by. Large corporations were efficient competitors, and entry-level corporate positions absorbed each new wave of college graduates. We came to expect security and steady promotion -- a career path -- in return for loyalty to corporate goals and culture. In good industries, we even came to expect 20% pay increases for lateral moves between corporations.
Times have changed. Corporate (and academic) hierarchies still excel at production, marketing, and other repetitive tasks, but economic growth is limited by competition. The fast tracks are jammed, and creative people are likely to find career feudalism stifling. Conformity and predictability have become more valuable than creativity and productivity. It's tyrany without a tyrant, a life of continual minor frustrations for the common good. Each promotion carries a token raise, a title that soon loses its luster, and new duties without corresponding training. A series of such promotions resembles a voyage without itinerary more than a career.
What's worse, corporate careers no longer offer security. Entire divisions are shed whenever the economy goes bad, with research the first to suffer. Reorganizations -- for the common good, of course -- threaten horizontal slices as well. And the higher an individual position, the less secure it is. Each pyramid is stuffed with baby-boomers who expect and deserve to move up, and the only way they can advance is for the pyramid to spray senior professionals from the upper levels. Technical specialists may find themselves seeking entry at the base of other, equally crowded pyramids. Only executives who excel at both politics and management are retained -- perhaps the only managers who would have little trouble finding work elsewhere.
I used to think that the large salaries at the top of each pyramid were rewards for competence and service, the just due of those who worked their way to the top. Now I see them as golden handcuffs to keep multifaceted managers from going elsewhere -- or going fishing. Few who are fighting to enter the upper levels have stopped to ask whether these are nice places to live.
Consider the following from Newsweek (4/8/91): "Once the golden pinnacle of a distinguished academic career, the job of university president is rapidly losing its luster. A third of the top jobs at the 58 [premier research schools] have changed hands in the last two years. ... A growing number of former presidents say the job isn't worth the hassle. They're fed up with truculent trustees, an ivory tower of debt, dwindling government funding, departmental fiefdoms and thought police on the left, right and in between. ... 'We now have embedded issues that have no half-life,' says David Gardner. ... Says [Judith Richards] Hope, 'You need someone with enormous energy, a brilliant scholar, who has done undergraduate teaching, who gives wonderful testimony before Congress, who is a fabulous fund raiser ...'"
Perhaps you're not in line for a presidency. It's easier to be a dean or department head or program manager, of course, but it's still no picnic. Such positions are often considered public service, or service to the organization, by those who would rather be teaching or doing research. The real rewards don't start until you step down to an emeritus position (and write the book you've never found time for). Still, it might be hard to enjoy such retirement if you had wanted to climb higher.
My father worked 37 years at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas -- for the administration, within the administration, and even against the administration. He was academic dean for a time, department chairman, faculty mentor, and an excellent teacher. When he retired, the college gave him a banquet and the Mayor declared it Leonard Laws Day in the city. His career never brought in much money, but he's had a pretty good life.
Ed Rosenthal and Ron Lichty once wrote, "Americans tend to equate living expensively with living well. This is not really true. People who labor at work they don't like are not living well no matter how much money they make. These people are wasting the most precious commodity they own -- one they can't buy: time. Each person only has so much of it. Any use of it which isn't fulfilling and enjoyable is a waste." [132 Ways to Earn a Living]
Our immediate needs take precedence over such philosophy, of course. Still, I'd like to close with two suggestions. First, don't work to change the system if you have alternatives. (Feudal systems are almost immune to direct assault, and resist even benevolent guidance. They continue the status quo because livelihoods depend on the continuity.) Instead, try to use the existing systems to achieve good ends. Second, think about what you want to be "when you grow up." There's no point in being captain of your fate if you don't know what port to head for.