The Middle Class Career At Mid Life

Part 2 – Career Structure and Stages

The career structure that most middle-class American’s visualize is of systematic movement up a status hierarchy, from a bottom position at the time of entry to a higher position after a certain number of years. Basically there are three career structures that middle-class individuals advance through until reaching the top of their professions, or as is more likely, plateauing at mid-life:

  1. Additive model: In this model the worker spends a given number of years at each step in order to qualify for a promotion to the next step, as in the military service or the civil service.
  2. Cognitive transformation: In this model a certain amount of transformation in cognitive structure is expected to take place. The entry level MBA is supposed to gain in expertise and wisdom as he or she gains experience, thus becoming a different kind of manager or executive before moving up to the next step.
  3. Personal transformation: The focus here is more likely to be internal rather than external. It involves stages or sequences instead of rungs on a defined career ladder. Artists or writers experience this kind of career development. Progress is measured not by how many pictures or books are produced, but qualitatively, by the improvement in the pictures or books as one follows the other.

Career expert Judith Bardwick (1987) refers to three stages in a typical middle-class job. With each job the worker advances through in their career they will experience these stages until plateauing, remaining in stage three indefinitely

  1. Socialization: In this stage people learn the parameters work, what they need to do and whom they have to know.
  2. Innovation: In this stage there is a gain of confidence and the individual ultimately feels free of anxiety and uncertainty and is most likely to reach true achievement. This stage takes place between the sixth month and the third year.
  3. Adaptation: After being in a job between three to five years the work ultimately becomes routine. The worker may become indifferent toward the work and in time begin to feel powerless.

From Too Few to Too Many

Following World War II to 1975 everything favored the educated and ambitious individual. All the countries institutions, including government, more than doubled in size. Because the birthrate was the lowest in our history during the depression, and relatively few went to college, the major problem for organizations was finding qualified individuals to fill management and executive positions. In this environment, ambition, ability, and hard work lead to promotion. Individuals stopped getting promotions only when they reached their level of incompetence. This was the now famous Peter Principle (Peter, 1969) in action. The basic tenant of The Peter Principle being: “Given enough time; and assuming the existence of enough ranks in the hierarchy; each employee rises to, and remains at, his or her level of incompetence”.

In today’s world of downsizing; lean and mean management; mergers and acquisitions; middle class jobs being moved to China, India, and who know where else in the world, the competition for a middle class income is becoming much more competitive This abundance of educated and talented men and women competing world wide will mean that many will not advance to even their “level of incompetence”, but will in fact plateau well below it. In effect, in today’s global economy the Peter Principle is dead.

Part 3 Next Week – Career Plateauring

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Published in: on October 8, 2013 at 10:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

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