Survivors of downsizing are 'topping out' younger


WASHINGTON -- Almost every day, the newspapers report a new round of layoffs at one of America's major companies. Thousands more people learn that their hopes for the future have been --ed.

What's not reported are the stunted dreams among many of their colleagues still with jobs. Obviously, a paycheck is better than a pink slip. But that paycheck may be flat, in real terms, for years to come. Such workers have "topped out," years earlier than they expected.

"Topping out" is the day you look in the mirror and say to yourself, "This is all there is." The promotions have stopped. You're not going to get a better job.

Almost everyone stalls eventually, but it's happening earlier today. Able baby boomers, ready for promotion, see few jobs to be promoted to -- because whole layers of management have been snuffed.

Older generations weren't stopped until they reached their late 40s, says consultant Judith Bardwick of La Jolla, Calif. Now it's the early 40s and may go lower yet.

First-wave boomers -- around age 39 to 45 -- will do the best. Not all upper-level jobs have been eliminated, and thanks to the early retirements, the survivors see slots they can aspire to. But late-wave boomers -- age 28 to 38 -- will be blocked by a wall of fortysomethings who aren't about to get out of the way.

Not every top-out is unhappy. Some workers find a comfortable niche and roost there deliberately, to avoid job stress or to leave themselves more personal time. But for those whose ambition is tied to advancement, topping out feels like failure.

In the old days, they handled their mortification by drinking at lunch and dropping in on colleagues for bitter chats. Nowadays, however, that can get you fired.

So what usually happens is that "people start to alter their goals and how they define personal success," Bardwick says. "They look to sectors of their lives where they have more control, like creating a wonderful family or contributing to the community." The objective, she adds, isn't to change your life but to change how you experience your life.

It's not just the employee's job to come to terms with the new economy. Companies, too, need to think about how to encourage talented people who can't advance. If the old rewards of promotions and pay are no longer available, companies need to find new rewards. The leaders of corporate change have been pursuing two ideas:

* The lateral move. Instead of advancing in your specialty, you transfer elsewhere in the company or take temporary assignments. These moves broaden your skills and your perspective, which might help promote you in the future.

*Performance pay. Plateaued on the job probably means plateaued in pay. Increasingly, employers save their raises for the better performers, leaving average workers with little or nothing. You may get one-time bonuses that don't raise your basic pay; or your work team may split a bonus for fulfilling a performance goal; or your pay may rise based on the number of clerical or technical skills you acquire.

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