Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Pyramid: The Fight for Personal Success in America

I want to talk today about something that concerns me. It’s about work, and the possibility of moving up. The metaphor of the ladder has long been with it, but it doesn’t seem true. It is less of a ladder than we suppose. I think of career advancement not as a ladder, but as a pyramid.

This was a problem I first really saw when I was in grad school. I wanted to be a professor. I was in English, so professing was one of the few viable things that we saw as options. We saw the professors as the logical end point of what we did in english. There was no other visible path. What you don’t realize as a precocious undergraduate student thinking to apply for grad school is the ratio of students to professors. There are a lot more of you than there are of them. And what you think of even less is all the other schools and all the other students ahead of and behind you who looked and also thought that being a professor was a good idea. There were far more of us who wanted to go on than there were spots in grad school. And somehow that wasn’t a red flag.

But it wasn’t just grad school and wanting to be a professor that makes me think of the pyramid. It came up again and again. There are only so many senior positions. I ended up not becoming a professor. I stopped way before I even had to make the decision if adjuncting was a worthwhile pursuit. Instead I bounced around a bit, went back and got a certificate in the booming medical field, and ended up the finance department of a nonprofit that serves the I/DD community.

My boss suggested that I go back and get more schooling - this time in business. So I did the grad school thing again, and I liked it again, but the myth of the ladder busted itself again. I had several professors who were not career business school people. These were talented people with experience higher up in multinational corporations, but they stopped fitting? Why? Thee pyramid, In the pyramid it is either up or out, and eventually these people ended up with the later side of that dichotomy. And that’s not a knock on these individuals. They might not have seen themselves mid-career, adjuncting night classes. I don’t see myself there, but I recognize the potential is there based on the way the system is constructed.

I am one of the people on the generational cusp. Some think pieces called me Gen X years ago, and more are calling my birth year the first year of the millennials in those articles that claim that millennials cause all the problems. But what if it is not generational? It comes back to the pyramid. If moving through the ladder is hard when people are retiring later, imagine how much harder it is to climb the pyramid when there is not a one-for-one replacement on the rungs, but ever-narrowing number of people allows as you approach the apex. I see this in my own career. I have moved up rather swiftly. I was promoted from coordinator to manager to director so fast that I never found time to get the business cards that had the manager title on them. But as much as I like my job and my organization, the pyramid is still in play. There’s two Vice Presidents and a President / CEO ahead of me.

What this means is that though I have a lot to learn in my current position and as much as I like my job, I’m a bit stuck. I need my boss to move on or die before I get a shot. Or maybe her boss to do either one and then I’d have to hope for the second degree to work. Here’s the thing about the pyramid though - I could never get that shot. Someone else could come with better credentials and more youthful energy and surpass me. Then I’d fall victim to the pyramid. There are other considerations too, I’m far enough along and with enough financial obligations there’s not just a narrowing above me, there’s a floor below me. It may be called the golden handcuffs, or whatever you want to call it, but taking time to retrain is not an option. You can make mistakes in your 20’s, but by your 30’s you’re committed. So up or down there are real constraints. I might never get that PhD in economics that I want, but in 26 years this house will be mine free and clear.

This squeeze is the essence of the pyramid. It is up or out. And that’s not how we as a society should reward hard work and intelligence. There has to be a better way, no matter your preferred economic system. There are so many people who get stuck at or near the bottom and never see a realistic way up. Those with realistic ways up get blocked for whatever reason. Those at the top can claim merit but so much is luck of the draw that the idea of meritocracy is a myth. Too many people worry about climbing the ladder, not knowing it is a pyramid. The ladder is myth, the pyramid is reality, and both inhibit human flourishing.