Plateauing In Your Career and Life – and What to Do About It


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

We all plateau.

When the promotions stop, when your work barely changes from day to day and holds no challenge, or when your life follows the same routine from day to day and week to week, you’ve plateaued.

Plateauing takes three forms, “Structural Plateauing” occurs when you reach a point in your career when you are no longer being promoted, no matter how hard you work or how good a job you do.  “Content Plateauing” occurs when you’ve mastered your job and fall into a routine where you perform the same work from one day to the next.

Then there’s “Life Plateauing,” in which your life becomes too predictable.  You see the same friends, go to the same restaurants and do the same things from one week to the next.

Plateauing didn’t always exist in the workplace.  After World War II, career advancement seemed limitless, as American industry grew, the birthrate was still fairly low and those who were committed to success, walked into the most expansionary period of corporate growth in history.

Few people at the time had college degrees, until the Federal GI Bill created an opportunity for many, especially men, to graduate from college.

At the same time, companies developed the desire to prevent unionization by employees, and the idea developed that if you treated your employees marvelously well, they would make a commitment; productivity would increase and employee retention would be high.

So companies gave employees a lifetime commitment and employees formed the fundamental expectation that there is no limit to what you can become.  The American dream was realized to an extent that could not now be duplicated.  As the basic conditions changed; companies downsized and outsourced.  The result of these factors is everyone has become a business of one.  That’s why we must ask ourselves what do I have to offer that someone would want to buy?  What can I do that will get someone who pays me closer to their goal?

Companies became multi-layered and bureaucratic, creating many more management positions than were needed, but also creating opportunities for promotion.  Government programs also multiplied.

As the baby boomer generation grew up and the economy hit several recessions, many more employees were competing for fewer high-level jobs.  Baby boomers plateaued before they expected too.  And since there are only a small number of jobs at the top of corporations, many baby boomers plateaued.

Today, plateauing is happening earlier and earlier in the typical employee’s career, many young employees have been unable to even find jobs even though they have college degrees, so they are still living at home with their parents at age 30.

It’s very different for the millennials, because the situation is the reverse of what it was after World War II, in reality, this group is facing a lack of opportunity.

In spite of talk about the improving economy, employment conditions remain recession-like, adding that economic societal changes, government policy and personal attitudes share the blame for poor employment conditions.  Around the world in developed economic significant growth is a very scarce opportunity for greater success has therefore declined.  Many young people feel cheated of the opportunity they expected to have.

Plateauing is normal in one way or another, it happens to everyone.  Promotions essentially for everyone long before retirement because of positions decrease geometrically as you as you go up the ladder.  Opportunity decreases and competition increases.  The only difference people is how high did they get and how old were they.  This is structural plateauing, the result of a declining of jobs the higher up you go.  It is the opposite of the Peter Principle.

There’s a feeling that, if I can live and not work, that’s kind of cool.  I’m beating the system.

Living a life or having a career that can be graphed as a hockey stick isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because everyone plateaus.  The first and primary change is in expectation and attitude generally speaking no longer take care of people are now a business of one.  That’s why a question for everybody is what do you have to offer that someone would want to buy?  What can you do that will get somebody closer to their goal?

A guess is that the largest group in the population is really comfortable with routine and the things that we call plateauing, they would call pleasant, predictable and comfortable, when you offer these people a change – and the responsibility and power that could come with it – while they know they should say yes, the truth is, basically they’re really scared of change.  Changes inserts risk that these people try to avoid.  The danger for people who try to avoid risk and find comfort in repition is that doing the same thing for too long it kills passion and a keen sense of growing learning and being alive.

Being aware that you’ve plateaued can make some people miserable, but for others it can be a stimulus to create a healthy change and a new beginning.

Even little changes can help convert the plateau into a hill or even a mountain.

To deal successfully with today’s rapidly changing workplace, people have to develop fundamentally is confidence and resilience; you can only do that by engaging in tasks that involve manageable risk.  Confidence is created by engaging risk and resilience then on the qualities that people need in order to cope with wide spread and accelerating change and ability to begin again when first attempts don’t succeed.  That’s true for all of us, but you will only succeed sometimes.

Being aware that you’ve plateaued can make some people miserable but for others, a stimulus to create a healthy change and new beginning.

Toward that end, those who continue their education even after joining the workforce are off a content plateau once may have a competitive advantage over others.  But in a borderless world with millions of educated and skilled vying for success, means promotions.

But for those who are smart enough to have majored in the right subject and developed skills won’t come easily for most– not just working on a computer or thinking, but conceptualizing –  ability to think and who have the technical skills that are in demand, there will be opportunity, however, new opportunities usually come from big new inventions.   It’s always very difficult to know what those will be.

Disgruntled employees either quit or leave – or they quit and stay.

At the same time, organizations need to change their approach to employees and create more, is to address content plateauing.

Organizations should be flatter, because with fewer promotions itself becomes less important.  They need to realize that every reward that comes with a promotion can be earned without a promotion.  There’s no reason why you can’t give structurally plateaued employees greater responsibility and more freedom to make decisions.  There’s no reason why people can’t be allowed to be leaders in various ways.  Earning, autonomy and leadership should continue increasing as people meet new challenges.

Individual managers can help, too, by treating people as individuals, which is the opposite of what HR does, HR generally treats everybody the same way, because that is considered fair treatment.  But if managers treat people as individuals by developing a relationship with them, they can learn what people need or want most to make work more fulfilling. Learning a few details about employees and getting to know their interests and priorities can make a significant difference.

It is really important to get expectations to where people don’t feel forgotten and a failure.  People need hope; and they need goals they can be achieved which feel important to them.  It is to the organizations advantage to collaborate with employees to enable them and make feel they are making a valuable contribution and manageable risk is your best friend.


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