Take This Job and ... as Promotions, Raises and Security Evaporate, So Does Workers' Ambition

Article excerpt

BASKETBALL player Michael Jordan quit the Chicago Bulls at his peak because the thrill was gone. Chicago Cubs superstar Ryne Sandberg did the same thing. Gary Larson, "The Far Side" cartoonist, just retired at 44 because he feared his work would slide into mediocrity.

Anna Quindlen, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist of The New York Times, recently stepped off the fast track to write novels and stay home with her kids. Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine is on leave because he's "worn to a frazzle."

What's going on here? If those with some of the most glamorous jobs in America are dissatisfied - people who get six-figure salaries, limousines and thunderous ovations - what about the rest of us? How are we supposed to charge up the hill and capture the prize for the company?

We can't. We won't. We're tired.

It wasn't always this way. At one time, we came early, stayed late, worked weekends, dragged home briefcases and dutifully checked our voice mail, even on vacation. But now, what's the point?

The perks - the promotions, the raises and bonuses, the job security - are all but gone, and our ambition has evaporated right along with it. So we'll just take a desk out of the way, even in some suburban outpost, if it means we can have a life in return.

Thanks to technology - to computers, faxes, cellular phones and laptops - the barrier between home and office has been removed, so we could be available 24 hours a day. Like some kind of Pac-Man, work devoured every waking moment until there was no time for anything else. Those were the rules. For 15, 20, even 25 years, we accepted them. But now, we'll pass on the brass ring.

"I'm squeezed dry," an IBM manager says. "Besides, if you're out of the loop, it can't be slipped around your neck."

***** The Employer-Employee Contract

An unmistakable job malaise has settled over the country like a fog, researchers say, and one need look no further than the next cubicle to know that they are right.

With baby boomers getting older, organizations getting flatter and the contract between employer and employee - the one that said if you worked hard and kept your nose clean, you would be taken care of - virtually dead, driving yourself hardly seems worth it anymore.

"The signs are everywhere; people are at the end of the line in what they're willing to give up in their humanity," says Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and author of "The End of Work," a provocative new book that examines the changing workplace. "The mental fatigue today is every bit as significant as the physical fatigue of the early Industrial Revolution."

Indeed, in numerous surveys, stress is identified as the nation's No. 1 health issue. In two dozen interviews for this story - most with white-collar Chicago professionals in their 30s and 40s - the overload was palpable. Respondents used medical terms to describe themselves ("brain dead," "hemorrhaging") and their workplaces ("triage," "trauma ward").

What is significant is not the exhaustion but that it has gripped one of the most educated, driven and overachieving generations in history. Everywhere you go, the talk is about slowing things down; about sabbaticals and resigning partnerships and scaling back to part-time status. When Mickey Kaus, a columnist for The New Republic, recently flipped through Yale University's alumni report, he was struck with the fact that fellow 1974 graduates craved less, not more.

Wrote one Yalie: "As the commitment to achieve fades . . . forward momentum fueled by the desire to advance one's position has come slowly to a halt. . . . I am beginning to discover the beauty of and the satisfaction in standing still."

We're in the midst of a seismic psychological shift about defining success, according to Mitchell Marks, an organizational psychologist and director of the Delta Consulting Group in New York, which advises senior executives of Fortune 500 firms. …