One of the truly strange things about American culture is how much of our mythos is built on ideas that aren’t true. Sometimes they’re ideas that used to be true but aren’t anymore (middle-class homeowners) or ideas that are true for some people but we pretend are true for everyone (Americans are white) or ideas that we wish were true and come to believe are true (equal rights). But sometimes the ideas have never been true and couldn’t ever be true, and yet we believe them anyway. Such is career advancement.
This is going to sound pretty strange because it’s such a universally believed idea. You start at an entry-level job, work diligently, and in a few years, you get promoted to a better job, and then a better one, until by the time you retire you’re in a fulfilling, well-paid job that provides career satisfaction. This may not always be how careers work in every situation — in a down economy, like today, you might not get a promotion (or a job to begin with); if you’re not a good employee, you risk missing out; people are living longer and retiring later, so there are fewer openings in senior management — but those are taken as deviations from the “normal” pattern of career advancement.
We’re taught that this is how the world works and everyone thinks that’s how it works. Everyone you might ask for career advice, from guidance counselors to self-help books to your own boss, will tell you that’s how it works. But it isn’t. It can’t be.
The contradiction is obvious if you think about it. Companies have a pyramidal structure; everyone knows that. A business might have five entry-level employees for every first-level manager. When that manager retires or gets promoted, there’s one opening. But there are five employees. Only one of them can get a promotion. Whenever one person advances in zir career, even more people are inevitably missing out.
There can be exceptions and mitigating factors, of course. It’s possible to get raises and even small promotions that don’t come at the expense of other employees based on things like time with the company (the typical five-year raise). But you’re going to be fundamentally doing the same low-level job, because that’s the job the company needs five people to do. Those raises, too, are mostly cost-of-living adjustments; you’re unlikely to actually enjoy a higher standard of living based on that sort of raise and it would be fiscally unsustainable for companies if you could (indeed, older low-level employees with higher wages are often laid off to save costs).
It’s possible to think of corporate structures where this wouldn’t be true. If there was only one employee at each level, for instance, everyone could get promoted. But aside from startups with only one or two employees, no company is actually organized that way. Alternately, a rapidly-expanding company might continually need more employees at every level; if the company originally had five entry-level employees, but had expanded to twenty-five, then it would need five managers and all five of the original entry-level employees could get promoted. But that would require a massive, unsustainable rate of expansion, and unless the entire population was growing that rapidly, it would require some other company to be stagnating and hiring fewer people.
Setting aside all those fringe cases, we come to the explanation that most people would probably tell you: Those other employees failed to get promotions because they weren’t good employees. The best is going to get promoted, so all you have to do is work harder and perform better than everyone else. Then the career-advancement model will be true for you, and the others will have no one to blame but themselves.
And here we reach the heart of the matter: Exceptionalism. We Americans can always be convinced that, no matter how unfair the situation, we’ll be the ones who win out. Only one employee of the five can get the promotion, but we’ll be the one. The top 5% of the country owns 60% of the wealth, but we’ll be in that 5%. As long as the exists a path, real or perceived, to prosperity, we are so sure that we’ll get on that path that we will treat it as the way life works for everyone.
And those other people? The ones who could work the same job for ten years without a raise or promotion, if they’re lucky enough to get that kind of steady employment in the first place? There’s no need to accommodate them, account for them, or even acknowledge their existence. They’re not even worth mentioning. Even though, statistically, we’re probably among them.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.