In a study of 250 managers from twelve major companies, Michael Maccoby describes the new corporate leader, not altogether unsympathetically, as a person who works with people rather than with materials and who seeks not to build an empire or accumulate wealth but to experience “the exhilaration of running his team and of gaining victories.” He wants to “be known as a winner, and his deepest fear is to be labeled a loser.” Instead of pitting himself against a material task or a problem demanding solution, he pits himself against others, out of a “need to be in control.” As a recent textbook for managers puts it, success today means “not simply getting ahead” but “getting ahead of others.” The new executive, boyish, playful, and “seductive,” wants in Maccoby’s words “to maintain an illusion of limitless options.” He has little capacity for “personal intimacy and social commitment.” He feels little loyalty even to the company for which he works. One executive says he experiences power “as not being pushed around by the company.” In his upward climb, this man cultivates powerful customers and attempts to use them against his own company. “You need a very big customer,” according to his calculations, “who is always in trouble and demands changes from the company. That way you automatically have power in the company, and with the customer too. I like to keep my options open.” A professor of management endorses this strategy. “Over-identification” with the company, in his view, “produces a corporation with enormous power over the careers and destinies of its true believers.” The bigger the company, the more important he thinks it is for executives “to manage their careers in terms of their own . . . free choices” and to “maintain the widest set of options possible.”*
*It is not only the gamesman who “fears feeling trapped.” Seymour B. Sarason finds this feeling prevalent among professionals and students training for professional careers. He too suggests a connection between the fear of entrapment and the cultural value set on career mobility and its psychic equivalent, “personal growth.” ” ‘Stay loose,’ ‘keep your options open,’ ‘play it cool’—these cautions emerge from the feeling that society sets all kinds of booby traps that rob you of the freedom without which growth is impossible.”
This fear of entrapment or stagnation is closely connected in turn with the fear of aging and death. The mobility mania and the cult of “growth” can themselves be seen, in part, as an expression of the fear of aging that has become so intense in American society. Mobility and growth assure the individual that he has not yet settled into the living death of old age.
According to Maccoby, the gamesman “is open to new ideas, but he lacks convictions.” He will do business with any regime, even if he disapproves of its principles. More independent and resourceful than the company man, he tries to use the company for his own ends, fearing that otherwise he will be “totally emasculated by the corporation.” He avoids intimacy as a trap, preferring the “exciting, sexy atmosphere” with which the modern executive surrounds himself at work, “where adoring, mini-skirted secretaries constantly flirt with him.” In all his personal relations, the gamesman depends on the admiration or fear he inspires in others to certify his credentials as a “winner.” As he gets older, he finds it more and more difficult to command the kind of attention on which he thrives. He reaches a plateau beyond which he does not advance in his job, perhaps because the very highest positions, as Maccoby notes, still go to “those able to renounce adolescent rebelliousness and become at least to some extent believers in the organization.” The job begins to lose its savor. Having little interest in craftsmanship, the new-style executive takes no pleasure in his achievements once he begins to lose the adolescent charm on which they rest. Middle age hits him with the force of a disaster: “Once his youth, vigor, and even the thrill in winning are lost, he becomes depressed and goalless, questioning the purpose of his life. No longer energized by the team struggle and unable to dedicate himself to something he believes in beyond himself, …he finds himself starkly alone.” It is not surprising, given the prevalence of this career pattern, that popular psychology returns so often to the “midlife crisis” and to ways of combating it.