Grey men

Looking back, and forward

Ted Howard

When I ask my fellow students—an odd and much appreciated relationship and as I am fifty years older than most—why they are here at Case Western Reserve University, almost always the answer is: “To get a great job.”

I respect that. Given the cost of a college degree, it is absolutely necessary to validate the time and expense of the investment with an extraordinary return. (Whether the cost of higher education is justified is well-discussed in the September issue of “The Atlantic.”) When I went to undergraduate college, I and most of my classmates would have answered: “To learn what kind of life is worth living.”

The two answers are quite compatible. It is not an either/or situation. In my situation, the issue of getting a great job was predetermined the day I arrived on campus. And the cost was affordable. With a good summer job, a good part-time job during the school year, some penny-pinching and shared housing, I was able to pay my way through Cornell, the most expensive of the Ivies at the time. That option is not available today, so getting a great job on graduation is a worthy goal.

However, fellow classmates, there is some humor in your angst. CWRU is one of the great universities in the USA and the world: Graduates are considered premium hires. Companies flock to CWRU every year to hire grads. From my perspective, and my experience as a recruiter, every CWRU grad will get a great job, some will have multiple offers and others may be hired even before they graduate. All that is necessary is to graduate, preferably in the allotted four years. It was predetermined for you the day you arrived on campus that you would also get a great job.

Now it may be that the zeal to get a great job contributes a great deal to the result. So I am not suggesting that anyone lighten up on the academics. The better your performance, the better the offers. What I am suggesting is that you look a bit beyond “great job” in preparing for the day after graduation.

Looking back on my career, particularly the 25 years I spent in the executive search domain, I encountered many, many people 10 or 15 years into their post-graduation employment, who were 1) still in that great job, 2) wretchedly miserable, living lives of quiet desperation, trapped in a stultifying employment prison and who were now 3) not promotable. They would look around themselves and see younger people being promoted; they would see a younger boss, and a younger boss’s boss. And they would ask me: “What happened?” They were legion in number.

There is a phenomenon in industry, especially in the larger companies, called “the grey man,” which now applies equally to women. Such a person is in his early forties; he has a spouse who has either a significant job or significant attachments to the local community; he has several children who are established in local schools; he has two cars, a mortgage, a cat and a dog etc. On the surface he is living the American dream. But mostly what he has is the same job he started at, with minor title changes, a few early raises, a lot more work and no future. He is trapped. The company knows that he cannot up and leave. They know they have him for the duration. They know there is no reason to offer him any sense of a future. At age fortyish his hair is starting to turn grey, hence the moniker “grey man.” What happened?

Maybe he was seduced by an above average starting salary. Maybe he bought into the perquisites offered to new hires. Maybe after he arrived he paid too much attention to winning contests, to pleasing his immediate boss. Maybe he spent too much energy learning how to do some job and not enough energy in learning how to take control of his career. Maybe he got so good at his job that the company simply left him there, rather than turn the work over to a new hire. So now the company just loads him up with work and enjoys the bargain he has become.

What happened is he bought the booby-prize of employment. He took the great job without looking past that job toward what would constitute a great career.

Ted Howard is retired from a career in Executive Search. He is a husband, a father, a dancer, a pilot, a golfer, a gardener and a student of Latin and Greek and their respective cultures at CWRU. He majored in English (BA) at Cornell and took an MBA at Clark. A good day includes a morning of Latin, an afternoon of golf and an evening of Tango.