Nothing could be more boring, Lynne Finney decided one January afternoon in 1980, than arranging another multimillion-dollar merger between two savings and loans. "I was out west discussing the merger with one of the savings and loan officials," recalls the 42-year-old self-described "super achiever" who had served as the Home Loan Bank Board's first female director and had just joined one of Washington's most prestigious law firms.

"All of a sudden it hit me, like a punch in the stomach, that I didn't want to do this for the rest of my life. The six-figure salary, the prestige, just wasn't worth it."

Finney took off a year to devour novels, take courses and read the career-counseling bible "What Color is Your Parachute." "I set my sights lower," she said. "I discovered that meaning and enjoyment were more important to me in a job than power and prestige."

Two years ago she took a major salary cut, down to the still-sizable sum of $50,000 a year, by accepting a job as an attorney-adviser at the Agency for International Development. "I'm much happier," she said. "I've already traveled to Israel, China, Geneva and the Philippines. It's hard work, but nowhere near the same kind of fast-track pressure I had been under.

"Some former friends have dropped me. But who needs friends like that? And now I'm helping poor people instead of just helping banks."

As for the pay cut? "I have a car, a home, investment property," she said. "How many fur coats do I need?" Losing 'the Lust to Climb'

Bell System psychologists call it the "drive dive."

Research consultant Daniel Yankelovitch says it's our "new pragmatism" agenda.

"Megatrends" author John Naisbitt says an "options explosion" has replaced life's "chocolate or vanilla choice" with a Baskin-Robbins bounty of alternatives.

But by any name, the trend these social analysts are tracking is similar: American attitudes toward work are changing. Traditional symbols of career success--large offices and long titles, the key to the executive washroom, a gold watch at retirement--are out. Satisfying work that doesn't hamper a rich personal life is in.

"Today's young managers simply don't have the lust to climb the corporate ladder that management recruits had 20 years ago," concluded AT&T industrial psychologists Ann Howard and Douglas W. Bray after a 25-year study of manager's careers. Compared to their counterparts from the 1950s, the current crop of new managers expressed a "significantly diminished desire for upward mobility."

This results, they say, from changing demographics and sex roles, the economic crunch, new technology, and an omnipresent specter of nuclear war. It has "no relation whatsoever," says Bray, to the imminent breakup of the Bell System. "The trend was well established by 1977 and has continued, steadily, since then."

These new attitudes toward work reflect the values of a changing work force. "Back in the 1950s, most management candidates were white males with homemaker wives," says Bray. "In the 1970s, half of the study participants were women, and one-third were minority members."

"They're a product of the Vietnam, Watergate, atom-bomb generation," adds Howard. "They're more prone to question authority and pay less homage to higher-level positions. And they want gratification now."

Some of this reluctance to embrace the faith of Upward Mobility reflects the economic reality that today's corporate ladders generally have fewer rungs. And, as the baby-boomers hit promotion age, the competition is keener.

"One-third of the largest U.S. industrial companies are paring management," according to a recent Business Week special report. "Fewer business-school graduates are hired; those who are find the ladder harder to climb. As corporate pyramids are flattened, with fewer levels, there are more lateral moves and lowered expectations."

Steven W. Schaefer, director of Human Resources for Diamond Shamrock Corp., sums it up: "Fewer people today are totally wedded to their job. Dual-career couples are more reluctant to get on the relocation merry-go-round, and with two incomes it may not be necessary to uproot the family.

"There are still people who are hungry to climb the ladder , but in general people are more concerned with fulfillment on the existing job. We are looking at slower growth . . . so if people are more willing to look to other areas of life for satisfaction, I think it's just nature's good way of coping."

But it's not that the work ethic is dead, or that everyone would really rather be out fishing.

"Work is still central to people's lives," says Matt Puleo, vice president of the human resources group at Yankelovitch, Skelly and White. "In fact, our studies show that work ethic norms are in surprisingly good health in America and may even be growing stronger."

People tend be committed, however, "to the work they do rather than the company they work for. Years ago when you asked someone what they did, they'd tell you 'I work for GM.' Now they'd say 'I'm a mechanic.' "

Also, he says, "people are less committed to the Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac syndrome. They want more balance between their personal and professional lives. They want their work to fulfill inner needs, as opposed to conforming to standards of the past."

America has moved, Puleo says, from the "social, fix-it agenda" of the '60s and early '70s to a "pragmatic, strategic me agenda . . . We're a very diverse society where people are looking for their own personal concept of fulfillment.

"People still want to get ahead. But today there's a new definition of just exactly what ahead is."

For Jesse Blatt and Katie Moran of Silver Spring, career success means being able to support themselves and their one-year-old son with work "that is important and enjoyable but not all-consuming." Blatt, 44, and Moran, 33, each evolved this philosophy of "work-love balance" after their initial career choices and marriages didn't work out. Blatt majored in engineering, but "the recession" and "boredom" prompted him to change directions and earn a degree in psychology. Five years ago Moran quit a GS-12 job at the Department of Transportation over "frustration at the bureaucracy" and turned a volunteer job on a traffic safety council into a full-time job heading the nonprofit Bicycle Federation.

Amidst a city crammed with certified workaholics, they strive to maintain the sanctitiy of a 40-hour week.

"I've purposefully been what I call 'gainfully underemployed' most of my life," Blatt said over tea and muffins on a recent morning in the living room of their three-bedroom home. "My father--who worked in a factory during the week and preached in a church on the weekends--died when I was 12 and he was only 41.

"So I've always been very conscious of my own mortality . . . In college, when other people were busy writing reports I was busy making friends. I've always admired the Gershwin song, 'I've Got Plenty of Nothing.' "

A native of Kansas, Blatt took mostly part-time jobs--teaching, consulting, doing therapy--until they "dried up" and he was forced to take full-time work in the late '70s and moved to Denver. He met Moran when she took a business trip there. They married and moved to Maryland in 1980, where he continued with his research consulting job in his employer's Washington office.

In January, when the firm closed its D.C. office, Blatt quit. "I could have transferred to their main office outside of Pittsburgh," he said. "It would have put me in line for a promotion, but it was out of the question. Katie's work is here. We like this area."

He job-hunted for six months--alternately claiming unemployment checks and doing part-time work--and recently landed a position with another research consulting firm. "I'm very particular," he admits. "One job required three days of travel every two weeks--the fellow was leaving because he wanted to spend more time with his family. So that was out.

"I look for the kind of troubleshooter, can-of-worms position other people might not want. I consider a job a partnership. I work with the company but not for the company. They can help me fulfill my goals and vice versa. I work hard. I'll put in the occasional 80-hour week, if it's needed. But I've got to feel that, somehow, it's work that matters."

Moran, who moved to Washington from New Jersey in 1967 to study political science at Trinity College, shares her husband's view of happiness off the traditional career path.

"Had I stayed with DOT I'd probably be a few more steps up the ladder, with plenty of security," she says. "But I'd probably still be living on Maalox."

Quitting her government job, she says, "was one of the scariest things I've ever done. But it was well worth the risk. My mother was an orphan. She raised me to believe that success is within yourself. It's a question of having confidence and the ability--if push comes to shove--to look anyone in the eye and say 'Go to hell.' "

Her current job permits flexiblity vital to the mother of a one-year-old. She took three weeks' leave after her son's birth, then installed a crib in her office and brought him into work for six months.

"Since Daniel's been born I've tried not to work on weekends and I've cut back on my travel," she says. "I feel that if you work for a company you should give it your all--within reason. That kind of loyalty should go both ways. Once you start feeling exploited, that you're having to give up other things that you value because of your job, it's hard to do good work."

"Job security," adds Blatt, "is a myth in today's world. You can work in a job for 20 years and be laid off the day before retirement. People are discovering that the rewards they've been promised aren't there. So they're looking for their own rewards.

"I feel like we've found ours."

"The work force and work environment of the typical office in 1990," declares Management World magazine, "will be the product of perhaps the most dramatic upheaval in work relationships and demographics in North American history." Gone, they say, will be "the predominance of the 9-to-5 mentality" and "the single, powerful boss who made all the decisions." And "a majority, 61 percent, of all employes will be women."

As for worker's attitudes, they cite a Louis Harris study that asserts "most men and women rank attaining a personal sense of accomplishment as the main reason for working, above supporting a family."

The assumption that work should take priority over leisure is "being questioned," according to Temple University sociologist Joel Gerstl. "The weekend is well on the way to becoming not merely sandwiched between work," he writes in Management World, "but an institution in its own right."

"In general, managers' priorities seem to be shifting from career to private life," concurs a recent report by the American Management Association. "No longer are they automatically willing to forgo an important home function for one at the office. Nor are they as willing as in the past to relocate or accept a position that might entail a significant change of life style."

Which managers are the most career-oriented?

Women, contends the AMA. "When asked to indicate the source of most satisfaction--career, home or other interests--60 percent of the women chose career, compared with 37 percent of the men. Moreover, the women tend to place greater emphasis on the practical matters: productivity and profit, for example."

The son of a D.C. cabdriver, George Woolley grew up dreaming about a high-paying, high prestige job. In 1969, at 28, he was the youngest GS-14 in the D.C. city government, in charge of a staff of 13 and author of a computer programming textbook. "Then in 1971 my marriage collapsed," said Woolley, who has a 16-year-old son from that marriage. "I went into therapy. That's when I started examining how little pleasure I was getting from my work."

The son of a top executive of an Ohio steel company, Bob Umbel grew up watching his father pour 40 years of his life into a demanding, high-pressure job that often took him away from his family. "I remember looking out the back window of my parents' home one day," he recalled, "thinking about how my father was probably not happy . . . And how I didn't want my life to be like his."

Today Woolley and Umbel are partners in a Silver Spring therapy practice, specializing in mens' and couples' issues. Woolley, 42, now a psychotherapist, and Umbel, 35, a social worker, each work for about 15 to 20 hours per week and spend the rest of their time with their families. Umbel cares for his 3-year-old daughter Erin while his wife Penny teaches photography at Rockville High School. Woolley plans to be a "primary caregiver" for his child when his wife of five years, Gwen--editor of a home economics newsletter--will deliver their first baby in the fall.

"When I resigned from my government job in 1976 to start as a therapist my salary went from $35,000 to $6,000," Woolley said on a recent morning in his sunlit office. "I have to admit it was a little hard for me that Gwen earned more than I. But that's just a male ego thing I needed to work through.

"Sometimes it's excruciating to be living in Montgomery County and trying to struggle with my view of what I want to be . . . a part-time therapist and full-time father. But if I were to win the million dollar lottery tommorow, I can't think of anything I'd want to change. Maybe I'd get a new car and a giant-screen TV. Other than that, I can't think of any way I'd want my life to be different."

Says Umbel, leaning back on a soft couch in the bright office, "To me, excessive material possessions represent insecurity. My goal has always been to be inner-directed rather than other-directed . . . In a lot of aspects I feel like a pioneer."

A recent operation to remove a malignant tumor from his lung, he said, "intensified the issues I had been struggling with, to live the kind of life I'd been trying to carve out. You only get today, so you might as well enjoy it."

While their wives admit to occasional twinges about the arrangement, both express deep pleasure at their husband's involvement with home and family. "When I first went back to work after four months' maternity leave," recalls Penny Olin Umbel, "it felt a little strange to come home and see Bob sitting there with the baby in his arms watching 'Love Boat.' It was like they were in their own world, and I had to come to terms with some feelings that I was intruding on them. I know how a lot of fathers must feel."

A native of Fairfax the 34-year-old photography teacher said she feels "caught between two generations without real role models. For my mother it was acceptable not to work, but some of my peers tend to be overly work-oriented. My closest woman friend is very ambitious, on her way up, which is fine for her. But I'm not interested in that. I want time at home with my daughter and time for my own work."

Gwen Woolley, 32, calls herself "very career-oriented. I could never imagine giving up work because I like earning money and the feeling of accomplishment and being in control." But for her, the key to career happiness is self-employment. After her "first career" working 55 hours a week counseling disturbed adolescents, the 35-hour-a-week job of running her own publishing business out of an office in her Sligo Creek Park townhouse is, she says, "ideal."

"When the baby comes, I'll work until about 2 while George takes care of the baby. Then he'll go to work, and I'll walk upstairs to be mommy. I feel like I've got the best of both worlds."

Health concerns are prompting some of this ambition downshift, as evidence mounts linking stress to disease. "We know that Type-As have more heart attacks," says Duke University psychiatrist Redford Williams, who has studied the relationship between certain attitudes and illness. The characteristics of a Type-A person are high ambition, impatience, hostility and the tendency to do several things at once.

Corporations themselves must also shoulder some of the responsibility for diminished drive, say the best-selling authors of "In Search of Excellence." "Most organizations, we find, take a negative view of their people," write Thomas J. Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. "They verbally berate participants for poor performance. They call for risk taking but punish even tiny failures. They want innovation, but kill the spirit of the champion. With their rationalist hats on they design systems that seem calculated to tear down their workers' self-image."

As a result, ambitious people may avoid climbing someone else's ladder by setting up their own. "There's still a great deal of drive out there," says William Schiemann, vice president of organizational research for Opinion Research Corporation in Princeton, N.J. "But the level of dissatisfaction in the corporate world is increasing."

When someone gets tired of "banging his head against the corporate wall," he asserts, "they change companies" or "start their own."

Or, "they drive fast cars and run marathons," says anthropologist Herbert H. Vreeland of the National Institute of Mental Health's work and mental health center. "This generation is very concerned about getting locked in--to a job or a marriage--that's not rewarding. There are lots of other things they can do now besides work.

"Today when you see someone working all hours and weekends the reaction is not 'Wow, he's getting ahead,' it's 'What's happening to his personal life?'"

On America's 200th birthday, Roger and Judy Wolf gave themselves a present. After nearly 20 years of working "typical Washington 70-hour weeks," they got permission to pull their two school-age children out of private school, closed down their law practice, rented their six-bedroom Massachusetts Avenue home, packed their van, took $2,000 in savings and drove out west for a year.

"It changed our life," said Roger Wolf, 42. "We picked grapes, camped, managed a vineyard and worked a tram in a ski resort for about three bucks an hour. We joined lots of public libraries along the way and taught the kids ourselves. We got very strong and together as a family."

When they returned to Washington, several friends asked him to join them in launching a law firm. "It was very tempting," he said. "But the idea of growing our own grapes was more tempting. Neither of us wanted to step into our old routine again."

That "old routine," said Judy Wolf, 41, had included "a small, private law practice out of our home. We'd start at 8:30 in the morning, break for family time from about 4 to 7, then go back to work until midnight."

In addition, Roger Wolf had directed the clinical law program at Catholic University Law School and Judy Wolf had traveled extensively as a consultant. "By the time my youngest son was born," she said, "he'd been on 87 airplane trips. There was no time to feel relaxed and rejuveniated, no time for hobbies, little time for friends."

They sold their house and bought a 150-acre farm in Pleasant Valley, Md. Today they have 12 acres of grapes, 12 acres of Christmas trees, 30 sheep, 10 beef cattle and 50 to 60 acres of hardwoods. Roger Wolf teaches law part-time, and Judy Wolf edits a winemakers' newsletter. Both do occasional legal work.

"We still enjoy law," said Judy Wolf, over a picnic lunch in the peaceful backyard of their farmhouse, "just not as our whole lives."

"It's not that we have more free time now," added Roger Wolf. "A farm is hard work for everyone in the family," which includes their sons Joel, 16, Benjy, 15, Asher, 8, and an adopted daughter Thea, 6.

While the move meant "a substantial cut in income," he said, "it meant a substantial increase in satisfaction. It's a trade-off. I know I'm not going to be a Melvin Belli or a judge or argue a case before the Supreme Court on a part-time practice. "But this way we have law, and we have other things that are important to us, too. And we're surrounded by all different types of people. When we go to a party here, the conversational ice breaker isn't 'What do you do?' It's 'How's your wood supply?' "

"At any given point we both could decide to put on our suits and ties and briefcases," Judy Wolf shrugged, pausing as a cool breeze tousled her auburn hair. "But I doubt it."