At 32, he was considered a Wall Street whiz kid, managing the bonds division of a major brokerage firm. When a competing company offered him more authority and another figure on his income, he didn't think twice. He packed his office the next day and was gone. And he took two of his best brokers with him.

The inventory-control specialist in his midforties had worked for the same major automotive company in New York for years when he was told he was being transferred to the firm's Detroit headquarters. He didn't want to move. His family was settled, his children in high school. Detroit wasn't part of their dream. He felt disillusioned after so many years with the company. He quit his job rather than move.

The same bitterness and despair acted out in the fictional network news bureau in the movie "Broadcast News" has been played out factually -- and often -- throughout the country in recent years. Practically every industry has gotten "lean and mean," as insiders call it, often cutting down staffs with chain-saw sensitivity. So-called lifetime employes suddenly face forced early retirement. Eager younger workers overnight are reassigned or shown the door.

On the other hand, employe mobility in search of a better job has become the working rule. An up-and-coming company "star" is more likely to soar elsewhere than to stay with a single employer for a career. And, in greater numbers, trusted employes who've acquired their specialty over years at the corporation jump ship for the inducements of consulting, or because of burnout, or to take care of the baby -- mostly reasons that were unheard of 20 years ago.

Loyalty between employers and employes traditionally has been a game of itches -- you scratch my back, I scratch yours. The company hired individuals at relatively low levels and, with satisfactory work, the employe could count on occasional promotions and the promise of employment for life. Employes, on the other hand, were happy to have jobs and even would put company interests above their own.

But, lately, the scratching has stopped. Whatever was once true of work-place loyalty probably isn't any longer. Changes in the personality of the American work force and priorities in the corporate board room are rewriting the corporate pledge of allegiance. Odds are that the only true-blue "company man" either owns the company or runs it. And the once commonly accepted notion of a corporate family has been so narrowly redefined as to relegate the everyday employe to the role of black sheep.

The result? In already wobbly times for American business, there is added uncertainty about who is obliged to whom and how.

Corporate response to that and other industry pressures has been, almost universally, to tighten belts -- even if that puts an inordinate squeeze on employes. Presidential hopeful Bruce Babbitt, in the current issue of The New Republic, characterizes this as a time of "antagonism and misunderstanding in which workers are treated as commodities ... " U.S. News & World Report labeled it "The Age of the Employer" -- a new era in management-labor relations in which the boss isn't letting anyone forget who's boss.

"It is a more hard-spirited attitude than I've seen in a long time," says management professor Mark Pasten, director of the Lincoln Center, the business ethics department at Arizona State University's College of Business. "We're seeing more announcements of 10 percent cutbacks every year. It's the 'cut back, lay off, turn 'em out, lock 'em up' approach."

In a survey of 1,134 companies conducted last July by the American Management Association, about half of the respondents said they reduced their labor forces during the 18 months from January 1986 to June 1987. The average number of jobs lost per company was 362. For large companies (more than $500 million in sales), it numbered 2,770 employes. Almost a quarter of the companies that cut personnel admitted their corporate philosophy to be "Profitability is more important than job security."

Pasten attributes that corporate attitude to today's threats to American business stability -- global competition, takeovers, acquisitions and leveraged buyouts, and an unpredictable economy. All add up to unprecedented pressure, says Pasten, author of The Hard Problems of Management: Gaining the Ethics Edge. "The attention of senior management is being stolen by combat for survival," he says. "Top management is suffering a work-place equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder. It believes it must focus its full attention in the financial, legal and defensive manipulation areas or it'll lose the rest of the game."

So corporate heads who once slapped backs down in the factory and called their workers by name at company picnics have delegated work-force concerns to their human resources departments, says Pasten. And they have started viewing the world through bottom-line binoculars. As one 57-year-old victim of a major minerals company layoff (reported in Business Week recently), lamented after 34 years with the company, "it came down to an economic relationship ... I thought I was in a family kind of thing."

People don't "buy into loyalty" unless it is perceivably reciprocal, contends Pasten. "When your employer says sales are down this year and there won't be a raise, you're not supposed to look around and say, 'Well, where would I be better off?' But it also means that when the company is hurting, it doesn't start firing people. Loyal employes have to believe that the company will support them {in bad times} and I don't find very many employes who believe that anymore."

In fact, since the mid-'80s, when layoffs climbed the corporate ladder to trip up midlevel managers, and takeovers and mergers started leaving some top executives the odd man out, companies could no longer label the loyalty malaise just another morale issue. Last year, when the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International polled senior managers, it found that 55 percent believed that executives are less willing to make sacrifices for their company, 60 percent said sagging loyalty made it more difficult to develop managers, and 70 percent said it had worsened the problem of productivity.

Bob Swain, chairman of Swain & Swain Inc., a New York out-placement firm that counsels displaced managers, says that as corporate cutbacks have reached "the long-termers" -- the mostly white-collar, executive-level employes once considered untouchable -- the consequences have loomed weightier throughout the work place. "Even companies that have shown considerable compassion, skill and understanding are having to terminate the long-termers," Swain says. "And there is great anxiety and a stomach-churning reaction to it. When you see those guys go, the truth of it is that nobody is safe."

Some experts say such cuts represent the painful disentanglement of work warranties that arose from mutual economic desperation in the early '30s. "It was a time when the survival of both corporate management and assembly line worker was threatened, so a mode of thinking developed, a pact was formed ... the corporation became daddy," says Nella Barkley.

As president of Crystal-Barkley Corp., a national consulting firm based in New York that is assisting individuals and major companies to modernize their work-place loyalties, Barkley believes that because the American corporation hasn't addressed these changes, it suffers "a crisis of credibility" among employes. "This immediate-return thinking doesn't generate performance," she cautions.

Nonetheless, Barkley and many other experts believe this work-place ruckus represents loyalty's transformation and not its demise. "Certainly loyalty has not gone out the window," says Denise Rousseau, associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. But, she cautions, it is growing "more complex."

Rousseau is midway into a continuing study of the attitudes of 260 Kellogg MBA graduates. She hopes to answer what she calls a classic "chicken-and-egg question": Which came first? Waning allegiance by the company or corporate infidelity by the employe?

"Our data suggests that people still tend to think of employment as an obligation between two parties," says Rousseau. "What has happened with all this restructuring and changes in law and contract commitments is that there is much greater uncertainty of what the terms of that obligation are."

Rousseau asked subjects about their expectations of "what is owed them by an employer." The responses targeted two types of "unwritten psychological" contracts. "Typical economic thinking views it as a transaction -- a fair day's work for a fair day's pay," says Rousseau. "About 40 percent of our students were committed to a transaction agreement. About a third of our group enters what I call a relational contract. They feel obliged to be loyal to the employer and put the employer above themselves. In exchange, what they want is job security and opportunity for development with that organization."

The transactional agreement is replacing the relational agreement, says Rousseau. "There is a fairly high dose of careerism that views jobs as stepping stones to other higher jobs," she says, identifying the root of that attitude as an economy characterized by a service orientation and a better educated work force. Both factors increase the numbers of the type of employe who has always been more mobile and less stable than the traditional blue-collar worker.

Jeffrey Hallett argues that it is the "headier type of work place" that is challenging the fundamental social contracts governing on-the-job loyalty. The president of TRAC Inc., a research and consulting firm in Alexandria that specializes in information systems design, Hallett says the "information age" doesn't adapt well to the 30-year career path of past professions.

"Through the history of work, management represented the educated elite, the relatively few who could effectively manage huge institutions," says Hallett, author of the book Worklife Visions. "There was this unequal position in terms of information and knowledge. Employes were hired to do something narrowly defined and specific. Now it is reversed. People are hired with attributes and characteristics that maximize the contribution the employe can make.

"But none of our behaviors and expectations and laws have reflected that yet. We hold in our heads a whole set of assumptions and live by rules and standards that determine the relationship we think is supposed to exist between an employer and an employe. They are so deeply embedded that so far they haven't come to accommodate or affect the changes around us."

The flip side of the loyalty problem, says Hallett, is that employes want the right to change their lives freely, to change careers, to go work elsewhere for more money. Many experts say the impetus for that no-strings work attitude is generational.

Last year, Harvard Business School professor D. Quinn Mills reported the results of interviews with more than 1,000 managers and more than 1,000 other employes. He found a remarkably differing perspective of work between employes under 40 and those over 40.

Younger workers tended not to trust authority while older workers accepted authority, he determined. Younger workers expected work to be fun; older workers saw it as a duty and a way to make a living. Younger employes expected to move up the corporate ladder as fast as their abilities allow, while older workers believed promotions come with experience.

According to Douglas LaBier, a Washington psychoanalyst and director of the nonprofit Project on Adult Lives, a new breed of careerists, typically aged 25 to 40, have filtered into positions of influence in the corporation -- and become the norm at other levels. Among their common traits, says LaBier, is that "their loyalty is severely diminished with respect to the company they work for." Instead, they are loyal to their own career progression and their personal development as human beings. LaBier ascribes those values, in part, to the influence of a decade whose password was relevance.

"They've absorbed the legacy of the '60s," says LaBier, author of the 1986 book Modern Madness: The Emotional Fall-out of Success (Addison Wesley, $16.95). "They are looking for participation and a sense of integration between themselves and their work. They want their work to provide a sense of meaning and linkage with the greater world.

"What I'm finding now is that a lot of urban careerists talk about a kind of hunger for leadership in their companies ... that would articulate a vision that transcends the short-term selfish interest. They want to integrate their desire for success with a larger meaning of society."

Nella Barkley says she has seen "a steady growth" of clients at all levels who simply demand more of their work life. "We're saying don't decline to give your employer loyalty," she says, "but recognize that your first and most important loyalty has to be to yourself and your own aims in life."

Barkley came up with the catchwords "Me Inc." as a reminder that today's employes must view themselves as independent corporations "who know what business they're in." When Barkley's colleague John Crystal recently visited a new client in Wichita, he was bewildered to be greeted at their door by a couple fully dressed in white sailing ducks. Their house was decorated in seagoing decor, but they'd left their life's passion back in Boston when his company transferred him to its Midwest operation.

Barkley calls it a classic case of conflicting loyalties -- old versus new. In the past, when the company said move, the employe moved. "Now, if a corporation wants to keep someone like that who has such strong peripheral interest, it is a good thing to accommodate it," says Barkley. "But you have to allow people to say what they want. If the company accommodates that employe, it's going to gain someone who has much more energy for the job."

The sailing couple came up with a proposal to company management that, if accepted, would return them to a safe port. "They had to adopt a totally different attitude," says Barkley. "They had to be willing to take the risk that maybe the employer wouldn't see it their way." And it paid off -- the company transferred the couple back to Boston.

Bob Swain believes that kind of "enlightened self-interest" is the way of the future for both employes and company. He says most of his clients are 50-year-old former executives with Fortune 500 companies who found themselves dealt out of the company's hand. So they go find a different game -- typically as consultants to medium-sized companies who value their expertise and experience.

"The realization that the loyalty bond does not exist any longer makes it easier to negotiate an agreement with other companies which you both know will last only as long as you are both productive for each other," says Swain. "Suddenly, these people are experiencing what they really want to do -- a meaningful job without worrying about the politics and hierarchy of the organization."

Jeffrey Hallett foresees a future of more individualized and diverse "contracts" between employes and employers. That, he believes, could result in a more open and equitable set of expectations and compensation that would benefit both sides.

"The real danger," he warns in his book, "is that the shorter-term relationships will encourage a lower level of concern by the employer for the employe. This danger, however, is lessened by the increasing independence and self-reliance of individuals in the work force."

Mark Pasten is less optimistic and fears a return to the adversarial environment characteristic of industry-labor relations 20 years ago. "Basically, the thing people care about most in the work place is so simple it's frightening," he says. "They want a fair deal."