Burning the midnight oil and the tolerance of Gen Z

Sometimes your job is exactly that: a job, and it’s OK to treat it as such

Back in my junior days I was given a pep talk by my creative director…

He pointed out some areas where I could improve and I resolved to work hard to address his advice. Years later, he told me that on that very same day he gave me this talk, he saw me leaving the office around 5pm, suggesting that my new attitude of dedicated hard work had lasted precisely three hours. When he first told me about this (I had no recollection of leaving so ‘early’) I felt sheepish, and wondered how I could have been so slack, so soon after promising to be the opposite. But more recently my view of the situation changed.

Neither of us had any idea why I had left work at that time, and, on reflection, there could have been many reasons that were beneficial for me, or even for my work.

Sure, I might have been going home to play Goldeneye on the Nintendo or sit on the sofa watching TV, but I might also have been going to see a movie or exhibition, doing a bit of that cultural sponging that all creative advice books tell you is an essential part of being an original thinker. I might even have been going home to do some writing away from the noise and bustle of the office.

Then again, I might have been visiting a friend in hospital, making sure I was at home for a plumber, or a million other things that life requires, and I might have had to leave a bit early to catch the right train or beat the rush hour.

But the underlying vibe was that leaving work at that hour was A BAD THING, because it wasn’t obvious, visible, burning-the-midnight-oil labour. You can measure time, so that must be a great way of knowing for certain that someone is dedicated to the cause. And what is that cause? Well, in my case it was the noble pursuit of er… selling some stuff for some kind of giant corporation. 

As much as I love my job, it’s not nursing a cancer patient or saving the planet. Is adding to the sum total of the billions of pieces of advertising in the world really worth sacrificing the rest of your life for? If I recall correctly, most of my contracts have said something like ‘Your hours are 9am to 5:30pm, with further time required at the discretion of the agency’. Which translates as ‘You are now officially signing up to working for us every single waking hour of your life, weekends included’. 

This allows agencies to squeeze much more out of you, which means they don’t have to spend extra money hiring someone else. No one gets paid overtime, so it’s just a way for them to save cash while your work/life balance resembles a see-saw with a hippo at one end and a butterfly at the other. That said, the worm appears to be turning.

Gen Z seems much less tolerant of being made to work beyond their agreed hours, or being given tasks which they see as damaging to their mental health, and I think Gen X and Millennials could learn a lot from that

It’s almost as if we’ve been sliding further and further towards doing more and more work for less and less remuneration, so perhaps it’s not surprising that something had to give. If Gen Z thought their parents were being made to work too hard, and have reacted against that, well, I’m glad they’ve taken up a cause that might bring benefits for the rest of us.

It’s also worth acknowledging that much of your time as a creative can be fun, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to put in those extra hours if you think it will get you a much-needed raise, or a move to a better agency. But if it’s not your choice, and you get nasty looks for daring to leave the office on time, that’s another thing entirely. Sometimes your job is exactly that: a job, and it’s OK to treat it as such.

As the saying goes, ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’. It also makes Jack burnt out, pissed off, and lacking in creative inspiration. So make sure you’re paying attention to the rest of your life, and if you feel yourself turning into Jack, leave at 5pm once in a while and have a few games of Goldeneye.

Featured image: Ave Calvar / Unsplash

Ben Kay, Writer

Ah! The good old ‘about’ section. Time to decide whether to talk about myself in the first person or the third…OK, here goes: I’ve been a CD, GCD, ECD, Creative Partner and an agency founder (twice). I’ve worked on nascent start-ups and the biggest company in the world, and I’ve won dozens of awards and pitches. It’s been fun; it still is. It’s also been a fascinating series of challenges, from building creative departments to working with The Cookie Monster (surprisingly urbane).The older I get the more interested I am in the effect advertising has on the wider world. In 2017 I started an ethical agency and gave myself a very unofficial MBA in the moral questions advertising should consider within the conversations surrounding diversity, the use of global resources and of course the Climate Crisis. We still need to convey information on behalf of corporations and organizations, but we also need to be responsible for any secondary effects and unintended externalities that our work might create.Fortunately it seems that the acknowledgement of those responsibilities is becoming more obvious and more prevalent. If I can do my part in infusing that perspective into places where it can have a greater effect, so much the better. We all need to do our bit, and improved communication is usually the first step in making that happen.I look forward to getting more opportunities to make the kind of difference I think we’re going to need in the near future. And if, along the way, I get to work with Gonzo, Kermit or The Swedish Chef, that would be a welcome bonus.

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