Work Is Not Everything to the New Generation of Marketers

The movement against the outdated mentality of hustle and sacrifice

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“The work” and “the grind” have become synonymous—so much so that when students are learning about advertising as a career option, they’re being taught less about the job’s day-to-day and more about the obstacles they’ll face. The focus has shifted from how to produce “the work” to how to suffer through “the grind” to meet the industry’s unrealistic expectations.

Today’s junior associates want to get paid fairly, leave work at a reasonable time (which is most likely two hours earlier than the number in a senior leader’s head) and be allowed a life outside the office walls. These aren’t revolutionary requests, but interviews I conducted with junior associates confirmed there is an inability to question these things without being viewed in a negative light.

Repercussions of questioning work-life balance

One junior marketer claimed they would never ask higher-ups about work-life balance or late nights in interviews for fear of being perceived as lazy rather than curious. But what could be seen as contrived worries are far from hypothetical.

A recent Fishbowl thread on the topic of The Great Resignation—the ongoing trend of employees voluntarily leaving their jobs—discusses how the movement is being driven by Gen Z and millennials. In response to the question of whether this generational difference stems from a lack of grit, a commenter put it plainly: The grit exists, and everyone has a dream they are willing to work toward, but it no longer manifests itself in going above and beyond for a company that could drop you at any moment.

Caring about not just the work

The drive of incoming workers isn’t gone, but the days of putting the work above all else are. Another junior marketer spoke candidly about a reality that much of this generation is facing: a mental health crisis.

They noted that dealing with panic disorder and depression cannot be prioritized after one’s career. We have young talent saying they know advertising is for them, but question how much they can take.

Another junior marketer recalls troubling “jokes” made during their portfolio program, with instructors inferring that 80% of the students will get divorced someday because of their jobs. These are people barely scratching the surface of adulthood, worrying and wondering if they’ll be able to make it home to dinner with families that don’t even exist yet. How can we say “it’s all about the work” when it’s affecting every other aspect of our lives?

The old way is not future-proofed

We have to recognize that the ways of yesterday will not work in favor of the future, and the work doesn’t have to get done in the ways it always has. In fact, it’s often better when it’s not.

Time and time again, we’ve heard creative directors say the best ideas happen between meetings or over drinks. The junior associates interviewed mentioned they strike gold in the shower, when they go for walks, read a book or scroll TikTok—all things that don’t look like a grind or even remotely like work.

This is not a traditional industry, so why are we upholding an outdated mentality for tradition’s sake? If we want to reflect on the past, we must also remember what it’s caused: extreme burnout, people leaving the industry in droves and now young talent fearing the worst.

The scariest part is that what they hear is true—and even more terrifying is how slow we are to change as an industry. To shift away from the grind mentality, an associate creative director told me it will take conversations and patience. But as we now see, conversations aren’t well received and patience is wearing thin.

They added it will take a lot of unlearning from bosses and leadership, but the issue lies in which bosses they’re talking about, stating that it will take this next generation to rise up into leadership roles to promote a more empathetic view. But this takes years that we don’t have.

The old ways of working no longer work, and we can’t afford to keep pretending they do. Junior associates shouldn’t have to wait until they reach a certain level to start the shift when there are people who have the power to do so now. A whole generation is begging for change—let’s not mistake their empowerment for entitlement.

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This story first appeared in the Dec. 6, 2021, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.