So far this year, 34.5 million Americans have quit their job, including 4.4 Million in September. It feels like every time I read the news, at least one of the stories is about the labor shortage and resignations.
And we can sit here all day talking about why people are resigning, but what we need to start talking about is the impact this trend is having on the employees that didn’t quit. Those that stuck around and are just doing their best to make it work. This trend has created a mental challenge for those that stayed, and we aren’t spending enough time talking about it, nor doing enough to support them.
Our teams are struggling. Mentally they are watching those that they care about leave one after one. The goodbye emails that seem to be never-ending. And for those that are still in a work from home situation, this adds another layer to the mental stress on our teams. Normally when your team is having a loss of employees, they can come together – but in a work from home situation, there’s an added layer of isolation. Like you’re going through it by yourself. It’s harder to see and feel the support from those around you. You have new team members coming on board you’ve never met in real life. You start questioning what it will be like when you even return to the office – who are you returning to?
And for leaders or managers of teams – the pressure you feel to not only motivate your team, but try to motivate yourself to show up and be your best every day when the truth is there are times you’re struggling to clock in each morning.
My industry of marketing is suffering from this trend as well. There was a recent survey I read about in Forbes where 48% of marketers revealed they were personally planning on leaving their job. And there’s talks that we aren’t done yet and more waves of resignations are coming. And the thing is, I’m not surprised. Marketing is this industry that can be glorified in shows like Mad Men, but in reality has a long history of burning it’s people out. I started in this business over 15 years ago – and if you were lucky enough to get a job in advertising, it was clear from the first day that you had to pay your dues.
And by pay your dues, I mean working a ton of hours for almost no pay. I started at $27,000 pre-tax. I barely had enough to pay for food seven days a week plus rent. I lived off of snacks from the breakroom and worked a second job as a petsitter every weekend just to make ends meet. I was a morning person and would come in early each day so I could leave at 5pm, until I was told that the perception was that I wasn’t working enough because I was leaving on time. That the leadership team would walk by after hours and take note who was there. So I started working late because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t trying my best. But the reality is – I was working my fair share. Why wasn’t that good enough? I wasn’t getting paid overtime. So why was the expectation I should work overtime? That’s where it started.
From there, I moved back to Chicago and started working at a very large media agency. It was my dream to be living in downtown chicago, working at a massive corporation. There were perks I didn’t have before like I would be taken out by sales reps more. We had more food in the kitchen and even beer! I was thankful for these perks because my hours were only increasing. In the first year, I gained 20 pounds because I was working all the time, not working out, and eating whatever free food was coming my way which was never healthy – more like pizza. While I wasn’t told the same expectation as my prior agency in terms of “perception” explicitly – the expectation was there. It was almost a competition on who worked the most.
There were always emails coming in from late at night and over the weekend. And there seemed to be correlation between those that were “always on” and those that got promoted. So you kept working late nights. You never said no because there was someone behind you that would say yes. And those that tried setting boundaries? Well they didn’t last long. I specifically remember a team member telling me that they were getting burnt out. And my response? I’m not asking you to do anything I wouldn’t do. In my mind, that was the point right? We’re in this together? I was appalled when her response was “well I’m not willing to do what you are”. I couldn’t understand it. Didn’t she want to get ahead? Wasn’t this what the job entailed? Clearly this wasn’t the right fit for her. Clearly she didn’t understand the expectation.
During those times, I was always on. I would answer my phone no matter the time or day. Christian and I started dating and would actually get into arguments because I never turned it off. And I prided myself in it. That is what it took and I wanted to move up so that was the cost. As I continued in my career, this trend continued but I did start . I started to find some boundaries – like taking my vacation days!
I also started to manage young Millennials and GenZers and wow! I’m not going to lie, at first I thought they were lazy. I remember when I had to explain the expectation of working past 5pm to a straight out of college 22 year old. I had provided a deadline and she told me she couldn’t get to it by 5pm and asked what she should do? This question stopped me in my tracks as I realized never in my career had I ever asked that question. For a second I wondered if I read it correctly because how could she really be asking me this? Wasn’t it obvious? So I responded, well, if that means you need to work on it past 5pm, then that is what it takes.
As the years went on, the more younger Millennials and GenZ would push back. They would set boundaries from day one. And mind you this is after there was a new law set in place in Illinois that we had to pay anyone making under $40K overtime if they worked over 40 hours. Can I tell you how much the industry was a buzz about this before it happened? You would have thought it was like we had to redo our entire model – what? We can’t pay people nothing and expect them to work non-stop?! We have to pay them the value of their work?!
But these younger generations would come in and put their foot down. They would push for raises. They would negotiate. And it was frustrating as hell. At first I really thought to myself – who the hell do they think they are? They need to pay their dues just like we all have. Why were they so comfortable saying no to their boss? Why were they so comfortable pushing back? They were so entitled!
It felt almost like a rebellion. Like a them vs. us. Us that weathered the storm, that sucked it up and worked our asses off and them that weren’t willing to do the same. Was I annoyed? Or was I just jealous? The more I talked to them and got to know them – the more I started to learn from them. They weren’t entitled, they just had a higher sense of self-worth that I did. They had a belief that if this wasn’t working for them, they’d find something else that was. And they did so unapologetically.
It was forcing us to rethink how we managed our clients and our teams. It was forcing us to rethink what was and wasn’t acceptable. While it took longer than I’d like to admit – ok, I can be stubborn I admit it. I agree with them. The idea that we should feel lucky to be in advertising and pay our dues is antiquated. And those in leadership positions all grew up in this culture. The whole backbone of our industry’s financial strategy only supports this mindset.
For those of you that aren’t familiar, like lawyers, advertising agencies are built on hours. We charge clients for the hours we work. Although unlike lawyers, the more hours we put in – doesn’t equate to more money. We scope our clients for a certain number of hours to do specific work and then assign employees to those hours. Thankfully at my current company this practice is fair where we base employee’s allocation on the assumption of a normal work-week. However, in my past lives, this wasn’t always the case. The worst I’ve seen it is our clients didn’t even have a defined scope. They had a fee they paid per year, but there was no written scope on what we would deliver for that time. And therefore it was pretty much like a blank check which was almost impossible to push back. It’s like telling a cleaning person that you will pay them $200 a week for cleaning services for the year and they agree. At the time you are living in a 1,300 square foot apartment. But then you win the lottery and you buy a 10,000 square foot house and expect them to still only get $200 a week as that is what the contract is for – and that contract didn’t specify any square footage limit. What legal right do they have to push back? That was one of the lowest times in my career as we were so burnt out. People were crying on a regular basis and the expectations from the client were only growing as they were also cutting our fee looking for savings.
This way of scoping is still the standard and therefore how do you change the expectation? Well, you don’t accept it. I think that’s why we are seeing the marketing industry lose talented people right now. This career is exciting. It’s fascinating. But it’s also tough. And change is slow. But you have these younger generations starting to push back. The Great Resignation in marketing so far has been driven by these groups. And those of us that are part of the old-school are being left to figure out how to get shit done without them – and honestly at times, we aren’t sure how to make it work.
Now that is all very doom and gloom – but I have hope still. The Great Resignation can be seen as a much-needed wakeup call. Our industry survives or dies by our people. Talented, creative people filled with passion for what they do. But if we continue to do what we’ve always done and run our businesses like we’ve always done – those same talented, passionate people will find something else to be passionate about. And our industry as we know it will be over.
As leaders need to listen. We need to lead with empathy, not skepticism. We need to look in the mirror and admit that just because we found success in this structure doesn’t mean it’s not broken. And if we want this next generation to carry on, it’s up to us, as leaders to respond. Our people are burnt out. Hell, we are too. We need to take the Big Quit as a warning shot. The response shouldn’t be hoping things will just go back to the way things were. We shouldn’t settle for that. We should be looking for new ways of working. New ways of motivating and inspiring. New ways of compensation that is less about the digits on a paycheck and more about how to nurture the creativity of those around us. I know I give GenZ some crap on this podcast, but as much as we have to teach them, we have to learn from them as well. They’re right on this one. Things need to change. And if you are in a leadership position right now – you have the opportunity to be an agent of that change. Change can come in many forms. What will be your legacy? Thank you for listening! It feels great to be back – I missed you all! Please forward this to anyone you think would benefit from hearing it. Subscribe for new episodes every week and like, and review so others can discover MyAlmostMidlifeCrisis. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram and even TikTok. Until next time!