Commentary: We need to acknowledge that 'old' way of working was wrong
Baby boomer and Gen X employees climbed the corporate ladder by putting in long hours, but this no longer makes sense to millennial and Gen Z workers, says SPRG’s Edwin Yeo.
SINGAPORE: One famous anecdote in my years in the media and communications industry goes like this: An agency head walked into the office at 10pm and, upon seeing only half the staff were still working, shouted, “We must not be having enough business. We need more clients.”
It’s no secret some industries want workers who are ready to put in long hours. Indeed, the first advertising agency I had applied to, a fairly well-known one at that point in time, had put out a job ad essentially stating that if you’re a clock-watcher, you need not apply.
In a meeting discussing work culture almost 10 years ago, an agency head stood up and declared the millennial generation had different values – more concerned with work-life balance than with career progression.
Just a few years ago, mindful that my staff were keeping long hours, I advocated better resource management and wanted not to encourage the culture of working long hours being seen as a “badge of honour” or a must-have for a good appraisal.
The pushback I received surprised me. The common retort? Those are the dues we paid to get where we are today. If they cannot take it, this industry is not for them.
WORK HARD NOW, ENJOY LATER?
There is some truth in this. We, boomers or Gen X, did indeed equate long hours to corporate success. And yes, many of us have climbed the corporate ladder because such “good work ethic” was rewarded.
Work hard now, we were told, to reach a level of seniority where we were paid for our experience, knowledge and expertise – not our hours. Then, and only then, we would have the time to pursue and enjoy the things we neglected in our earlier years.
My personal record was 72 hours straight without going home; this taught me the importance of always keeping a deodorant stick around the office. Some may call this a sense of responsibility - buckling down when there are problems to get the job done - but it becomes an issue when the job constantly requires, or makes us feel like we have no choice but to put in extended hours to get by.
Imagine then, this old mindset coming up against what has recently been called “quiet quitting”, where employees choose to do only what is expected of their core duties and only during working hours.
OLD WAY OF WORKING WAS WRONG
Whether we agree with such behaviour or not, what we should agree on is that the old way of working was wrong.
Much has already been said about the negative impact such a work culture has on mental well-being. A Randstad study earlier this year indicated that about 56 per cent of Singapore-based respondents aged below 35 would leave their jobs if they could not enjoy life, compared to 45 per cent of those aged between 45 and 54.
The older generation might brush that off as younger workers being less mentally resilient. The irony of that though, is that boomer and Gen X parents raised the generation of millennials and the Gen Zs.
Couching a desire for better work-life balance as an issue of resilience inherently fuels the idea that the normal way of working is to sacrifice relationships in pursuit of corporate success. It entrenches the view that anyone who doesn’t put in the same amount of effort is destined for mediocrity in their careers.
Listen: Law Society's Adrian Tan on quiet quitting and leadership
There’s an element of survivorship bias at play: Having succeeded by embracing long hours, older workers may not be able to imagine getting there without paying the same dues.
Yet, the younger generation have shown they are willing to work hard if the potential rewards are deemed worth the sacrifice - and it might not be the same picture of success as before.
A 2016 survey by web hosting company GoDaddy indicated that 74 per cent of millennials surveyed in Singapore planned to be entrepreneurs within a decade. A 2022 US study indicated 62 per cent of Gen Z have started or intended to start their own business.
The median age of start-up founders based in Singapore was 28 years, according to a 2017 Startup Genome report. It’s not a stretch to say that a millennial or Gen Z CEO today who built up a successful business would have put in as many - if not more - hours or efforts as those who climbed the corporate ladder.
EMPLOYERS HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO EVOLVE
There’s a very real impact on business owners and leaders if they do not adjust their mindset.
If they are too used to 10 to 12 hours of effort for eight paid hours, essentially paying two staff to handle the workload of three (assuming a regular 12-hour day), it creates a dependency on non-paid hours for profit. Over time, the company may end up not knowing how to operate profitably without it.
What happens when a generation of young people coming into the workforce no longer consider it acceptable? As more workers - young and old - increasingly seek out reasonable work-life balance, companies must find ways of pivoting to a model that caps work within an eight-hour day.
It will be a massive exercise in change management, even as companies also learn to incorporate hybrid working and flexible work arrangements.
The Great Resignation and quiet quitting trends are arguably results of a generation of bosses and workers struggling to find better ways of working. If we are to resolve such workplace challenges, we need to tackle the challenge of looking at outcomes, not output hours.
A recent NTUC dialogue with students indicated career planning and mental well-being among the top three concerns youth face before entering the workforce. Framing these as a zero-sum game benefits neither employer nor employee.
As capital markets cast their gaze much closer to a company’s profitability during these rough economic times, companies shouldn’t rush to cut labour costs or scoff at younger workers who do not buy in to the old way of working, expecting a return to longer working days without consideration.
It might mean short-term profitability, but it is ultimately unsustainable.
Edwin Yeo leads the Singapore office of SPRG, a regional integrated communications agency.