In the working world, some things never change

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00

LAST WEEK I gave a talk to a group of graduate trainees who had just started working at a well-known bank in the City of London.

It is exactly three decades since I started out on a graduate training programme myself at another bank barely 100 yards down the road. Like these modern trainees, I spent an autumn on my backside listening politely to people who came to lecture us on this and that.

But now, being the one doing the talking, I kept thinking of my earlier self, and something odd occurred to me. The world of work is supposed to have changed beyond recognition since then, but actually it hasn’t. For graduate trainees, nothing of any importance has changed at all.

Admittedly, not everything is the same. A photograph of the 1982 intake at Morgan Guaranty in London would have shown eight men and one woman – me. We were all white and those who had not studied at Oxford had studied at Cambridge instead. In last week’s group, half were women, not all were white, and not all were Oxbridge either.

The technology is madly different too. Behind me last week was a screen ready for the PowerPoint slides that I had failed to supply. Everyone in the audience had a phone or a BlackBerry about them somewhere, promising rival entertainment. Back in 1982, we sat in front of flip charts and distracted each other with scribbled notes on scraps of paper. I remember listening with amazement to a man telling us that the bank had just bought something extraordinary: a facsimile machine.

Even the form of the talk I was giving – an informal chat over lunch – would have been unthinkable in the early 1980s. Back then, a lunch break was a lunch break: unless you were out getting drunk with clients, you downed tools for precisely one hour. And what we were munching on has changed – in 1982, I didn’t know such exotic food as bagels and samosas even existed.

Timing has changed a lot since then too. These modern graduates were on an induction programme that runs for three weeks. Ours lasted a whole year: it was thought that there was no point in hurrying the indoctrination process as we were expected to stay there for life. By contrast, no one expects these kids to stay – the latest research suggests that bright young things are engaged in a nonstop job search and last an average of 28 months in any one place (which is rather longer than I lasted at Morgan Guaranty, although that’s another story).

Yet despite all these changes – despite the fact that women, foreign food and technology have been on the rise while loyalty, job security and formality have been in retreat – I still could have closed my eyes and fancied myself back in 1982 turning up to work in that hopelessly ill-judged sailor suit I bought thinking it was what bankers wore.

What has not changed though is the most powerful thing of all. The atmosphere last week was precisely what I remembered: that potent mixture of ambition and anxiety, of rivalry and comradeship. It was so powerful it was almost like a smell, the smell of just starting out.

Equally, the things that bother the graduates I spoke to are the same things that used to bother us. I know that Generation Y is supposed to be obsessed with all sorts of things we had no time for. They are meant to want their work to have meaning, to long for work-life balance and fret about sustainability.

But none of these trainees asked me anything of the kind. Instead, what they wanted to know was entirely familiar: how to get ahead? Is it luck, skill or politics?

This question has not changed and neither has the answer: you need to have a certain amount of skill to be even considered; beyond that it is luck and politics in equal measure.

They also wanted to know how to play politics: is it ever wise to disagree with your boss? The answer to this is popularly supposed to have changed beyond recognition. We used to be hidebound, so they say, but now hierarchies have been swept away and every junior is encouraged to speak out. But the truth is otherwise. The answer depends on the nature of the boss – just as it always has done. Some are open to discussion, some aren’t.

I think there is something comforting about these universal principles that shape our office life. Work is either interesting or boring. Colleagues are fun or dull. Bosses are nice or nasty. We all want the first and not the second. This is how it was, how it is now and how it will be when Generation Z are on their training programmes in 2042. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012)

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