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The Workplace: 2020 versus 1960

Recently, like only last year, I caught up with the rest of the world and binged on Mad Men. Sure, it took me a few months to devour the entire seven seasons, but thanks to Netflix (my goodness, isn’t live-streaming TV the best?), I know now what all the fuss is about. While watching the series, I was astounded by the workplace practices of the 1960s and it got me to thinking about how the everyday, commonplace workplace has changed since that era. Or has it? Let’s have a look, shall we?

1. Women in the workplace:

Sure, women were allowed to work by the time the 1960s strode in. But it was a very different world—despite dissatisfaction and rumblings, second-wave feminism had not yet even broke—and a woman’s place was still primarily at home. In the last season of Mad Men, when Joan Harris was bullied out of the newly merged company by a misogynistic bully, my hackles rose. How dare anyone treat a woman in such a rude and sexist manner? Perhaps a fictitious advertising company, set in Madison Ave in the 1960s isn’t the best yardstick, but the show was praised and lauded for its portrayal of the times. It happened. It still does.

2. Typing pool:

The scenes in Mad Men where the ladies of the typing pool were shown were amongst my favourite for mirth. The way they were lined up, all at narrow desks, with a typewriter atop was fascinating to me. It’s as if they were machines, not people using machines. However, when you look today at the open-plan office spaces, many workspaces or cubicles set out on an entire floor of a high-rise office building, I can’t see how too much has changed in this instance. Except maybe there are men inhabiting the stations these days.

3. Human Resources:

In the 1960s it was called Personnel, but was often anything but personal; it mainly dealt with paying people, rostering and managers whinging about staff punctuality. If you had a complaint about the workplace or the practices of anyone within it, or any issues with bullying and harassment (was there even such a term to describe someone then while at work?), you either put up with it or went to your manager, and sometimes the company’s solution was to show you the door. There were plenty of other willing and keen folks out there who could be brought in to do the job.

Now, HR is a thriving industry and is a recognised discipline with a seat at the executive management table, and includes specialist areas such as remuneration, learning and development, organisational change, performance management, recruitment and on-boarding, coaching, and workplace/occupational health and safety, which makes the workplace fairer and better for all.

4. Recruitment:

In the 1960s, jobs were advertised primarily through the newspapers, but also word-of-mouth (who you knew back then, still counted for much, just like it does now). In the good old days, you would trawl the papers, generally Wednesday’s and Saturday’s editions were the best for job ads, circle those that you were interested in and then respond to the job advert by posting (remember snail-mail?) a hard-copy resume and an accompanying cover letter, or by physically going to the company to hand over your resume. The employer might get fifty to seventy applications for the position advertised over a period of two weeks. Oh, and jobs had application time-frames, which meant the applications weren’t reviewed until the advertising end-date had passed.

Now, for the job hunter, technology has made finding and applying for jobs so much easier. But the flip side is that you can be just one of thousands of others who have applied for the role. In this high-tech era, a single advert on can result in HR receiving hundreds of applications within a twenty-four hour period. Because of the sheer volume of applications, employers now often use screening software to search for key words to whittle a thousand applications to a top fifty for HR to read, and from which to shortlist. Is it better now or then? I’m not sure—I’ll let you judge this one.

5. Rejection:

The 1960s were also the days when someone from the business was able to respond to every unsuccessful applicant with a regret letter. Now, those days are over—even in email form. It would be charming if employers still had the time and money to send out the old-fashioned regret letters, or emails, telling you that ‘unfortunately, you were unsuccessful in your application...’ But they don’t; sometimes because they can’t, but sometimes, simply because they won’t. To put it in perspective, a stamp now costs $1, so to send four hundred and ninety-nine regret letters would cost $499. And, to send that many regret emails would take hours of an employee’s time that—in a era of cost effectiveness—most businesses wouldn’t feel provides an effective return on investment.

6. Personal follow-up

In Mad Men’s era, it was a great idea to call into the firm to show your face, to put the human aspect on your job application. It would help in many ways; by showing the employer that you earnestly wanted the job, and by triggering your face in the minds of those making the decision. Now, it’s probably gone the way of the rejection letter. Nyree Fiddes speaks about the plethora of job-hunters who’ve been told by a well-meaning and kind-hearted friend that they should ‘follow up’ on their applications in person.

What happens instead in this current era? They become a source of despondency, lost time and eventual irritation, as HR has to stop reviewing resumes to find your application (because you want to know that your resume is in their hand while they are talking to you, right?) and then advise you that they are still in the process of creating a short list to progress to interview and you’ll be contacted if you make it. As Nyree says, this is soul-crushing to say several times a day. How else can an organisation deal with applicants without being perceived as rude and ignoring their calls, email and impromptu in-person visits? There is a fine line between showing a potential employer that you want really want the job versus being considered over zealous and disruptive.

7. Drinking, smoking and napping:

Well, wasn’t there a lot of this going on in Mad Men? Granted, the napping was only the ad executives, not the secretaries or typing pool ladies, but it was not uncommon to see Don Draper sleeping on the couch in his office, often with the door locked so he couldn’t be disturbed. I reckon most of us have dreamed about being able to take a nap at work, but it’s not acceptable. George Costanza, the hapless character in from that great TV show, Seinfeld, went to extraordinary lengths to have a place to nap in his office at the Yankees, and true to George’s form, it went badly in the end! (Did someone say ‘bomb’?)

As far as smoking is concerned, in the 1960s nearly everyone was having a ciggie while at work, and those that weren’t, still were by way of breathing in the smoke-chocked air. Now, as you know, all work places now are smoke-free, and most places even are smoke-free for a certain amount of space around the outside of the building.

Drinking was a sport in Mad Men. Often as soon as Don walked in the office he’d pour himself a scotch; presumably this was sometime late morning? These days though, while most offices have a stash of alcohol somewhere, it’s acceptable only when the manager invites the team, usually on a Friday afternoon, or on a special occasion.

The world is a vastly different place than that of seventy-odd years ago. Technology has opened up new positives, new experiences and new opportunities, but it has also opened new negatives to us as well, and the workplace is not immune from these changes. But we cannot spend our time looking backwards in time, for the world and technology moves so fast that we’ll be left behind. This is the way life is now, let’s embrace it, while also recognising that in some areas, society still has a long way to go, like sexual harassment and equal pay for equal work, and fight to right these lag-behinds.


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