Dear Jeremy, I am a man in my mid-thirties working in advertising and could be on track to reach the top of the industry. However, my partner and I are expecting our first child and I would like to consider working part-time for a few years in order to spend more time with him or her. I’m still ambitious and want to keep moving upwards after this, but I’m worried no-one will take my wishes seriously. What should I do?
I suppose there must be some jobs – some careers – that can be organised, ordered and controlled so that they perfectly suit the needs and wishes of the individual over a long period of time. I suppose. But I can’t for the moment think what they are. And when I do think what they are, I expect them to be irredeemably dreary.
Imagine you’re interviewing a graduate with a good degree who had shown an interest in advertising. Before he leaves, you ask if there’s anything he’d like to say to you. And he says: "As a matter of fact, there is. My plan would be to work full-time for a number of years, regularly earning promotion and a higher salary, until my partner and I had our first child. I’d then like to work part-time for a few years in order to spend more time with him or her. And I’d then like to revert to full-time working with the ambition of resuming my upward career. Might that be acceptable?"
How do you respond? In many ways, this is the request of a thoughtful, principled, rounded modern man and one to be applauded. It’s also, unfortunately, the request of someone who’s failed to understand what working in advertising (or journalism, or the theatre, or film-making, or event management, or many branches of the law, or consultancy, or politics, or the more excitable elements of money-dealing) is really like.
All these occupations – and dozens more – have little absolute control over their own routines. It’s not that they’re at the mercy of outside forces, exactly; the nimble ones can turn unforeseen events to their advantage. But only if they’re nimble, alert, flexible, opportunistic.
None can set a course for even 12 months ahead and be confident of staying true to it. It’s the imperfections and the uncertainties of such occupations that make them – but only for certain people – so attractive.
The challenges, the deadlines, the fear of loss and the thrill of gain; the unreliability of consumers, the unpredictability of clients, the drama of the critical presentation.
As someone who’s worked in advertising for several years already, you should have recognised all this and either come to terms with it or walked away from it. And you should have realised that no halfway honest employer could possibly promise you a few tranquil years of part-time work quite undisturbed by crises or bolt-from-the-blue opportunities, and still see you as a member of the A-team.
There is a way to achieve your aim – but it won’t be through the formal application of an agreed and unbending work schedule. It will require you to be (no surprise) nimble, alert, flexible and opportunistic.
With everybody’s knowledge (and everybody includes your partner), you’ll be diving and ducking; pinching a few hours here and there; letting people down occasionally – but only occasionally – and never the same lot twice in a row.
It will be quite exhausting – but very, very satisfying. If that doesn’t appeal, you should probably look for a more ordered occupation. I believe importing llamas has become quite fashionable.
Dear Jeremy, I’ve joined an agency that is trying to mimic a start-up by offering employees "unlimited" holiday – provided they get their work done. The work is never done – so how much time can I really take off?
Your agency is either extremely smart or extremely foolish. Given that it’s trying to mimic a start-up, which is a bit like Jeremy Corbyn trying to mimic Justin Trudeau, it’s almost certainly foolish. As Professor C Northcote Parkinson wrote 60 years ago: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."
If it weren’t for deadlines, no advertising would ever be ready for publication. If you don’t book and pay for your holiday now, you’ll never be ready to take it.