When it comes to the world of work, it seems Gen Z has a serious checklist of expectations. Analysing a number of recent surveys, businessinsider.com revealed many Gen Zers are, among other things, looking for a company that aligns with their personal views and values, provides access to mental health support and gives them the chance to set their own hours. They are also ambitious to transform ‘perks’ into ‘norms’. Some are even looking to be able to delegate to their bosses.
I had no such demands when I showed up at my first job nearly 40 years ago. Having gained 12 ‘O’ levels, three ‘A’ levels (which I compressed into nine months' study) and a degree in English Literature, all that concerned me was that I might mess up the simplest of tasks and appear un-useful. Far from oozing confidence from every pore, my self-belief leached from my being like a Tetley tea bag in boiling water. So it was with great trepidation that I arrived at Wine Magazine (then called What Wine?) on my inaugural day of gainful employment. So nervous was I, that for the first two weeks I took a Thermos and Marmite sandwiches so I could sit and have lunch in my Mini to save any embarrassment if nobody wanted to eat with me.
I had been hired to assist in the mysterious ways of editorial production, so oenophilia (which sounds a bit dodge but alludes to a devotion to all things vino-related) was unnecessary. This was lucky because as a family, we rarely drank wine at home, and when we did, it was Liebfraumilch (or Mateus Rosé if we fancied fashioning a lamp base afterwards). Besides which, my mother always added lemonade to her glass to ‘sweeten it’, duly proffering a slug of R. White’s to every guest in the belief they too, might wish to partake of their wine in a similar manner.
The magazine resided in a large open plan office over the House of Holland in Teddington, which had nothing to do with the fashion brand created by Henry Holland. It was a catalogue-based furniture and lifestyle store that facilitated the viewing of the no-frills side table or jelly-coloured paddling pool you’d only seen in print, an unmissable opportunity to check if reality matched the hype.
One flight of stairs up, the wine mag, which was aimed at consumers, sat alongside a more serious wine and spirts periodical for the trade, as well as a car magazine that prided itself on long-term vehicle tests, thus rendering us the Drink & Drive department.
I never appreciated at the time (why would I?) that it would forever remain my favourite job thanks to the cross-section of good humoured employees who worked there. From the whisky specialist, who was also an opera singer and used to practice scales in the toilets, to an art editor with long, carrot red hair, who wore a sweeping coat, round Lennon shades and dropped the odd, delicious detail about his life-affirming weekends at Henge. Even his referring to Stone Henge simply as ‘Henge’, where I’d been only been once on a school trip, impressed me greatly.
These days, we’d have been marched straight to HR
At this establishment of genuinely talented journalists, there was always time in the day for practical jokes, many aimed at the larger-than-life boss who had his own his office. I say ‘office’. It was more precisely a cubicle, his door merely an aperture between two freestanding padded panels. One prank required particularly devoted intent. Every day for over a fortnight, selected members of the team would move the entrance panels closer to each other by millimetres, diminishing the dimensions of his doorway with glacial speed until the day came when he was forced to turn slightly sideways in order to enter his domain. When it finally dawned on him what was going on, he took it in good heart (loudly) inspiring splinter groups to get going on the next plan without further ado. No doubt today, we'd have been marched straight to HR.
Practical jokes aside, great work still got done. Although there were a couple of memorable cock-ups. The magazine used to run extensive wine tastings in the basement of a west London wine bar. In the corners of the room were spittoons into which, after the prerequisite slurping and swirling was actioned, the frothy, freshly salivated wine would be projected in a bid to avoid intoxication. After this, the tasters - both experts and a smattering of celebrities - would write down a description of the sensory experience that could be as perfunctory or poetic as they wished.
On one occasion, an invitee was professional wrestler, Mick McManus. Known as ‘The Man You Love To Hate’, he had a massive TV following in his day, with a goodly proportion of his fans middle aged women and grandmas who avidly watched his cavorting of a Saturday afternoon as he toppled opponents such as Catweazle and Kung Fu. A colourful character, he lived to be 93 and knew more than a thing or two about wine. Of a certain tipple - a Robert Mondavi 1980 Chardonnay I believe - he was quoted as saying, ‘Suits my taste.’ But somehow – and how, we shall never know – the ‘u’ in ‘suits’ became an ‘h’. Knockout.
My favourite goof, though, centred on a Guinness competition which the art department decided to W.O.B, a latter day printing term that instructed the typesetters to transpose the text and background, making the type ‘White Out of Black’. We felt it was a touch of creative genius. The instruction, however, somehow managed to include the coupon that in those days, you had to fill out with a pen, before slipping it into an actual envelope and posting it in a physical post box.
In the spirit of good things happening to those who wait, we realised that with the best will in the world, participants couldn’t write on a black form with an ordinary Biro. Not that this stopped people trying. We received hundreds of illegible forms with only the spidery feet of words planted on the white dotted lines. It was all highly embarrassing and we had to re-run the competition the next month. My editor, who had already handled the situation with the sponsors with great aplomb, called us in to discuss the fiasco. Naturally, we were as nervous as hell. He held the W.O.B competition page aloft, smartly slapped it with the back of his fingers, then laughed so hard, his words turned into virtually inaudible high-pitched squeaks, interspersed with the wiping away of tears. Good times. And a great boss, from whom I learned a lot. He inspired me to write.
My dream was to make it into women's magazines, so I came up with the idea of collecting empty wine bottles from the tastings, soaking off the labels, relabelling them with names of big-time editors and sending them off with a rolled-up note tucked inside saying, ‘Help, I’m stuck on a wine magazine.’ It worked.
While generally, millennials and Gen Z seem to have considerably more chutzpah in the workplace than I ever did (the wine bottle gag notwithstanding) I think the expectations of what a job owed the newly employed started to change at least 20 years ago. When I was the Beauty Director of Cosmopolitan, at a point when the magazine was at its zenith of success, we had a number of young people come through the door on work experience. My department was right next to the editor’s office, which was a glass cube, laid with a red carpet and furnished with a cream sofa. Within it, the ed sat, slick and scary.
I asked one workie, who had never had so much as a Saturday job, to go through the Cosmo beauty post on her first morning, a task that could be relied upon to produce a slew of seductive samples from brands such as Gucci and Chanel. To make it even more interesting, I suggested she put aside any products and press releases she thought might make suitable stories for the Beauty News section. By 11 o’clock, she stood by my desk and announced she was going. I very politely replied I thought it was a bit early for lunch, but she repeated her intention with more clarity: ‘No, I’m leaving. This wasn’t what I had in mind for my magazine career at all.’
Wine Magazine wasn’t what I had in mind for mine either. It was way, way better than I could ever have imagined.