Mad Men – observations on professional life and financial independence

It will probably come as no surprise to readers of this blog that I often have no idea of what is happening in popular media, since I don’t watch commercial television (so I don’t see the 1000 advertisements for the final episode/series of program X) and am not on Facebook (so I don’t see everyone’s post about why the final episode of program X totally sucked). While you might think that this makes me a social outcast, you would actually be surprised at how often people don’t notice at all. It certainly has its benefits as well, as not only am I not clogging up my mind with endless crap (1% of which I may actually enjoy knowing/hearing about), but I also get to choose what goes into my mind rather than having TV or a Facebook feed do it for me!

Anyway, one of the things that I chose to do recently was try out a TV series that has actually been going for many years (and finished last year coincidentally), which was the 1960s-based drama Mad Men. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this critically acclaimed drama from AMC, it follows the story of lead character Don Draper (as well as a handful of key supporting characters) in a small/mid sized advertising agency based on Madison Avenue, New York (hence the name Mad Men).

I know it’s not necessarily a factual representation of history, but even if it loosely correlates to actual events it still gives an insight into what things were like back then. In this post I don’t want to ruin the whole plot of the series for those of you who haven’t seen it, and I instead wanted to share some of the things that I took away from it that I thought were relevant to my own life and the lives of others in the personal finance community, especially those working in a professional or white collar field.

1. Moving out to the suburbs was rubbish then and it’s rubbish now

The Draper family home in the 'burbs: It looks nice from the outside, and while it represented the ideal way of living back in the day, all of the show's characters realised that it was a pretty crappy existence really.

The Draper family home in the ‘burbs: It looks nice from the outside, and while it represented the ideal way of living back in the day, all of the show’s characters realised that it was a pretty crappy existence really.

I’ve never actually been to New York, but it has a similar problem to many big cities in that there are high-density areas where businesses are and people can also live in apartments, and the further you move away from this the cheaper property can become (in a $ vs size comparison). This phenomenon made the idea of living in the suburbs and commuting into work by car or train popular back then, but even the characters in the show seem to think that the whole arrangement sucks. Plus everyone drinks so much so driving home seems to be fairly unworkable.

Now I know that this whole idea had to start some time (perhaps it was the early part of the 20th century when the idea took hold), but when you look at that history it’s amazing to see that no one is learning that this is a really crappy way to go. Back then the suburbs were so much closer to the city and it sucked to get in on public transport, and those old suburbs are so expensive that people have to live 2x – 10x as far out of the city for probably a higher equivalent price and then commute for so much longer on much more crowded trains or roads. So the price, distance and commute aspects have become so much worse, but no one is saying “screw this, I’m just going to rent in the city and save the difference”.

If I lived in NY for example, I would just rent an apartment (even with my young family) that gave me the ability to get into work in the quickest possible time, rather than destroying my life by spending 1.5-4 hours per day travelling to and from work. Obviously people at that time didn’t know where it was all heading – obviously it was heading down the toilet when you think about combining suburban living with the quest for financial independence!

2. The work/life balance problem has been around for a long time and isn’t actually getting any better

In many episodes the characters worked extremely long hours to achieve client deadlines, with Partners demanding this of staff with very little reward or concern for their wellbeing, almost like it was a part of the job. Plenty of that still happens nowadays (50 years later!), and it really is like no one has learned anything from the issue since those days. And this is despite the prevalence of discussion on “Work/Life Balance”, as if by continually repeating that phrase employers can say that they actually give a shit about the lives of people working for them.

I actually think that the work/life balance issue has gone backwards because of the permanent state of connectedness of white collar workers with smartphones and 24hr access to email, plus the “ability” (or should we say curse) of being able to do everything that you could do in the office remotely from any computer via Citrix. If we continue down this path we might see life expectancy start to decline as the typicaly office worker starts to die early from stress!

3. Discrimination in the workplace has also been around for ages and takes a very long time to change

This isn’t exactly something that I have learned as we obviously already knew that it existed, but it was confronting to see how blatant the discrimination was in the workplace back then. Things have certainly come a very long way over the last fifty years, but I’m sure that anyone who is a victim of discrimination would tell you that there is still quite a way to go in this area.

Roger Sterling & Bert Cooper: These guys are the old school partners from another era. Reach the top and then just kick back, doing whatever you like and reaping the rewards! It's quite a bit different to professional life nowadays!

Roger Sterling & Bert Cooper: These guys are the old school partners from another era. Reach the top and then just kick back, doing whatever you like and reaping the rewards! It’s quite a bit different to professional life nowadays!

It was also interesting to note that some people, despite appearing to make very valuable contributions to the firm of Sterling Cooper (and its other incarnations) were never really taken seriously. It’s very sad but also true that sometimes the promotion path is more about a lot of other things than your actual performance/abilities. And the old cliche of the bosses doing whatever the hell they like (and perhaps no longer having what it took to get them there in the first place) is on full display here.

I drew some parallels between this and how our firm has been once upon a time, with only one partner left of the old regime. He does practically nothing to service our clients or the firm, but because he’s in the position that he’s in he can get away with it. Probably not too dissimilar to Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper in Mad Men!

4. Advertising is poison, and most people don’t even realise they’re drinking it

Readers of this blog would know about my previously set out opinions on advertising (just see Escape consumerism by reducing exposure to advertising), which is essentially that advertising is the enemy of anyone striving to achieve financial independence.

It will probably come as no surprise therefore that watching this series has helped solidify this view, but not because I discovered some magic black art – more because it wasn’t that surprising. There is no black art, there’s no witchcraft behind the scenes that I can blame for people being taken for a ride – it’s all pretty understandable, but it’s still so effective all the same. The reality is that the advertising industry is brewing up the same poison that everyone knows that they’re brewing, but Average Joe is still drinking the poison without even realising the effect that it’s having on him.

It’s such a shame because in some ways it makes you think that many people out there don’t have a chance against the might of advertising combined with peer pressure and social media to deliver it. But they do have a chance if they’re thinking before they’re acting.

5. Don Draper and his mates seem to get new suits every five minutes

Don Draper - not everyone can look like this guy but he certainly had some dress sense.

Don Draper – not everyone can look like this guy but he certainly had some dress sense.

You may have read my post on Where can you get cost-effective and good-quality professional attire? and in that post you’ll see how I save money and keep a professional wardrobe that’s expected for my role. Well, I’m afraid Charles Tyrwhitt probably wasn’t servicing New York in those days (or may not have even been in business), but even so Don Draper and his mates are permanently sporting some very sharp suits, even if some of them are in styles that are relics of a bygone era.

While some of the styles were clearly 1960s, the characters always looked very well-dressed, which is something that doesn’t always seem to happen nowadays even in our professional office environment. Of course I’m not recommending that people waste a fortune on unnecessary work clothes, but it would be great if the clothes that they did wear made them look a bit sharper. Perhaps I need to direct a few of our staff to Mad Men!

Don Draper sported a number of shark skin suits, which were particularly shiny at the time, and while I wasn’t too keen on the shinyness the shark skin seemed a bit funky. I googled images of navy shark skin suits and found that Daniel Craig was actually sporting a shark skin number in Spectre which looked particularly sharp (anything probably looks sharp on Daniel Craig), and since I was due for a new suit I’m now the proud owner of a similar shark skin suit. Charles Tyrwhitt helped me out of course, and at only $329 I think the suit was great value.

6. Architecture/style from the period was pretty cool

We’re planning the renovation/extension of our house (circa 1953), and this has meant that I’m starting to pay a lot more attention to the era of the home and styles from that time. Our house was from the Art Deco period (not that it’s immediately obvious), and while Art Deco can be quite nice there are some pretty tacky interpretations as well. Even so, I actually like the idea of selecting design components from the era, but only the good ones of course!

Like our Art Deco house, Mad Men showed off some of the architecture/style from the era, and while there was plenty that looks horrible now there was also plenty that still looks kinda cool.

Don Draper's Apartment: I'll let you decide whether it looks cool or horrendous!

Don Draper’s Apartment: I’ll let you decide whether it looks cool or horrendous! The sunken living area is certainly not something that you see any more!

The message for me in seeing the confronting 1960s architecture is to try to do a renovation/extension in a style that won’t date disastrously. We are probably leaning more towards periods earlier than the Mad Men era, largely because it’s the style that we like, but also because it doesn’t date. People see things from that era and know that it’s a style from long ago that people still actually want, rather than just being something that they still have because it’s too expensive to change!

7. People used to drink like fish and smoke like chimneys

If any readers don’t work in an office environment in a big city, they could be forgiven for thinking that the bosses sit around drinking whiskey all day and smoking like no one has discovered lung cancer. If Mad Men is anything to go by then that would certainly be true, and while it may have been the case back in the day I can assure you that it certainly isn’t the case nowadays.

When I first started my accounting career, we were working out of a very old building that actually had an old-school bar in the boardroom. This bar had all sorts of liquor in it, and the old partners used to actually drink it at drinks on a Friday night. While we still have drinks in our firm once a month, it’s all pre-packaged stuff now, mainly beer for the boys, pre-mixed drinks for the ladies, and also some inexpensive wine. There aren’t any bottles of whiskey at all.

Another thing that practically doesn’t exist is cigarettes. A few years back I was talking to someone at work about it and we could count on one hand the people that actually smoked in our firm, and some of those people were more like social smokers, only having one when they were down at the pub. But then you look at Mad Men and see people smoking in the office – it almost seems like they’re on another planet!

So there you have some of the key things that I got out of the show when looking through the lens of financial independence and a professional career, and I thought it was worthwhile viewing to understand just how much has changed (or not changed) over the years. So much of what we need to do to achieve a happy life hasn’t changed that much, but the rise and rise of consumerism does a great job of making people confused about what is actually important in life.

I also just thought the show was quite nostalgic and original too, covering a segment that others don’t seem to be doing already (e.g. vampires, which seem to have a different TV series/movie for every hour of the day) and doing it in a very entertaining way without a completely predictable plot. If anyone else has seen the series I’d be keen to find out whether you got as much out of the show as I did!


4 thoughts on “Mad Men – observations on professional life and financial independence

  1. I haven’t seen the show, but I did notice that consuming media programing worked its advertising magic on you, since you saw something you had to have and bought a new suit. I wonder if you would have done that had you not watched the program. Advertising is sneaky!

    • Ha ha, I can appreciate that it might look that way but I have actually needed a new suit for over 12 months. Admittedly the show had the effect of encouraging me to make the purchase, but it was one that I was going to make anyway. I probably would have bought a new suit if I hadn’t watched the program, but it might have been in another few months I would say. I like to think that I have a pretty high resistance when it comes to advertising, but I’m not completely immune!

  2. Interesting synopsis! I’ve only ever watched Mad Men on long flights, so never got into it. I noticed only the drama between the characters, and not things like commuting, etc… Commuting is terrible. Having recently switched from a high commuting lifestyle to one where we don’t, it’s a huge difference with life being SO much better. I agree with you that living in a shoe box close to work is far more preferable than living in the burbs. I really detest suburbs, and prefer either city centre, or rural. No in betweens!

    • Yeah there was plenty of drama between the characters, but perhaps I only noticed the commuting thing because I had my FI/RE lens on when I was watching it? I agree that commuting is soul-destroying, and I just can’t get over how many people at work engage in long pointless commutes even in our area which isn’t one of Australia’s largest cities (and therefore doesn’t have insane house prices by Australian standards).

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