Jonathan Seidler is an Australian author, father and nu-metal apologist. You may have read his memoir, caught his compelling live performance at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, or noticed his distinct eyebrows on the street. He has some interesting things to say about music, fatherhood, Aussie culture, mental health and the social gymnastics of group chats. This is ‘Winging It’, his column for Esquire.
WHEN I WAS a teenager, I used to think being a parking officer was the worst job in the world. Then, during a stint working in advertising, I discovered middle management. It’s such an unenviable career position that it combines two lacklustre titles into one, which may help explain why most of my mates are currently running in the opposite direction.
If you’re remotely close to me in age and work in any company with more than five employees, middle management likely has you in its crosshairs. There’s around half a million middle managers in Australia, meanwhile, the role is typically discussed in the same breath as encouraging phrases like ‘squeezed on all sides’, ‘productivity roadblock’ or, the one that really sells it for me: ‘stuck.’
The thing about middle management is that while it very clearly exists and accounts for, in some larger corporations, many hundreds of people, you’ll never actually see it on a job description. ‘Middle’, which implies you’re halfway between being actually important and relatively unimportant to your business, is conveniently replaced by titles like ‘product manager’, ‘operations lead’ or ‘customer success agent’.
These more dynamic prefixes allow you to temporarily forget your role as the paté in the management banh mi (something you also probably forgot was in a banh mi) just as the C-suite does with you. To be a middle manager is to have annoying levels of responsibility flowing in both directions; whether that’s looking after junior burgers or copping it from seniors who need an excuse to justify all of their work you inevitably end up doing.
But as someone who has flown dangerously close to this radiating fireball of corporate life on a number of occasions, only to pull back down to a more hospitable altitude at the 11th hour, the worst part of being a middle manager is that the nature of the work means it insidiously creeps into your free time.
If you’re a new parent like I am, these are the hours you actively try to ring fence, if not to hang out with your kid then for yourself. Life is crunched enough without having to do another training call in the only spare half hour you set aside for the gym, or to review some 86 page global deck before an 8am meeting, ensuring you miss the one meal a day you typically get to have with your partner.
Almost every one of my friends is currently searching for a way to retain their job without having to take on the associated bullshit that comes with being promoted to one of these positions. It’s generally understood that for marginally more pay, it’s a shit tonne more work, the most energy-consuming of which is having to look after other employees. This might have been attractive in our 20s, when we felt like we were out to impress and race to the top, but now, all we get to do is disappoint our kids by missing bath time to get on a weekly 7pm Zoom with the APAC team to talk about absolutely nothing of pressing importance.
When I worked in advertising, the holy grail was to become an Executive Creative Director, or ECD. It meant that you were the absolute best at your job, the top of the pile, a killer. But it also meant having to herd a flock of (primarily) man-children into producing actually usable work, all while taking heat from the CEO and CFO for not winning higher paying briefs. It was a shit job disguised as an awesome one, in a pre-pandemic world where everyone worked 10 to 12 hour days, but the ECDs also had to work weekends. They had photos of their kids as their phone backgrounds, which I reckon might be the only time they saw them.
The issue is that we need middle managers to make businesses run, even if none of us want to do it. A banh mi without patè is just a baguette with limited structural integrity. But what kind of incentives justify the work if we want to yank dads away from their partners and kids to babysit a team of graduates? Middle management is even worse for mothers, especially if they’re returning to work after maternity leave on fewer days per week. It’s a necessary evil that benefits nobody but the bottom line.
During the pandemic and the great tech defenestration that arrived with the recent recession, it was mostly middle managers that lost their jobs. From Meta to Google, these overworked cogs in the profit machine were considered the most expendable. Those who weren’t made redundant are now left doing multiple roles at the same time, while the market corrects and everyone let go is rehired into a different job title with the same problems. That’s the real kicker about being a middle manager: in addition to keeping things running while being bled dry, when push comes to shove, few in HR think you’re worth keeping.
Say what you like about parking officers, but they get to stroll around all day in the sunshine, ruining lives for a lark and clocking off exactly when they’re supposed to. That guy who booked you an hour ago is probably already out there catching sunset waves with his six-year-old, dialling into precisely zero global calls.
Maybe it’s the best job in the world after all.
Jonathan Seidler is an Esquire columnist and the author of It’s A Shame About Ray (Allen & Unwin).
Like all proper columns, this one will be back next week. You can read all of Jonno’s columns for Esquire here.