The other day a fellow Financial Times columnist told me that not long ago he had sneaked up to a workmate’s unattended computer and fired off a message to the man’s male boss that said: “I can contain my feelings for you no longer.” He had intended to leave it for half an hour and then reveal his authorship. Only something came up, he forgot all about it and never let on.
What struck me most about this story was not its babyishness or its whiff of homophobia. It was that such behaviour has become an anachronism. Hardly anyone plays pranks like this at work any more. My generation used to thrive on such things but has mostly grown out of them (my colleague excepted), while the younger generation has failed to grow into them. Journalists in their 20s seem to think practical jokes in the office are not funny and not clever.
An acquaintance who is a partner at a law firm tells me that young lawyers are as prank-phobic as young journalists. The sort of japes he and his peers engaged in as associates in the 1990s are now inconceivable. They would slip random words like “teddy bear” into the middle of draft prospectuses to see if anyone noticed. They would nip into the managing partner’s empty office and send terrifying messages to unsuspecting colleagues. My acquaintance once lost a bet with another lawyer as a result of which he had to wear a red bra under a white shirt to the office next day and take his jacket off during a client meeting.
Written down, these capers don’t sound especially funny but they were how my generation dealt with the main drawbacks of professional life – boredom, stress, long hours and the need to pretend to take stupid things seriously. A good prank made it all tolerable.
Last week I hunted down some of the graduate trainees who have been at the FT for about 18 months. How many practical jokes had they played or had sprung on them at work, I asked. Not only was the answer none but they appeared not to understand the question. I found myself regaling them with the japes we used to get up to. I told them about the time a colleague sent out a message to the entire staff purportedly from a particularly know-all young economics leader writer asking: “Who is Alan Greenspan?” The trainees laughed politely. None seemed amused.
It is this aversion to pranks that defines millennials far more than any of their other supposed characteristics – entitlement, gadgets, laziness. My generation is entitled, loves gadgets and is lazy, too, but mine couldn’t resist a spoof email. Theirs can.
There are four reasons for their aversion. The first is that employers have made all of us more politically correct, more rule-bound and more fenced in by 500-page codes of conduct. Modern corporate culture takes a dim view of pranks, seeing them as bullying or harassment.
The second is that most younger people have learnt that there is no such thing as a private joke on email; only idiotic old people persist. When a senior partner at US law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges sent an April Fool message last year banning out-of-hours email, employees were not amused. The message went viral and he was forced to issue a grovelling apology.
The new seriousness is also because life is so much more competitive – the third reason. My generation sloped into jobs and never felt any particular need to behave in a professional fashion, except when strictly called for. By contrast any 25-year-old who has made it into a big corporate job has had to excel academically, climb Kilimanjaro, start a couple of charities, play semi-professional viola and has taught themselves how to code. Babyish pranks simply don’t fit the profile.
The fourth and most powerful reason is that young professionals do not think it is OK to pretend to be someone else online. One FT trainee explained that their internet personas are so much a part of them – their whole lives are online – that it counts as a serious betrayal if anyone, especially a colleague, tries to mess with that.
Still, the death of the prank strikes me as a terrible shame. Office work is relentless and a joke at someone else’s expense can cheer one up no end. Great pranksters weren’t bullies. They knew how to do it with just enough affection that even the victim was not scarred for very long.
When I was new at the FT in 1985 one colleague in particular used to delight in phoning me from the other side of an open-plan office pretending to be an enraged chief executive from the company I had written about, complaining that my article was full of mistakes. I would stutter and blush; my colleague and his friends would watch, vastly amused. Although mortified, I eventually saw the funny side. I repaid the prankster by marrying him.