Working on Wall Street may not be what it used to be. Working in New York's elite banks conjures images of big money, expensive cars, custom suits and slick hair. For newbie bankers, it turns out that depression, health problems, ruined relationships and existential crises also come with the paycheck.
It's true that fresh-faced investment bankers at top firms like Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and Morgan Stanley make anywhere from $90,000-$140,000 a year. That's a pretty penny, especially when jobs are hard to come by for college grads. So why are young bankers crying into their martinis?
Kevin Roose spent three years shadowing eight young Wall Streeters, and in his new book, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits, and explains in the Atlantic that crushing hours, smaller post-crash paychecks and a muddled sense of purpose combined to make finance underlings miserable.
Bank culture is notorious for grueling hours, but Roose found that bankers are essentially always on-call for their jobs, which keeps them in a "perpetual state of anxiety" and cripples plans outside of work.
University of Southern California business school professor Alexandra Michel conducted a recent academic study of young bankers that marks the physical and psychological progression of a new banking career. During the first three years, they worked long hours, neglected family and other interests, and fought the need for sleep, taking “naps at 11 p.m. and then again at 1, 3, and 4.” When Michel asked: “Aren’t you worried that this will affect your health?” most responded like this Bank A associate: “For the next few years, work has priority. I’ll worry about my health then.” To my question, “What if you do irreversible damage?” many answered, ‘‘I am willing to take that risk.”
The upside of that risk has been uncertain since the crash, too. Young Wall Streeters used to be able to depend on huge cash bonuses to carry them through the long hours, but during the recession layoffs have loomed, and the quick path to millionairedom has slowed.
“You’re working with this constant fear,” one banker told Roose. “You go to this bulletproof firm, it gives you a ton of options, and it’s really self-validating. And then all of the sudden, you have no options, you’re not getting paid nearly as much as you thought, and you might get fired."
Recent studies have shown that young Americans expect more from their work in terms of personal satisfaction and social justice — a sense they are making the world a better place. Banking is a hard sell in that category, especially since the reputation of high finance has taken a black eye since the crash. High-tech firms like Google and startups have the advantage of high pay without the reputation of greed, and have the added cachet of innovation and creativity.
Roose explains that British economist Roger Bootle defined work as "creative" and "distributive" — the first being work that brings something new into the world, the second simply carrying the possibility of beating competitors or winning a bigger market share.
“There are some people who may derive active delight from the knowledge that their working life is devoted to making sure that someone else loses, but most people do not function that way,” he writes. “They like to have a sense of worth, and that sense usually comes from the belief that they are contributing to society.”