Wall Street's New Left: Millennials See a Politics Beyond Profit
(Bloomberg) -- For 65 hours a week, Zack Truelson works for Wall Street’s hyper-capitalists. On weekends, he hits the streets for America’s socialists.
Truelson, 27, is part of a new generation in finance that has embraced progressive politics as never before. Even on Wall Street, 20- and 30-somethings have drifted left since Bernie Sanders injected democratic socialism into presidential politics in 2016.
It might seem like an awkward shift in a business where money is the ultimate measure. But Wall Street no longer wears its old pretensions on pin-striped sleeves. While a strong streak of economic conservatism still runs through finance -- the Street, after all, believes in markets -- the industry and its politics keep evolving.
Nowadays banks and investment firms vie with Silicon Valley for top talent. Everyone wants to hire global, tech-savvy elites, many of whom lean left. For millennials, climate change, inequality and health care rank among their top concerns.
“In the younger crowd of finance, you have more who are more open to the democratic socialist economic side of things,” said Truelson, a technology coordinator for S-Network Global Indexes in New York, calculating stock market indexes and running data analysis on mergers and acquisitions worth billions.
With the November midterm elections ahead, Truelson has been volunteering for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the former Sanders organizer who’s running for Congress and wants to tax Wall Street to pay for free public universities and to protect consumers from the risks of investment banking.
Candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez; Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat facing incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in Texas; and Ayanna Pressley, the Democratic nominee for a U.S. House seat in greater Boston, have attracted a cohort of supporters whose daytime jobs focus more on stock prices and market trends than polls and policy.
Gus Christensen, 46, a former investment banker who ran unsuccessfully for the New York General Assembly as a Democrat, said the party is being transformed by people in their 20s and 30s.
“They’re dragging it into a more economically leftist position, and that’s what’s controversial on Wall Street,” said Christensen, who worked at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and is now a partner in a real estate investment firm.
Decades ago, buttoned-down bankers clustered in Republican enclaves like Greenwich, Connecticut. The money grew bigger and drew graduates of top universities who brought cosmopolitan outlooks along with a healthy appreciation of cash. Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both cultivated donors from banks. And technology not only sped trading, but it opened bank doors to workers equally interested in high finance and higher math.
Wall Street must accommodate those employees’ views because the companies now compete with liberal employers in Silicon Valley, said Jeff Hauser, who works at the left-leaning Center for Economic & Policy Research in Washington.
“Wall Street has been falling behind,” he said. “Silicon Valley is the quirky fun place for young people. If companies were to try to restrain younger employees, it would make it even more difficult to recruit.”
The shift of these younger financiers toward the Democratic party is no stampede, but it mirrors a generational trend. According to the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of registered voters between the ages of 22 and 37 identify as Democrats, compared with 48 percent of those from 38 to 72.
Chris Hollins, a lawyer who previously advised public-sector agencies as a manager at consulting firm McKinsey & Co., works as finance chair for the Texas Democratic Party in Houston, supporting candidates like O’Rourke, whose grassroots campaign is threatening to topple Cruz.
“I would definitely put myself in the progressive camp,” said Hollins, 32. “Economic equality is a huge issue. I’m very fervently in support of there being a social safety net, especially for people who are elderly or injured or disabled.”
He credits much of his mindset to living through the recession and watching peers struggle with the burden of paying for college. The average student-loan debt in the U.S. is $32,731, according to the Federal Reserve.
Daniel Iken, a 26-year-old employee of Austin financial consultant 9Gauge Partners, canvasses for O’Rourke in brew pubs.
“The American dream is to go to college and move forward, and that dream doesn’t really exist anymore,” Iken said. “Although the economy has gone back, we haven’t really seen much wage growth. It hasn’t trickled down to other people. It’s very much concentrated in that top percentile.”
Last year’s Republican-led tax plan, which reduced income taxes for those earning more than $500,000 to 37 percent from 39.6 percent, doesn’t benefit many younger finance workers.
“There’s a fiscally conservative strain in the finance industry, but it’s not as prevalent among 25-year-olds,” said Michael Cohen, a 26-year-old New York software engineer who worked as an equity-research associate at Citigroup Inc. “When you’re bringing in a lot of money per year, you’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to pay that much to the government.’ I don’t think it’s too complicated.”
Seth Barron, an analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said he expects such policies to grow on young Wall Street employees.
“People who are at a junior stage in their career who are less impacted by a progressive tax policy will favor a more progressive tax policy," he said. "As people move up the economic ladder, their own self-interest will typically kick in."
Indeed, the extent that millennials are shifting Wall Street to the left is up for debate. New York University professor Roy Smith, a former Goldman Sachs partner, said the conservative economic mindset remains strong.
“Almost everybody who works in the financial industry agrees with the notion of free trade, free market and competition,” he said.
But Truelson said that many young finance workers are fed up with what they view as corruption and backward-looking social policy, leaving them no choice but to support Democrats.
“Maybe they don’t agree with all of the economic policy positions, but they are concerned about these things, and they aren’t seeing other politicians in other parties addressing them,” he said.
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