Young Bankers Have an Absurd Work Life
Office workers wearing protective face masks walk across across the plaza outside the Torre Picasso skyscraper in Madrid, Spain. (Photographer: Paul Hanna/Bloomberg)

Young Bankers Have an Absurd Work Life

In the first episode of “Industry,” a BBC and HBO television drama about young investment bankers, the depiction of their world couldn’t be bleaker: A graduate trainee dies in the office toilet after pulling several all-nighters.

Both writers of the cult show had left banking disenchanted by their own experiences, and they had a real example to give the plotline substance. In 2013 a summer intern at Bank of America Corp. in London died from an epileptic seizure caused by overwork.

What has changed at Wall Street firms eight years later? If a presentation put together by disgruntled graduates at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is any clue, nothing at all. The 13 analysts complain about 100-hour weeks and a severe deterioration in their physical and mental health. “There was a point where I was not eating, showering or doing anything else other than working from morning until after midnight,” said one.

As our colleague Matt Levine points out, working crazy hours to meet unrealistic deadlines is a regular thing in banking, a rite of passage that bestows honor on rising stars. The client always comes first, and because bankers are paid well they should put up accordingly, others argue:

But this attitude belongs to a different era, not one where work-life balance and mental health are taken seriously (at least that’s what employers always say they’re doing). The pandemic was meant to help, as working from home allowed people to avoid competitive presenteeism. It may be making things worse.

Why is it necessary for promising, diligent twentysomethings to endure harrowing work conditions? This question goes to the heart of investment banking’s view of itself as something special. For sure, it’s busy in the financial markets right now — as ever — and the boom for special purpose acquisition vehicles means there’s lots of deal work around. Why not hire more juniors rather than flogging them to death?

The “Industry” drama’s set-up is interesting in that two women attempt to challenge the office culture, but it’s notable that they fail and the macho trading floor prevails — with the implication being that this is somehow integral to doing banking properly. Some of the juniors in the show love the adrenaline of a dysfunctional workplace. That doesn’t mean they’re right. Elite careers in the 2020s need to move on.

Another oft-asked question is whether bank leaders are considering the consequences of extreme working for the broader firm culture. That’s probably naive: This is the workplace culture. Goldman says it’s addressing the issues, but we’ve heard similar before. One hopes this latest example marks a turning point, without feeling any great confidence.

Back in the mid-2010s, a spate of work-related deaths among junior bankers spurred moves by Goldman, Bank of America and others to enforce at least one day of rest over the weekend. It turns out old habits die hard, according to the analysts’ slide deck. The contributors suggest that Saturday working should be an exception, requiring official preapproval, and that a cap is needed on weekly hours. That seems like a sensible and overdue place to start.

The banks’ leadership failures are particularly harmful during a pandemic. If junior bankers were stressed before Covid, remote working will have only deepened their anxiety.

To start with, there’s the prevailing sense of guilt. Sitting at home during the lockdowns rather than at a workplace breeds guilt in all of us — the worry of “being on” at all hours. This applies even more to new starters desperate to make an impression. An internship is always precarious and WFH has fanned unhealthy competition to be that overkeen, serial workaholic, volunteering to do that weekend project.

What’s more, senior staffers — stuck at home with kids — are going to be much more tempted to push tasks down the food chain. They had to go through it and they survived, right? It’s this attitude that’s hardest to shift.

Firms have a responsibility to monitor work rates, not only to prevent slacking during WFH but to prevent abuse. The absence of bystanders as most staff operate from home should make employers more sensitive to potential bullying and overwork. Of the 13 analysts, 10 said they were a victim of abuse. Juicy bonuses won’t compensate for long-term damage to their health — mental or otherwise.

The hazing culture also thrives at the law firms, management consultants and accountants that serve finance. And the solution for everyone couldn't be simpler: Hire more graduates to adjust to business needs more rapidly. It really isn’t complicated to figure out that if juniors are doing anywhere near 100 hours a week regularly then the firm is understaffed. It’s hard to recruit without face-to-face contact but the mental health of new employees must be the priority. A free Peloton bike or funky new iPhone won’t help.

JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s Jamie Dimon was right to note last year that problems at home — namely “mental health, domestic abuse, substance abuse, et cetera” — had focused minds on getting staff back into the office. We’ve also heard a lot about banks not being able to instill their culture into new staff. But what if that culture was bad in the first place?

Investment banking is no longer the career choice it was in previous decades. Smart minds may prefer Silicon Valley and Seattle to Wall Street. Absurd working practices will help them decide.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Marcus Ashworth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European markets. He spent three decades in the banking industry, most recently as chief markets strategist at Haitong Securities in London.

Elisa Martinuzzi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering finance. She is a former managing editor for European finance at Bloomberg News.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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