Over a few beers after work one spring evening, two junior Goldman Sachs employees started contemplating the best ways to kill themselves.
“If the goal is, like, how do I inflict maximum psychological damage, then I think just going up to your desk and blowing your brains out in the middle of the day would be the best,” said Jeremy Miller-Reed, 23.
“Nah,” said Samson White, 22. “You know what would happen? All the other analysts would get an e-mail from the associates saying, ‘Can you guys clean this up?’ And then everyone would go back to work.”
Jeremy and Samson—I’ve changed their names to protect their anonymity—were first-year analysts at Goldman. They’d arrived from their Ivy League campuses less than a year before, fresh-faced and idealistic. Jeremy had gotten placed in commodities, and Samson had made a home in the firm’s mortgage division. Good friends since their summer internships the year before, they’d been excited, at first, to join the ranks and get to work making money. But quickly, their enthusiasm had been buried underneath massive piles of work, grueling hours, and unforgiving bosses. In one particularly bleak moment, they’d started calling Goldman’s downtown headquarters “Azkaban,” after the prison in the Harry Potter series where inmates’ souls are sucked from their bodies.
For my new book, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits, I spent three years shadowing eight young Wall Street workers, including Jeremy and Samson. Given the rollicking depictions of finance life we see in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street, and the fact that these jobs are extremely well-paid—first-year investment bankers make anywhere from $90,000 to $140,000, including year-end bonuses—you might think that my eight banker informants were living the good life. But in three years, hardly an interview went by without a young banker confessing his or her struggles with depression and health problems, expressing a desire to quit, or simply complaining about how working in finance was ruining the pleasures of normal life.
Why are young bankers so uniformly miserable? After spending many, many hours in their company, I think at least three factors explain why Wall Street is a singularly unpleasant place for young people to work.
1. The Hours
Wall Street is notorious for the long hours it imposes on its worker bees. (One young banker bragged to me about working the “banker 9-to-5,” defined as 9 a.m. until 5 a.m. the next day.) But lots of professions – law and medicine, to name just two – work their underlings hard. What makes banking different is that the work can arrive at any moment, unannounced and requiring immediate attention. If a client needs a PowerPoint presentation at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning, a junior banker will have to wake up and get to the office.
What this means, in practice, is that young bankers live in a state of perpetual anxiety, and advance planning becomes impossible. Boyfriends and girlfriends get upset about broken dinner plans, friends and family members become estranged, and phones function as third limbs. This unpredictability, combined with the sheer number of hours involved, takes a toll. A recent academic study of young bankers by a University of Southern California business school professor named Alexandra Michel underscored the vital, even bodily, nature of the transformation that is taking place during a banker’s first years. Michel wrote:
During years 1–3, bankers construed their bodies as objects that the mind controls. They worked long hours, neglected family and hobbies, and fought their [bodies’] needs in order to enhance productivity. They suppressed the need for prolonged sleep, taking “naps at 11 p.m. and then again at 1, 3, and 4.” When I 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.”
Recently, Wall Street banks have tried to ease up on young workers by, in many cases, giving them the weekends off. But will the new rules really mean a lighter workload? Or will the weekdays become even more painful to make up for missed Saturdays?
All eight of the young bankers I followed entered the financial industry after the crash of 2008 and saw a wildly different scene than they’d imagined as college students. Thousands of bankers were being laid off, firms were chopping off entire divisions, and pay for everyone had come down to levels that, while still lucrative by any real-world measure, were far lower than they’d been before the crash.