Unlike many finance-centric books, Luyendijk goes beyond the front-office—an industry term that refers to those in the professions most often seen in the movies: traders, investment bankers, deal makers, financial advisors. These workers, particularly the male ones, were full of bravado when responding to Luyendijk, and some had quick dismissals for every critique of the industry: The City pays a ton in taxes, creates jobs, and supports much of London, they argued.
But these workers make up only a fraction of the thousands of bank employees who work in compliance, human resources, IT, and a variety of other critical roles. This group gets little of the limelight and often little respect from those who earn higher salaries and bonuses. And yet, Luyendijk finds, they still have strong feelings about working for a bank. Even if they aren’t the ones pricing deals or making trades, they feel pride or shame at being associated with the industry. “You become part of the fabric of the place. Then they dispose of you,” one woman, who had worked in support roles for over a decade, told Luyendijk after being fired. Still, upon receiving the news, she went back to her desk and started sending emails about an ongoing project to ensure that her colleagues, and the bank, wouldn’t suffer from her absence. Perhaps one of the most important contributions of Luyendijk’s book is in giving voice to these people, who support—and, in some cases, enable—the financial industry.
Among the Bankers shows just how intricate and fractured the global banking system is, with departments within the same bank unaware of what their own companies are doing. That makes the banks not only too big to fail, but possibly too big to manage. Their sheer size creates two problems: the inability to identify and remedy problems—such as rogue traders—but also a culture that allows for the plausible deniability of its leadership. Luyendijk concludes that bank employees—often singled out as the driving force behind the economic collapse—aren’t solely to blame. There is a system that pushes them to take risks and a culture that shames anyone who admits errors or weakness; these factors, Luyendijk argues, are more culpable than any single person or even any group of people.
The book illustrates what many who have ever ventured into banking, or know someone who did, probably knows: that it is more often than not an all-consuming job that pushes workers to conform or burn out. In one conversation, a young banker describes making $60,000 per year before his bonus, and how it quickly warped his sense of money. “I would spend $300 on a night out and think nothing of it,” said the interviewee. In another conversation, the author asks a banker if he has any friends outside of finance. He responds by saying, “When you make $100,000 a month you basically don’t have common interests with your friends anymore.” That can change the way people dress and behave and can create complex feelings of loyalty to an industry that has proven itself to be mostly indifferent to outside conceptions of morality. “I have found that many outsiders are deeply reluctant to accept that to an important degree the financial world isn’t populated by people willfully doing evil, but by conformists who have simply stopped asking questions about right and wrong,” Luyendijk writes.