How Bankers Live With Themselves

One man conducted hundreds of interviews to understand the motivation and morality of those in the finance industry.

Eddie Keough / Reuters

How can bankers live with themselves after the destruction wrought by their industry? That’s in part what the Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk sets out to uncover in his new book, Among the Bankers: A Journey Into the Heart of Finance, which was published overseas last year under the title Swimming with Sharks. The book attempts to lay bare not the technical workings of a very opaque industry, but the emotional and moral considerations of those who operate within it.

Luyendijk, a reporter at The Guardian who has a background in anthropology, poses that question of conscience over and over again. To answer it, he conducted hundreds of interviews with people who work in the City, London’s version of Wall Street.

Early on, Luyendijk finds out that despite an unwritten code of silence, bankers are eager to talk about their jobs once promised anonymity. They tell him candid tales of the long hours, the competitive culture, the money, the stress. One woman said of her colleague, “I sit next to this girl who has a son whom she never sees. She gets in early, goes out very late, and the nanny sits at home.” Some are desperate to brag to Luyendijk about their clients or their best deal; others want to share how bad they feel, how uncomfortable they are with the depiction of their work. “Banking today is like playing Russian roulette with someone else’s head,” one banker said.

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.

Changing a system in which one is in some way complicit is difficult. More than that, the hierarchy of banking means that those in fields like compliance can feel belittled or powerless to confront or rein in the ambitions of front-office workers and executives, whose risky but profitable strategies keep the entire operation afloat. “Nobody ever challenges the front office,” one compliance officer told Luyendijk. After all, if a bank goes down, its compliance officers do too. And, as Luyendijk finds out, the employees in the financial industry vastly outnumber those at regulatory agencies, plus they’re paid better and better equipped to pivot quickly, leaving regulators to play catch up. It’s no wonder banking culture has been so difficult to reform.

What Luyendijk finds is that piecemeal changes to the financial industry won’t create the change that many are hungry for; that would require a massive overhaul of the entire system. Luyendijk describes his prescription as “not repairs or a major clean-up but a completely new DNA,” the sort brought about by huge shifts in law and policy. So far, that type of change is nowhere to be found. There is no happy ending or clear solution at the end of Among the Bankers, and though frustrating, that’s at least an honest conclusion about an often exasperating industry.