Wall Street's millennial crisis: For young people, the spell has worn off

Author Kevin Roose explains why fewer and fewer young people are succumbing to the allure of high finance

By Peter Finocchiaro

Published February 22, 2014 9:00PM (EST)

Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street."       (Reuters)
Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street." (Reuters)

A half-decade after the financial crash, with Wall Street's ruinous misdeeds receding into the past, it might seem like the world of investment banking has been practically absolved of its sins.

Bankers themselves have certainly done their best to encourage the impression that they've repented: Bonuses are down. New standards were (grudgingly) implemented. Even their once-extravagant holiday parties have been scaled back to human levels of decadence.

But in a remarkable scene toward the end of Kevin Roose's new book, "Young Money," the banking world's bad behavior is once again cast in sharp relief. In it, Roose describes how he sneaked his way into a lavish gathering of Wall Street's most exclusive secret society, Kappa Beta Phi. Among the gathered horde of investment-banking executives and private-equity moguls -- "If you had dropped a bomb on the roof, global finance as we know it might have ceased to exist " -- poor taste was as bountiful as top-shelf champagne. Over the course of the proceedings (which Roose first wrote about for the New York Times in 2012) the attendees casually traded jokes laced with sexism and homophobia, and evinced an startling elitism that would make even Uncle Pennybags blush. By all appearances, these people had learned almost nothing from the (very recent) past.

Which gets at a larger point: While much has changed since 2008, the leadership at the top of the financial pyramid remains largely the same, ensconced in the protective armor of its staggering wealth. But what about the next generation of Wall Street leaders? Will they turn out exactly like their predecessors?

In the course of writing "Young Money," Roose spent three years following the career development of eight recent Wall Street hires, from the moment they were first introduced into the crucible of high finance. Along the way, as Roose documents with both candor and empathy, their mettle and their principles were repeatedly put to the test. Many of these young people, once the crush of Wall Street's torturous work schedule sank in, evan began questioning the value of the industry into which they had enlisted.

Last week, I spoke with Roose about the major generational shift that's shaken the foundations of investment banking, and solicited his forecast for the future of the industry. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I think a lot of people right now associate working on Wall Street with an environment along the lines of "The Wolf of Wall Street." But one of the first things that struck me about your book was how life for a young  banker is in many ways exactly the opposite of that. Were you surprised?

I had the same impression you had. I thought Wall Street was all cocaine and strippers and million-dollar bonuses. It turns out not to be the case at all for the people who are on the young end of it. It’s still a place where people make good money: As a 23-year-old you can make more than $100,000 straight out of college. But the culture is much more subdued now. I think most of it has to do with the crash of 2008 and what happened after that: Regulation began to be implemented, and profits fell, and banks became much more austere places.

Young bankers sort of bore the brunt of that. They work these insane hours and they are tasked with some of the most boring, menial work you can imagine. I don’t think they would have the time to go and get drunk even if they wanted to. There’s a thing called the “banker’s nine-to-five,” where you work from 9 a.m. until 5 a.m. the next morning. That’s something [young bankers] all talk about having done at some point in their career.

So you’re right. It’s very much not a "Wolf of Wall Street" culture anymore. In some ways it’s a lot less fun, and a lot more hard work in an unforgiving work environment.

Speaking of the "banker's nine-to-five," there’s actually been something like a national conversation recently about the insane hours that young bankers are working. The New Yorker, for example, published an article last month about how, from an empirical standpoint, working people that hard is just not productive, because efficiency goes down substantially after a certain number of hours worked. But it seems like there's been a lot of resistance in the financial world to changing anything about the way work is structured. Why is that?

Well, in the reporting that I did, and the people that I talked to, I came away with two answers to the question of why these guys are put through such a crucible.

The first is that these banks are essentially client service businesses. So, if your client is Coca-Cola ,and you’re Goldman Sachs, and Coca-Cola needs a spreadsheet changed at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning, it’s your job to do that. So banks actually need to be staffed by hundreds of young people who can jump into action at any moment. The second part, and the thing that I was surprised by: A lot of the young bankers that I talked to sort of took pride in the hours that they worked, in a way to separate themselves from people in other industries.

There’s a thing called “misery poker” where they compare their work loads: One guy will say, "I’m staffed on three deals and I pulled four all-nighters last week"; and the next  guy will go, "Oh, that’s nothing, I pulled six all-nighters last week.” So there’s really a sort of status symbol in the amount you work. And for the firm it’s also useful because you’re trying to find out from your young analysts who is real Wall Street material. One of the ways you can do that is by pushing them all to the brink and seeing who sinks and who swims.

I should also say that this is terrifying in a way. These are the people who are managing our 401Ks and overseeing these million-dollar transactions. And on the bottom level, the real work is being done by these young people who are getting two hours sleep a night. So I think that should give us a lot of pause, as people who consume the products that these banks offer.

Some of the people you followed seemed to really push back at that culture, to resent this system that was working them into the ground. Is that kind of resistance becoming more common? Especially after the financial crash and Occupy Wall Street, are young bankers thinking more critically about the places where they’re working?

The culture definitely doesn’t go unquestioned. All of the eight young bankers I followed questioned, at some point, the culture of the institution. But, more to your point, that sort of the work environment has become much less widely tolerated because bankers are looking out to Silicon Valley -- where people wear jeans to work, and work relatively normal hours, and are making a ton of money. And they say, "Well, if they can do that, why do I have to stay here in the office in my suit until 4 a.m.?"

And I think for a lot of them it comes down to … well, all workplace politics is local, so for a lot of the people I followed, the banking schedule really took a toll on their personal lives. I followed people whose girlfriend or boyfriends broke up with them because they were never available or were always canceling dinner at the last minute because they got called back to work. So for a lot of them, I think it’s that stuff, more than the big picture of morality, that ends up pushing them out of the industry. It’s just a miserable way to spend your first two years out of college.

You mention how, in the years directly preceding the financial crisis, students from elite colleges were flocking at a ridiculous rate to investment banks. Princeton one year sent  40 percent of its graduates into finance. But as you noted, that's started to change. And what I'm wondering is, do you think that pressure could force Wall Street to make even bigger changes to how it does business?  Or, when things start getting good again, will they just go back to the way things were before?

Well, to the second part of your question: Things have already gotten good for the banks themselves. Stocks are high, profits are recovering, and these banks are no longer in the existential-crisis mode. But I think they do have a recruiting problem, and I think the problem is that the next generation just isn’t all that interested in investment banking. It’s not the sort of indicator of status that it once was. One of the people I followed told me that the new status jobs aren’t at Goldman Sachs, they’re at Google and Apple and Facebook. So if you’re a Princeton graduate or a Yale graduate or a Harvard graduate trying to figure out what’s going to set you up for success, you’re actually more likely now to go out to Silicon Valley or do Teach for America, or something else like that, than you are to go to Wall Street. It provides a much more pleasant experience.

I think that’s a good thing. It makes me hopeful that there are more choices today, that if you go to one of these schools that tend to feed people to Wall Street, it’s no longer the case that all of your friends are going into finance, or all of your friends are going into consulting. There are many more options available to people now. And I think the rest of the economy is going to be stronger for that.

One of the areas where, from reading your book, I didn’t necessarily see a whole lot of progress was in terms of racial and gender politics. One of the people you followed, for example, was a young black man who was subtly made to feel very conscious about his race. Another of them went to an advocacy event for women on Wall Street, and found herself disillusioned about the industry's progress. In both of those cases there didn’t seem to be a lot of forward momentum. How big of a problem is that? And what will it actually take for Wall Street to become more inclusive?

I absolutely think it’s a problem, and it’s a pervasive problem.

There are no female CEOs on Wall Street. If you look at the management committees of these big banks, they are dominated by white men. I think it’s getting better. But it’s not just Wall Street. If you look at the Fortune 500, it’s largely white males running those companies too. I do think Wall Street has a special role and a special duty to make themselves as egalitarian as possible -- and I think they’re trying to do that -- but they keep making all these, sort of, dumb mistakes. Just recently, Goldman Sachs was doing an event at Harvard for female computer programmers, and the gifts they gave out at the conference were nail files and vanity mirrors.

I think part of what the young bankers I followed were struggling with is that in some ways Wall Street still carries remnants of its "old boy" culture. And you can chip away at that, but it takes a while.

The central conflict of your book seemed to be the collision of young bankers' idealism and optimism with that "old boy" culture, and the difficulty your subjects had in reconciling the two. What happens when they can't? Are these kids you followed around, who seemed very fresh and optimistic at first, are they going to eventually end up just as cynical as the people who came before them? 

You know, before I started writing this book I was very pessimistic. I thought, the markets will recover, the firms will live, and it will all go back to business as usual. But after spending three years with these young bankers, I feel much more optimistic. Even the bankers who are staying in finance and who still work in the industry, they think about their work much more holistically than the people who came before them. It’s not just Gordon Gekko, and "greed is good." "Let’s make as much as we can." They actually want to, sort of, do something to improve the world. For a lot of people on Wall Street, especially young people, there’s a new sort of moral fabric that didn’t exist before.

It’s certainly not night and day. There are still people doing crooked things on Wall Street. I’m sure there will still be insider trading and accounting fraud and all manner of wrongdoing. That hasn’t changed. But I think that the industry now has been forced to look in the mirror and say: "Do we want to keep being hated? Do we want to keep causing misery in people’s lives? Or do we want to do the things that banks used to do, um, giving people loans and financing deals and making the grinding gears of capitalism run?"

I doubt any of the young people I followed will end of being the, sort of, tone-deaf fat cats that we see today. You never know, but I’m hopeful.

Peter Finocchiaro

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