In Young Money, Kevin Roose investigates why young people still seek jobs on Wall Street even after the crash of 2008 revealed it to be a seeping moral gutter. Roose, a writer for New York magazine, is something of a specialist in reporting on publicity-averse subcultures. In 2009, he published an undercover account of student life at Liberty University—the sprawling evangelical college that the late Jerry Falwell founded in Lynchburg, Virginia—after attending the school for a semester. Here, he employs a similar technique—but instead of enlisting for Wall Street duty himself, he reports on the experiences of eight young people who have just launched their careers in finance. He charts their progress from 2010 to 2013, as they toil away in the industry’s most demanding entry-level positions: junior analysts on the sell side of the biggest banks’ front offices.
In 2010, a fifth of Harvard seniors who had jobs at graduation were headed into the financial-services sector, and at Princeton the proportion was more than 35 percent. The reason for Wall Street’s successful recruitment is simple, and it’s not just about the money: According to Roose, college students are afraid of making risky decisions about their futures. Mostly recruited from elite schools, young bankers are often poster children for the meritocratic ideal. They usually belong to the tiny percentage of Ivy League students who have clawed their way into a prestigious position, and are thus heavily invested in preserving their self-images as supercompetent achievers who are a cut above other young people.
At the same time, Roose notes, many of these students are graduating with debt and cannot afford to take jobs that do not pay well. Finance firms are aware of these anxieties, and by preying on them, they’ve created what Roose calls a “generation of accidental financiers.” For these people, taking a lucrative job in finance and following the standard program for junior investment bankers—two years at the firm that hires them, two years at business school for an MBA, then back to the Street—is a savvy, career-stabilizing move. “The recruiting process,” Roose writes, “often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.”
The grimmest part of Young Money is Roose’s depiction of the miserable demands that banks make on their youngest employees. The book’s close-in chronicle of this process is light, but it rests on more rigorous recent work about Wall Street, most notably anthropologist Karen Ho’s 2009 Liquidated, which details the basic techniques that banks use to initiate recruits into the culture of finance. These include isolating them from the outside world, breaking them down physically with sleep deprivation and other side effects of ceaseless work, and demanding total loyalty. Junior analysts often live together, and over the course of sixteen-hour days and hundred-hour workweeks, they gradually separate themselves from nonfinance workers, loved ones, romantic partners, and old friends. At the office, banks cut off access to outside e-mail, social media, and nonauthorized messaging systems, replacing all these conduits to the outside world with their own company-monitored systems. Under this comprehensive regime of social exclusion, Wall Street’s young workers are far more likely to communicate only with one another.
Recruits also have no control over their schedules. Upper management can, and often does, summon them back to work at will. Almost all of Roose’s subjects end up losing their significant others after one too many broken dinner dates. Everything about Wall Street’s management style is designed to reinforce the idea that the bank is the sole priority for its young workforce. A common interview question asks whether you would skip your best friend’s wedding at the last minute to meet with a client. “The correct way to answer,” Roose writes, is to “express the fact that you understand the hardships that an I-banking career would involve, and that you have endured such sacrifice situations previously.” As he notes, a more honest answer might be: “Yes, sir, I will absolutely miss my best friend’s wedding to sit silently in this half-hour meeting, where I will say nothing and have no discernible impact on anything.”
Midway through Young Money, I started keeping a list of the drugs that Roose’s young financiers were using to keep up with their punishing work schedules: Adderall, Modafinil, 5-hour Energy, more Adderall, Red Bull, whatever happens to fuel “amphetaminic all-nighters,” weed to come down, and ’shrooms to escape the gray realities hounding them from their spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations. Not surprisingly, these kids often break down emotionally as they deteriorate physically. Determined to make it through their initial two years, they undergo personality changes: They’re drugged, sleep deprived, twitchy from living on someone else’s schedule, and depressed from the lack of any sustained friendships or sense of purpose in their lives.
They also suffer from an acute form of social myopia. The more the recruits rationalize the hell they put themselves through, the less they think about the larger ramifications of their work. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with the ideology of finance, they cling to it—or at least find ingenious ways of sidestepping its thornier ethical quandaries. Many of Roose’s young bankers, for example, are sympathetic—or at least not overtly hostile—to the Occupy Wall Street movement. But a common complaint they make is that the protests targeted all of Wall Street when they should have just targeted a few irresponsible leaders. “If a person in the NHL got charged with rape tomorrow,” asks one J.P. Morgan analyst, “would ESPN say that all hockey players are rapists?” None of the protagonists seem inclined to endorse any systematic explanation of the financial crisis. Instead, they come off as white-collar drones, happy to write off the calamity of 2008 as the handiwork of a few bad apples.
Roose gives readers a glimpse of the longer-term cultural damage wrought by such unreflective fealty when he infiltrates the annual black-tie induction dinner of Kappa Beta Phi, “Wall Street’s most secretive fraternity.” The room is so packed with billionaire bankers and deal makers that “if you had dropped a bomb on the roof, global finance as we know it might have ceased to exist.” By the end of Roose’s time at the dinner (he is discovered, hauled out, and nervously offered favor-trading bribes by the assembled Wall Street titans), the bomb almost sounds like an appealing option. While they gorge themselves on foie gras, the (mostly) men who destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives mock Occupy and perform a series of repulsive skits. For example: “Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of ‘Dixie.’” Should the young recruits succeed on Wall Street’s terms, Roose suggests, this is what they have to look forward to.
When they start out in banking, most new employees don’t know much about the profession. They just want the prestige and income that go with a Wall Street nameplate—and they also seem to genuinely believe recruiters’ claims that once they’ve proved themselves in these elite jobs, they can do anything. The implicit promise is that by going into finance, they can join the class of smart, rich, important kings of the world. But it would be more accurate to say that after a grueling entry-level job at a Wall Street firm, most young employees can find work somewhere in finance. They’re prepared for, say, a job at a university endowment or in private equity. Only those at the pinnacle of the banking hierarchy find power in the field itself.
Roose’s subjects, it seems, got wise to the empty promises: By the end of the book, many of them have left their banks for tech start-ups or lower-pressure financial firms. The worst components of the young bankers’ jobs—no control over working hours, serious health risks from overwork, constant surveillance, no protection from exploitation or arbitrary firing—had worn them down. It speaks volumes about the state of working America in the wake of the ’08 meltdown that this litany of grievances sounds a lot like the conditions that the worst-off American workers in other fields have been fighting tooth and nail. Fast-food workers, for example, have been battling their bosses over abrupt shifts in their work schedules, and Walmart employees who’ve sought to organize their colleagues are focusing on trying to get laws against retaliatory firings enforced. Setting aside the obvious gaps in base salary—and any remote suggestion of moral equivalence between the financial and service sectors of the economy—it’s nonetheless striking that the same conditions that have sparked mounting anger and solidarity among low-wage American workers are cementing class ties within the financial elite. Indeed, when Roose’s chastened dropouts get some more distance from the experience, they might well marvel at just what alleged career incentives could have driven them to such extremes of body-breaking overwork. But Young Money makes it amply clear why, in the moment, these sleep-deprived twenty-two-year-olds can’t help but regard such introspection as a luxury they can’t afford. All they’re doing in the unyielding rounds of their junior-banking lives, Roose writes, is “trying to keep from drowning.”
Sarah Leonard is an editor of Dissent and the New Inquiry, and coeditor of The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century (Metropolitan, 2014).