An open letter to tormented young bankers everywhere: Stop whining

It doesn’t have to be like this.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Image: Reuters/Andrew Winning
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To the junior bankers of the world,

I read with interest the pseudonymous article one of your number, “Jim”, recently wrote: “Junior bankers’ working conditions are as bad as ever. I should know.”

“Investment banking is not an easy career choice,” Jim said. Indeed. In three years in the industry, he has seen things:

What few appreciate is that the cases of young financiers literally being worked to the point of death are neither uncommon nor a result of freak individual medical conditions. They are the inevitable consequence of a pervasive culture that encourages young bankers to push themselves to the edge again and again. All in an attempt to prove themselves, gain plaudits from their managers and compete for top spot come review season.

I don’t doubt that you work crazy hours, Jim. But let’s get a few things straight. A first-year analyst gets paid $85,000 a year at top-tier banks, meaning you might make more than $100,000 a year now. That’s nearly double the average American or British salary (around $47,000 and $41,000, respectively).

But you are not average. You are university-educated and hand-picked by a major bank after a rigorous and competitive hiring process. You fought to get a not-average job that earns not-average money and makes not-average demands on you.

You did not sign up to be a teacher or a nurse. You decided to be an investment banker, a person who helps secure financing for companies—including schools and hospitals. You help the wheels of capitalism turn.

Your job also comes with perks beyond the pay. Your company pays for dinner if you stay late. It will also spring for a taxi home. Do you think young doctors get the same benefits? Can you imagine a nursing home calling a private car to shuttle caregivers home after a long day of looking after Alzheimer’s patients?

Without a doubt, banks need to improve the work-life balance of their employees. William Cohan wrote movingly about a spate of suicides among younger bankers. Senior bankers should not be jerks. They should not go home to have dinner with their families, waiting until 9pm to send analysts like you a PowerPoint presentation so that you are stuck in the office until 2am. They should spend a bit more time doing the work themselves so you can get home before midnight. And they should properly mentor you, expose you to clients, and of course respect the need for time off on holidays and weekends, without which your brain will turn to porridge.

But let’s be honest here: you picked a career that demands you more or less hand over your 20s and 30s so that you can retire by 50.

I know a lot of investment bankers. They made sacrifices I wouldn’t choose to make. Year after year, they left for work at 6am and came home at 11pm. They missed birthdays and anniversaries. More than a few blew up their marriages and barely know their kids.

But they knew the risks—and rewards. Today they have a degree of financial security utterly foreign to most 40-somethings. Peter Solomon, a veteran Wall Street banker, once told me that the social contract for bankers was clear: in good times the bank pays you obscene amounts of money and in bad times it fires you. Maybe that could be improved, but it would probably mean that you get paid less. Are you okay with that?

Jim, you are probably a talented guy. You could put your skills to work in a less high-octane field, and probably do well for yourself. (Maybe avoid tech—rumor has it things aren’t so warm and fuzzy there these days.) I can assure you there is balance out there if you seek it.

If you stay in banking, the trajectory of your career—economic conditions permitting—is rocket-like. You will meet fascinating people and ink deals in exclusive, oak-paneled boardrooms. If you are at Goldman Sachs, you might become Treasury secretary someday. You will face tough decisions later in life, like where to buy a second home, whether to go for the BMW or the Benz, and which Caribbean island is best to visit at certain times of the year.

But as the economists say, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Millennials like you are right to push companies to improve. As my colleague Heather Landy pointed out when Netflix adopted a generous parental leave policy:

American millennials, famous for their progressive attitudes and strong sense of entitlement, look to be forcing the hand of US employers in competitive sectors like technology to vie for their talent and retention—in ways that previous generations never would have even thought to ask for.

But you have to own it, Jim. If you are going to complain about working Sundays or having to respond to emails while on vacation, admit you picked this career and get paid handsomely for it. Then ditch the pseudonym and the whining and demand the change you want.