If anyone outside banking knows about the banking mindset, it’s Joris Luyendijk. Between 2011 and 2013, the Dutch author and journalist spent two years interviewing ‘banking insiders’ for an anthropological blog on banking culture for the Guardian newspaper. Today, fresh from writing a book on that period, his observations are as pertinent as ever.
“Working in banking is about submission,” says Luyendijk. “Front office finance careers are about entering into a bubble in which you submit totally to work and to corporate goals. There’s no space for anything else.”
Luyendijk spoke to over 100 people working in the City of London, including analysts and MDs in corporate finance. He spoke to former M&A bankers and to interns. Of the people he spoke to, he said few comprehended the implications of embarking upon a career in an investment banking division (IBD). “Everyone told me that they hadn’t really understood what working 80 hours a week would be like. You lose control of your life. You’re working all the time and you’re never sure when you’ll be off.”
The result is that young people in IBD end up isolated from the world outside finance. Worryingly, Luyendijk says this is often the precursor to a lifetime of social separation. “You work extremely hard until you’re 30. Then the pressure diminishes slightly, but by that time you’re earning so much money that there’s an immense gap between the you and the rest of society. You end up living in a bubble in which your professional life and social and coincide.”
In this context, Luyendijk argues that morality becomes subverted to hard work and that social signifiers outside work are important to your professional success.
“When young bankers spoke of ethics, it was often in the context of ‘work ethic’,” says Luyendijk. “Banking itself is amoral – it’s about playing the game better than anyone else within the law. The young bankers I spoke to instead felt ethical and good about themselves through the long hours and ‘professionalism’ they were putting into work.”
As you become more senior in banking, Luyendijk argues that it becomes necessary to conform to lifestyle expectations if you want to progress. “I spoke to senior bankers who said it was important to project success in the way they lived. They needed to signal their intention to go all the way and that meant sending their children to private schools, living in the right areas, wearing the right kind of expensive watches.”
As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult to extricate yourself from a front office finance role. “Almost everyone I spoke to said they ‘weren’t doing this forever,” says Luyendijk. “They all had their exit points, but as they became more isolated that exit point moved up as their pay increased. One day I’d interview someone who said they’d leave when they earned £100k a year; the next day I’d speak to someone who said they’d leave when they earned £250k. It was quite touching and tragic.”
What did people want to do instead of working in finance? They wanted to write screenplays, says Luyendijk. They wanted to become documentary film directors, or novelists. “They didn’t seem to realize that it’s as difficult to get a book published or to write a successful screenplay as it is to get ahead in finance,” he says. “People spend years working on their craft. You can’t go from working in structured credit for 10 years to writing your screenplay.”
Few of the finance professionals Luyendijk spoke to were prepared to accept this, however. “Part of the culture of finance is that you can do anything. You’re part of an elite,” says Luyendijk. “When I pointed out that it’s hard to make it in a creative career, they would smile politely as if to say ‘not for me’.”
Luyendijk says almost all of those who left finance ended coming back in some form or another. “You take some time out and you realize that being a documentary film maker isn’t going to be that easy. – You won’t get the status you had in your finance bubble. And then at some point a finance job offer comes up. That kind of easy validation is again on offer again, and so you go back. But this time, it’s with your eyes open. – People will say that the money is just too good to pass up.”
And if you want to get out of finance forever? Go and work for a university, says Luyendijk: “The most successful exits were people who went into academia.”