Junior bankers in Singapore and Hong Kong say falling headcounts at many global firms in the region are helping to create a more cutthroat working environment in the finance sector. And this means 20-somethings are not just trying to outdo each other with pitch-books and spreadsheets, but with what they wear and even how hard they party.
The trouble is, however, that in Hong Kong and Singapore (ranked as the world's first and fourth most expensive cities respectively in 2018, according to Mercer) young bankers are increasingly spending beyond their incomes.
“I’m shocked by how my colleagues spend so much money on things they don’t really need – updating their smart phones all the time, buying the latest designer shoes,” says a banker from a US firm in Hong Kong. “At this level they can’t really afford it all.”
“Especially in front-office roles, there’s now more pressure – be it from peers, seniors or executives you meet at networking events – on young financial professionals to spend too much money to look the part on the job,” adds a junior trader at a Singaporean bank. “And as banking careers become more competitive in Asia and it becomes harder to achieve success, this pressure will only get worse.”
Analyst-level staff we spoke to in Asia, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, say most of their colleagues come to work sporting designer items like watches and handbags. Clients expect their bankers, even younger ones, to look “fancy and professional”, making it even more difficult to avoid overspending on bling, says a junior Hong Kong wealth manager.
But it’s not just in the office where juniors are living beyond their means. The trader says 20-somethings in Singapore today are going out and socialising a lot more than graduates 10 or even five years ago did as more bars, clubs and international restaurants open up in the once-staid city state.
“Financial pressure is becoming more of a problem because living patterns for young people are changing,” says the trader. “There are more expensive entertainment options in Singapore now because it's recently become a more global city. Young bankers go out more these days and drink more alcohol, which is expensive in here. There’s often peer pressure to spend when you’re out and your expenses can get out of control very quickly,” he adds.
Eric Sim, a former UBS MD in Hong Kong who now works as a careers coach, says bankers tend to up their spending even more when they are promoted from associate to VP. "Their message is: ‘I have arrived! Look at my watch and look at my car!’. I’m embarrassed to admit that I had this mentality when I became a vice president some 15 years ago," Sim wrote in a recent article on this site.
Young financial professionals who haven’t succumbed to the overspending trend say it’s still possible to live frugally – even in cities as expensive as Hong Kong and Singapore. Public transport and food-court meals are cheap and bankers can choose to live at home or rent apartment in outlying suburbs.
“I believe saving money is an important habit that many young finance professionals in Hong Kong are increasingly overlooking these days,” says the junior wealth manager. “It’s better to hold more cash and reduce your buying ‘liability’ – such as spending on depreciating assets like cars.”
“My job requires facing clients, but unlike others I don't deck myself head to toe in designer wear,” says a graduate in Singapore. “It’s best to look professional rather than just expensive.”
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