Why We Should Care About the Junior Bankers of Goldman Sachs
First-year analysts are making noise about their ‘inhumane’ working conditions. It’s tempting not to care, but it’s their world and we’re living in it
A few weeks ago, a group of first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs dropped a “Working Conditions Survey” outlining their hundred-hour weeks, “consistent 9 am-5am’s,” five hours of sleep, and self-reported 2/10 firm and work satisfaction rating. Public response fell along predictable lines. Some said these expectations were clear and the money is great, which is true. Others took issue with normalizing banker burnout and said they still shouldn’t be working that much anyway, which is arguably true. Anonymous investment bankers said the same thing.
So should we worried about the young Goldman Sachs’ bankers? Maybe the answer lies in not looking at what that work does to the bankers, but what it does to everyone else.
In 2009, a young anthropologist, Karen Ho, published Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street. As a graduate of Stanford working on her PhD at Princeton, Dr. Ho had been exposed to investment banks’ intense recruiting of students at elite private universities — the book includes a table of Goldman Sachs’s 2000–2001 recruiting schedule at Harvard, which lists nearly three dozen events over six months — and the allure the industry held for her friends. (Having a similar experience, I marveled at the 21-year-olds who knew which late-model sports cars they would be buying in their first year out of college.)
Working on her doctorate, she took her fieldwork to Wall Street as a fellow entry-level analyst. Shortly thereafter she got laid off. This came as a surprise to her; that it didn’t come as that big a surprise to her colleagues was a further surprise. Young bankers led what she called “liquid lives,” expecting to get laid off and scramble for a new job, to switch jobs as soon as a lower bonus signaled a layoff, or to just wash out of the industry having banked a bunch of money. The terrible hours limited what they could blow their money on, though some got the golden handcuffs.
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The money was obviously an appeal, not just for its own sake, but as a quantitative reflection of their talent and importance, working at the fountainhead of the global economy. The working conditions reinforced this image: They worked all night to fulfill their promise that was so heavily emphasized in the recruitment process, which was a seamless transition from attending an elite private college, where they probably learned how to do all-nighters in the first place. Bankers thought of themselves as possessing “a particular combination of intelligence, ambition, and hard work, which they view as the driving and legitimating forces behind their dominant position in the financial markets.”
In other words, the hours aren’t a bug, they’re a feature.
None of this should come as too big a surprise; most of us in late capitalism have internalized this pretty well, even if we’re pretty far down the chute from Wall Street. But stop and think about why that might be the case. The people who make the deals and financial structures that shape how the economy runs work overtime for companies that view them as replaceable and have no compunction kicking them to the curb after a short period when the numbers head south, and then rehiring them (or someone like them) when economic conditions change.
Now does their plight sound a bit familiar?
The compelling possibility Dr. Ho outlines in her book is that the worldview of investment bankers and their peers in the broader industry gets suffused throughout the entire economy, “a particular cultural model of work relations designed to be in lockstep with their ideals of the market that is being imposed.” The fragility of their jobs, she writes, “ironically not only motivates them to recommend this experience as a disciplining ‘performance enhancement’ for corporate America, but also renders them less capable of understanding the suffering of others.”
People seem to be starting to notice. Anne Helen Petersen tapped into this realization with her Buzzfeed piece “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation,” in which she describes a cohort “trained, tailored, primed, and optimized for the workplace,” guarded by vigilante parents who guided them away from risk and towards achievement, with the end goal of a “good job” at a “cool” company doing meaningful work that in turn reflects well on that parental training. When it doesn’t happen, they’re told that “if we just work harder, meritocracy will prevail.”
“As American business became more efficient, better at turning a profit, the next generation needed to be positioned to compete,” Petersen writes. “We couldn’t just show up with a diploma and expect to get and keep a job that would allow us to retire at 55. In a marked shift from the generations before, millennials needed to optimize ourselves to be the very best workers possible.”
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Jonathan Malesic, another keen observer of contemporary work and overwork, writes that the claimed malady of burnout is “a subtle form of self-praise,” the result of a “roaring blaze of productivity” from “an ideal worker in a culture that values work practically above all else… we want to burn out.” Malesic, citing the sociologist Jamie McCallum, traces this back to the mid-1970s, when employers started “promoting the idea that work was lovable, that it was a source of purpose… as a way to compensate workers for declining wages and job security.”
In other words, it’s supposed to suck. But maybe it doesn’t have to?
The literature generally reflects this, while also indicating that work hours have stagnated or decreased in Western European countries. In “Extreme Working Hours in Western Europe and North America: A new aspect of polarization,” Anna S. Burger found an association between labor deregulation, globalized economies, and increasing work hours, and stable labor regulation, strong welfare states, and decreasing work hours. “Patterns of extreme working hours are neither inevitable nor inherent in post-industrial development,” she writes.
Perhaps the belief that it’s neither inevitable nor inherent is most evident in white-collar unionization drives. They’re common in the media and academia these days, which checks out: the ratio of white-collarness to compensation is not great for a lot of people in those industries. Tech, which tends to pay a lot better and faces more resistance to unionization, has been slower, but there’s momentum. “The people who are most likely to organize are not the ones with the worst jobs,” Working America’s Karen Nussbaum told Slate in 2019. “It’s people who are most disappointed in what their jobs turned out to be, people who had expectations of their work life that have been trashed.”
By contrast, the new Goldman Sachs first-years are getting the work life they expected, or should have, anyway. And the responses to their survey have been about what you’d expect to. But in a financialized economy, what happens to the people at its source will flow down to us all.