When Michael Lewis wrote Liar’s Poker in 1989, he hoped to discourage ambivalent young elites from starting careers on Wall Street. The opposite happened. His tales of hubris and reckless behavior among investment bankers seemed glamorous to a new generation of aspiring Gordon Gekkos, who flooded the author with letters asking how they could get in on the action. “They’d read my book as a how-to manual,” he later lamented.
Kevin Roose may have better luck with Young Money, his look at rookie bankers in the wake of the financial crisis. Where Lewis portrayed Wall Street as a rigged-to-blow casino, with dangerous amounts of money entrusted to near-adolescents, Roose writes something that prospective financiers will find far more damning: The work of first- and second-year analysts is tedious and soul-crushing and probably not worth the six-figure salary.
Starting in 2009, Roose, a reporter at the New York Times and then New York magazine, persuaded eight new hires at the nation’s biggest banks to let him into their lives as they learned the ABCs of finance and Wall Street culture. Between the nondisclosure agreements that bankers sign and the hypervigilance that PR and compliance squads wage against leaks, this was akin to eight powder kegs befriending a butane torch. But it’s easy to see why these young souls trusted him to keep their participation a secret. Roose views them as people and not types, riding shotgun as they drink, party, puke, box, eat ’shrooms, and stifle bonus rage (sums that seemed magic-beanstalk-high to a college senior are suddenly insults). And he’s adept at understanding how working in finance changes them.
“We’re not here to save the world. We exist to make money”
“Jeremy,” a Goldman (GS) hire, starts out exhilarated, nodding along as a boss explains, “We’re not here to save the world. We exist to make money.” Yelling across a trading floor makes Jeremy feel like he’s on the set of a movie. Soon, though, he’s compartmentalizing tasks he worries are “ethically suspect” and fantasizing about workplace suicide. When he quits two years later, he posts on Facebook, “The nightmare is over.”
Some of Roose’s other characters burn out on the 110-hour workweeks—one defines a “banker nine-to-five” as 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. the next day. They show signs of depression, gain “Seamless belly weight” from having dinner delivered to their desks every night, suffer job-induced breakups, and become cynical in ways that threaten not to heal. One analyst suspects his long hours are a factor when he contracts a rare autoimmune disease. The last book I read with characters this miserable was a novel set in North Korea.
As they vent—and Roose listens to enough of their psychological problems that I hope he charged a co-pay—the eight informants give increasingly knowing takes on Wall Street. High finance isn’t moral or immoral, the young bankers learn. “What Wall Street was, I heard over and over, was completely amoral,” Roose writes. Often a deal will have some positive benefit to society; often it won’t. Either way it’s a coincidence.
Shadowing the least influential employees at a bank, as opposed to the executives who oversee billion-dollar trading books, might seem an odd choice. Roose argues that these newbies will be running the show soon enough. “If I wanted to understand what Wall Street, and America, would look like in the future,” he writes, “I had to figure out who these people were, and how the crash was changing their initiation process.”
It’s not just that the traditional finance career ladder is now broken. Three of the bankers end up quitting for startups, illustrating how Silicon Valley has emerged as a get-rich-and-feel-good-too alternative to Wall Street, offering similar pay, better hours, and less of a stigma. Roose, who also covers technology, has his doubts about this, wondering if his focus group has any idea about the dot-com scene’s backstabbing and lack of job security. (There’s a sequel in it for him if he follows them there.) But let them discover that. A person’s twenties are supposed to be for making mistakes. Young Money might keep many of America’s brightest grads from making theirs on Wall Street.