I know it's not right, but there's some pleasure in watching my high-achieving former classmates squirm
An investment banker friend was recently complaining about the havoc and uncertainty at her workplace in these crazy times. I tried to express sympathy. But I found that I just didn't care. Actually, even worse: I felt like rolling my eyes. And this is a person I like.
Recently, I've found myself not only NOT empathizing with my fellow twentysomethings in the beleaguered financial services industry, but experiencing undeniable pleasure at their increasingly tenuous circumstances.
You see, for those of us recent grads working in New York, a pay-related pecking order was established immediately after graduation. Those who chose the I-banking route nailed down six-figure salaries—moaning about their hours—while others—teachers, journalists, and the like—were barely squeaking by, often keeping similarly punishing schedules.
Worshipping Gordon Gekko
Furthermore, the attitude of many of those bankers became increasingly tinged by an appreciation of a certain "models and bottles" lifestyle, which included liberal expense accounts and first-class travel. They unabashedly worshipped at the altar of Wall Street's Gordon Gekko, while, of course, conveniently ignoring the last 10 minutes of the movie when greed brings down Gekko and his protégé.
As I watched my father, whose astute financial mind helped him build a thriving small-cap business, dutifully price-check every ticket and fly coach on AirTran, I became increasingly disillusioned with the high-roller attitude and lifestyle. I didn't see how the financial engineers were adding value, and why any 22-year-old who could navigate a spreadsheet was deserving of big bucks and juicy perks. To their credit, they themselves would sometimes question what, if anything, they were actually creating.
Now, it looks like there is something in what the Carl Fox character said in Wall Street. (Carl Fox, played by Martin Sheen, was the airline mechanic father of the ambitious and unscrupulous Bud Fox, Charlie Sheen's character.) "Stop going for the easy buck and start producing something with your life," he said.
Plenty of Schadenfreude
Of course, this schadenfreude, a German word that's being used more and more often as the market seesaws, is all relative. In this topsy-turvy world, my sister, in her second year at Northwestern's Kellogg business school, still finds her biotech background in demand (she says that high tech and biotech are the only areas where hiring is up), while her finance-focused, aspiring I-banker classmates are scrambling and decamping to consulting concentrations en masse (BusinessWeek.com, 1/7/08) in the hopes of landing a job.
Meanwhile, over at the Harvard Crimson, columnist Alexandra Petri ponders a future where economics majors may be in a similar boat as English majors like herself. She can't help feeling a little smug. "So now, when our more pragmatically minded friends are starting to worry about their prospects, we feel a little complacent," she writes. "We never expected to make six figures out of college. We were never in it for the money."
Granted, the market crash has taken the meager savings of some folks who wouldn't know a CDO from a CD-R. But for us twentysomething singletons without kids and a mortgage, well, we didn't have that much to lose.
Sitting Pretty in Cash
In my case, I even benefited from my glimpse into banker hubris: Some months ago, watching the overly exuberant marketplace and the increasingly arcane instruments I heard finance-type friends bragging about, I decided this upswing wasn't sustainable (or rational). I liquidated my own small holdings at the height of the market.
Sure, it wasn't a huge windfall by any means, but I hope it will at least keep me afloat for the time being. And to those now-suffering investment bankers: Thanks for the (unintentional) tip. The two-dollar beers are on me.