No sleep till world domination

If bankers worked 9 to 5, they might have to admit that finance is just a job

March 13, 2014 9:00AM ET
Employees work at their computers at the Facebook main campus in Menlo Park, California, May 15, 2012.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Since journalists began reporting that junior employees at investment banks were falling ill and dying from overwork, the world’s biggest financial institutions have chosen to limit the hours worked by junior employees — an odd corrective that’s likely to fail. Credit Suisse is now the latest bank to officially make less work a policy, following Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan. According to Bloomberg News, Credit Suisse has decided that “analysts and associates in the U.S. investment banking division should be out of the office from 6 p.m. Friday until 10 a.m. Sunday unless they’re working on an active deal.” This would produce a significant decrease from the 120-hour workweeks to which junior analysts and interns are accustomed. 

The work-reduction initiatives began when a 21-year-old summer intern in Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s London office, Moritz Erhardt, dropped dead in the shower from a seizure last year. The Guardian revealed that he “had worked until 6:00 a.m. three days in a row, according to some reports, and his fellow interns described him as an intensely focused workaholic who was focused on getting a full-time offer." What likely led to Erhardt’s downfall isn’t uncommon: Young bankers use drugs like Adderall and cocaine to stay awake on the job, and are typically required to answer a superior’s call at any hour, leave a friend’s wedding for a deal meeting, break a date to fix the punctuation in a PowerPoint presentation. Banks cut off external messaging systems, which means, given analysts’ hours, they rarely communicate with nonfinance friends or family. The firms create a cult environment, a supposed meritocracy of hours worked. Most junior bankers are drawn from elite schools, bolstering the industry’s reputation as home to America’s smartest and most ambitious. The deranged life of a junior analyst is detailed wonderfully in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money” and in anthropological works like Karen Ho’s brilliant “Liquidated.”

The trouble is, these hellish on-call conditions do not exist because Wall Street’s work is so vital. They exist because financiers sustain their untouchable status by insisting that their work is vital and that they're the only ones who can do it, that the world might stop turning if they took time to eat, sleep or call their mothers. Long hours are a source of self-worth for banking employees, and that’s one reason why bankers themselves are set to resist the new policies. Wall Street's "masters of the universe" believe that they are, and employ, the smartest and hardest-working people on earth (thus the hauteur with which they address regulators and Senate committees). The Financial Times quotes a banker on Credit Suisse’s new policy saying, “If you don’t like the idea of a hard internship followed by a permanent position with very grueling hours I have a novel suggestion. Perhaps you should choose a different career more suited to you?” If bankers were to work 9 to 5, they might have to admit that finance is just a job.

The reduction in hours won’t make a dent in working conditions in the finance industry. And why should we care? The finance industry has ignored the people it’s made homeless through foreclosures and bankrupted through untested derivatives — the list of debauched disregard for human life goes on. But the sheepish reduction in working hours by formerly untouchable banks points toward something much more interesting: Wall Street’s waning hold on the American imagination. The next generation is less Gordon Gekko, more Mark Zuckerberg, and the epicenter of work-hard-play-hard is shifting west.

Elite ideology

Every elite develops ideology to justify its power. In this technocratic age, the reigning virtue is “smartness.” We believe in meritocracy. That’s why Wall Street is staffed with Ivy Leaguers. That’s why economist Peter Orszag — former director of the Office of Management and Budget turned Citigroup executive — can write an article in The New Republic arguing that the problem with modern politics is too much democracy interfering with experts. A reputation for "smartness" is why the perpetually wrong former Treasury secretary and Obama economic adviser Larry Summers has a job. These days, though, Wall Street’s intelligence is tarnished by the financial collapse. Sure, the industry’s leaders will continue to spin the revolving door between Washington and the Street. But there’s a new game in town and, supposedly, it couldn’t care less about hours.

Enter the tech industry. I’ve written before about Silicon Valley CEOs’ valorization of long hours and sleep deprivation. Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer only sleeps four hours a night, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg feeds her kids dinner then goes back to work, and on and on. Writer Kate Losse has detailed beautifully how deranged the Valley’s work expectations are, demanding superhuman amounts of work in the name of feminism, innovation, "the love of it" or whatever virtue is at hand. For employees down the chain, tech companies cover work expectations with a pleasing veneer of flexible schedules, unlimited vacation and offices packed with toys. Like Wall Street, Silicon Valley wants the smartest kids, but tech billionaires such as Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg favor young programmers who have dropped out of their fancy colleges. These kids work brutal, demeaning hours just like their New York counterparts. What Silicon Valley has so masterfully done is disguise this labor as a lifestyle choice. Young employees choose to code all night. They love their visionary CEO calling with another great idea at 3 a.m. It's hard to feel exploited while wearing flip-flops, balancing gently on an exercise ball.

Tech giants are the new masters of the universe, and much like Wall Street in its heyday, no one can tell its stars how much they should — or shouldn’t — work.

This culture, so like Wall Street's at its core, so much hipper to behold, offers a lesson and a warning. The lesson is obvious; no company is hip enough to willingly eschew the profit motive for the sake of its employees. The trick is for companies to persuade employees to accept exploitation in the name of prestige, fun or future wealth. Wall Street is engaging in some crisis PR right now, but long hours aid in convincing their employees that their work is prestigious. Cutting hours, therefore, can work against young bankers' very sense of self-worth. The employees themselves are already grumbling. In Silicon Valley, the celebration of hard work will stay on its upswing as long as the Valley is gathering prestige, not shedding it; this is what allows Sheryl Sandberg to publish a "feminist manifesto" that's all about working hard for your boss.

As for the warning: It’s become clear that it wasn’t just Wall Street employees who believed they worked so hard because only they were smart enough to steer the global economy. It seems Congress believed it too, and multiple presidents, and at least a couple of chairmen of the Federal Reserve. They took Wall Street's advice and made men such as Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon the consummate insiders. They let them write their own rules. And the same stupid cycle has already begun with tech. Industry leaders are dipping their toes in politics through vehicles such as Zuckerberg's immigration reform PAC, and they're hard at work writing the rules of their own industry, an industry with which the law has a notoriously difficult time keeping pace.

Tech giants are the new masters of the universe, and much like Wall Street in its heyday, no one can tell its stars how much they should — or shouldn’t — work. We have already seen Facebook, Google and other tech companies turn over our personal information to the government when it proved convenient. We've seen them violate our privacy over and over. Facebook’s internal motto is “move fast and break things,” and so far, we've let them. But we might instead look from the Valley to the Street, a place with an equal reputation for hard work and brilliance, and wonder what, after the economy, will be shattered next.

Sarah Leonard, a senior editor at the Nation, is co-editor of "The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century" (Metropolitan, 2014). She is a contributing editor to Dissent magazine and The New Inquiry.


The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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