For Wall Street interns, it's all work and no play—and that's not good for anyone

Young Money, a new book, is full of tales of all-nighters and never-ending work

young_money_bookLast month, a zoo in Copenhagen killed a healthy giraffe, dissected it in front of school children and fed its remains to a pack of lions. Marius, who was 18 months old, was deemed genetically redundant, and the zoo didn’t want him breeding. So rather than segregate him—or furnish him with some kind of giraffid prophylactic—they shot him in the brain with a steel bolt and cut him up for science (or, if you’re a lion, pleasure). You can imagine the outrage. But it actually stemmed from a noble impulse. By putting down one giraffe, the zoo believed, it was helping perpetuate the giraffe species. It was operating, in other words, from the premise that animal welfare matters.

That’s a relatively new phenomenon in the zoo world. For a long time, animals captured for display were treated purely as property. They were abused and misused in whatever ways best served the needs of their masters. In that way, they weren’t that different from young Wall Street workers today. Like zoo animals of yore, the interns and analysts at the bottom of the Wall Street pile exist entirely to benefit their betters. They aren’t fed to lions. But their working conditions—horrible hours, verbal abuse, co-workers named “Trip”—are generally more Victorian zoo than HR best practice.

Horror stories about life as a finance newbie aren’t new. But they have been cropping up with more frequency lately. Last summer, a German business student collapsed and died in London after working three days without sleep at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. In January the Wall Street Journal wrote about Barclays interns in Hong Kong who worked so many all-nighters they had taken to sneaking naps in the office toilet. And in Young Money, a new book released this month, author Kevin Roose fills chapters with such stories: tales of the best and brightest of the American meritocracy working comically long hours doing mundane tasks for unpleasant people in pursuit of jobs they aren’t really sure they want.

Roose, a former financial reporter at the New York Times who now writes for New York magazine, spent years tracking entry-level Wall Street workers reporting this book. His publisher is selling the end product as an “exposé of excess” and a “shocking true story.” But the really shocking thing is how monochrome the lives of these budding Wall Streeters are. Roose’s subjects drink a bit. They smoke a little pot. Some of them even have sex. (Shocking, I know, for a bunch of 23-year-olds living in New York.) But this is not The Wolf of Wall Street 2. The young men and women in this book snort no coke, throw no dwarves and screw no sex workers.

Instead of partying, the eight graduates in the book…work. And work. And work. Most of them are entry-level analysts at firms like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America. They’re on two-year contracts, for very good pay (typically more than US $100,000, including bonus). But their day-to-day lives are sold entirely to their firms. They often work all night or near to it. They come in on weekends, working an average of 100 hours every seven days. The work itself is also far from satisfying. For most, it’s a two-year slog of Excel spread sheets and PowerPoint presentations, many of which are discarded before they’re even used.

For some of the analysts Roose follows, the two years are a burden to be counted down. Not all of them make it through. One analyst at Goldman Sachs quits to start up a tech company. Another gets laid off—a victim of the new post-crash reality on Wall Street. Some of those that do last the two years emerge on the other side with broken relationships and new anger issues. “Their worlds start[ed] to look like giant balance sheets,” Roose writes, “their appetite for adventure waned, and they viewed unfamiliar situations through the cautious lens of cost/benefit analysis.”

One of the things Roose grapples with in the book is the question of why the conditions for young bankers are the way they are. He’s careful never to feel sorry for them. These are still 22- and 23-year-olds earning six figures. But he does wonder what purpose the absurd hours and abuse they go through serve. Part of it, he concludes, is that it’s just convenient for banks to have dedicated financial grunts on call 24 hours a day. Another answer he often hears is that it is this way because it’s always been this way. Like seniors in a frat, older bankers torture the pledges because they, too, were tortured.

I wonder, though, if it isn’t also a kind of inoculation. It’s a way to make sure, as junior analysts become associates and later managers and VPs, that they never have to ask themselves if they really deserve everything that comes their way. Much of the hard work junior analysts do is useless, but it is still hard work. It’s the kind of thing that lets someone forever say: “I earned this” no matter how much “this” turns out to be.

In any case, there are signs the system may be changing. Like zoos decades ago, financial firms are waking up to the idea that the animals need better care. In early January, Bank of America Merrill Lynch sent around a memo urging its analysts and associates—the two-bottom rungs of the banking ladder—to take at least four weekend days off every month, according to the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times, meanwhile, says JPMorgan Chase is planning to hire at least 10% more junior bankers this year to help spread around the workload.

It would be nice to think there’s a humanitarian impulse at work here. But the better explanation is likely self-interest. In recent years, Wall Street has been losing top graduates to Silicon Valley and other non-financial fields. The banks now hope to entice back some of that talent by improving the working lives of their recruits.

Should they fail, Roose for one won’t be displeased. He’s not anti-finance. But he is turned off by the idea that for so long, so many top graduates from America’s best schools ended up in a single field. “Wall Street,” he writes, “should have no monopoly on brilliance. Every company in every industry could benefit from having a few more superbly talented young people knocking on the door looking for work.”