Far from the Wolf of Wall Street: how did young people become so risk averse?

Today’s bankers have replaced the excesses of the 1980s with Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street (Photo: Universal)
Leonardo DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street: today’s young financiers rightly take a more cautious approach. (Photo: Universal)

A job in finance was once seen as a ticket to early security and a glamorous lifestyle, but that is not the picture that emerges from a new book, Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits, by Kevin Roose, a journalist at New York magazine. The eight entry-level bankers Roose profiles are too busy and tired for the kind of high jinks shown in Liar’s Poker and The Wolf of Wall Street. They’re checking their BlackBerries around the clock, eating three meals a day at the desk and running to the office in the middle of the night to correct typos for tyrannical bosses. The excesses of the 1980s are gone, and they’ve been replaced by Excel spreadsheets and fussy PowerPoint presentations. “Among the young bankers I interviewed,” Roose writes, “I saw disillusionment, depression, and feelings of worthlessness that were deeper and more foundational than simple work frustrations.”

Yet you could replace “bankers” with any number of professions and that sentence would ring just as true. Leaving the safety and structure of college and embarking on a career can trigger an existential crisis in even the most pragmatic and well-adjusted person, and the problems plaguing young financiers – long hours, menial tasks, demanding bosses – will sound familiar to young professionals far outside the world of finance. Junior doctors work 100-hour weeks. Young academics get shunted from university to university as adjuncts. Aspiring journalists get caught in a cycle of short-term internships. Roose thinks he’s written a book about finance but in fact it’s a book about a generation.

Young people today are acutely aware that competition for jobs has gone global. They worry more, plan their lives sooner and even party less hard than their parents. In 1980, more than 40 per cent of Americans in twelfth grade (aged 17-18) said they’d had a drink in the previous month; in 2011, that figure was closer to 20 per cent. NHS statistics show a similar pattern in the UK.

Financially, millennials are more risk-averse than any other age group other than their grandparents. In January, the UBS investment bank published a study of over 2,500 investors showing that millennials – defined here as 21-to-36-year-olds – are among the most financially conservative Americans: 13 per cent of millennials classified their own risk tolerance as “conservative”, compared to 6 per cent of respondents from Gen X (37-48), 10 per cent of baby boomers (49-67) and 15 per cent of the 68-plus crowd.

The reasons for millennials’ economic caution aren’t a total mystery; coming of age during a recession would leave anyone wary. But it’s not just in the realm of personal finance that young people prefer to play it safe. We are risk-averse when it comes to our professional lives, too. The labour market has opened up, and bankers in New York are competing with financiers in London, Singapore and Hong Kong. Journalists are in competition with everyone else who’s on the internet.

Wall Street recruiters know how tempting it is for students to hear they’ll have a job lined up by the time they head home for Christmas of their final year. Roose writes that banks “have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to these worries”. They advertise two-year programmes for new recruits, promising not only high pay and prestige but also the opportunity to learn skills that can be transferred across other industries. Should young analysts decide finance isn’t for them, they’re told, they’ll have their pick of the jobs at hedge funds, private equity firms, tech start-ups or non-profits.

For high achievers who see their lives as a series of lines on a CV, banking can seem like a path of least resistance, a way to postpone tough decisions. I know how seductive this is. I went to one corporate recruiting event at university, because why not? It promised free drinks at a nice restaurant and I was sure I could avoid the suits. I ended up halfway through an application for Credit Suisse’s graduate scheme before I remembered I had no interest in finance.

As often as you see people choosing between Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, you see students struggling to decide between applying to McKinsey and Teach for America. Earning £70,000 in New York and teaching in some of a country’s most deprived schools might seem like opposite trajectories, but they appeal to the same sensibility. Both offer set paths, structure and a limited time commitment. Millennials are addicted to structure – and paralysed by fear of falling off the treadmill.