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

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 The excesses of the 1980s are gone, and they’ve been replaced by Excel spreadsheets and fussy PowerPoint presentations.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.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser