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 The excesses of the 1980s are gone, and they’ve been replaced by Excel spreadsheets and fussy PowerPoint presentations.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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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.