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 The excesses of the 1980s are gone, and they’ve been replaced by Excel spreadsheets and fussy PowerPoint presentations.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

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.