The Culture of Overwork on Wall Street And in Silicon Valley

Following the lead of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan, Credit Suisse is the latest financial behemoth to limit the working hours of its junior bankers, banning them from the office between 6 p.m. Friday until 10 a.m. Sunday. It’s a far cry from M-F, 9 to 5 but I guess mandating that these people take a single day off is worth something.

In her piece titled, “No sleep til world domination” for Al Jazeera America, Sarah Leonard provides brilliant commentary on why this is such a big move for a culture that prides itself on overwork:

The trouble is, these hellish on-call conditions do not exist because Wall Street’s work is so vital. They exist because financiers sustain their untouchable status by insisting that their work is vital and that they’re the only ones who can do it, that the world might stop turning if they took time to eat, sleep or call their mothers. Long hours are a source of self-worth for banking employees, and that’s one reason why bankers themselves are set to resist the new policies. Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” believe that they are, and employ, the smartest and hardest-working people on earth (thus the hauteur with which they address regulators and Senate committees). The Financial Times quotes a banker on Credit Suisse’s new policy saying, “If you don’t like the idea of a hard internship followed by a permanent position with very grueling hours I have a novel suggestion. Perhaps you should choose a different career more suited to you?” If bankers were to work 9 to 5, they might have to admit that finance is just a job.

Leonard argues that “the sheepish reduction in working hours by formerly untouchable banks points toward…Wall Street’s waning hold on the American imagination.” Of course, we can not just have empty space in our imaginations where we don’t fetishize an entire industry. We need a replacement! That replacement is obviously Silicon Valley, who are also conveniently (for capitalism?) not such big fans of work-life balance:

For employees down the chain, tech companies cover work expectations with a pleasing veneer of flexible schedules, unlimited vacation and offices packed with toys. Like Wall Street, Silicon Valley wants the smartest kids, but tech billionaires such as Peter Thiel and Mark Zuckerberg favor young programmers who have dropped out of their fancy colleges. These kids work brutal, demeaning hours just like their New York counterparts. What Silicon Valley has so masterfully done is disguise this labor as a lifestyle choice. Young employees choose to code all night. They love their visionary CEO calling with another great idea at 3 a.m. It’s hard to feel exploited while wearing flip-flops, balancing gently on an exercise ball.

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12 Comments / Post A Comment

ShermMcCoy (#3,777)

While the hours of investment banking are a badge of honor to some (mostly new analysts who want to reinforce the stereotype to their friends), they are by sad necessity, not election.

It is a service business and an extremely inefficient one (by its very nature) at that. Our clients work normal hours…and then when they are going home they call my boss’ boss and say “hey i just thought of some asinine idea that might make me look important. i need to present it to the board by 9am Wednesday”. At this point it is 7pm Monday. So then my boss’ boss tells my boss what they want. Then my boss sketches out what he thinks the “book” (powerpoint deck) should look like. Then he tells me. Then a couple of us work on it until 2am and leave it on his desk. Now it is morning. He review it when he gets in. Then we change some things. Then he reviews it again. Then he gives it to his boss. Then his boss changes some things, deletes things, and adds 5 new pages that will take a couple hours to create. Now it is 9pm on Tuesday. We have made the changes. My boss spots a couple of errors. We correct them and resubmit. My boss’ boss finally gives his ok at midnight (9 hours before the meeting). Now some sad person prints and binds the books. We check them. Now it is 2am.

And repeat. The hours get the headlines but the unpredictability is the real pain.

This is a story told far more eloquently by the aforementioned boss’ boss here: http://epicureandealmaker.blogspot.com/2014/01/a-fine-disregard-for-rules.html

wrappedupinbooks (#1,426)

@ShermMcCoy What I don’t really get is why they don’t hire a day shift and a night shift. I mean I do get it, then they would have to pay two sets of benefits, etc.

Beaks (#3,488)

@ShermMcCoy Necessity is “this patient is bleeding out and they need blood NOW.” “This presentation needs to be done yesterday” isn’t necessity, it’s poor planning/ poor management.

The Mole (#2,633)

@Beaks Necessity is relative. If you want to keep you job and your firm wants to keep a client, then situations like this are certainly a necessity. Nobody said this is life or death here.

Beaks (#3,488)

@The Mole Sure, but there are plenty of other “service” fields where the scenario of working overtime to meet a client deadline is a thing that happens occasionally, not an absolutely every day including Saturdays and Sundays for years thing.

To call that style of working “necessary” ignores that there are probably other options most of the time- whether it’s more people working on the same project, not treating every project as life and death urgent, or even saying to a client “sorry we’re too busy to do that.” Which yes, may lose you that client, but is also a thing other client oriented businesses do sometimes. The probability that absolutely no project could, say, wait a few hours seems pretty low, frankly. And sure, if you’re the guy on the bottom, you don’t get to make those choices, but that’s no reason to say that the guys on the top are making the right choices.

Beaks (#3,488)

@ShermMcCoy Can you explain better why the labor is fundamentally indivisible? The article doesn’t really explain why it’s so hard to communicate/ work as a team. Other than assuming that two people working on one project would simply fail to communicate with one another.

ShermMcCoy (#3,777)

@Beaks I think the knowledge/accountability issues he touches on is a big part of it. Working as a team is fundamental in investment banking but perhaps not in the way you would think. I would compare it to building a house. The most senior person (who is responsible for the quality of the product at the end of the day) is going to monitor the work at a high level and talk to the customer. Meanwhile someone needs to oversee all of the details of actual construction (a VP). Someone is going to be working on plumbing, someone else on electrical etc. There are some facets that lend themselves to multiple parties dividing and conquering but an excel model does not. Only one person can make changes at any given time and only one person (the creator/laborer) is going to fully understand all the mechanisms and dependent variables that are at play.

Working towards the same goal – but everyone has different responsibilities at various times.

Beaks (#3,488)

@ShermMcCoy Sounds like the tool is a lot of the problem- or as my husband yelled from the kitchen “At least if they were using Access, they’d have variables- with names! and comments!” Which would probably help on the “only one person is going to fully understand all the mechanisms and dependent variables” front.

I’m going to take a wild guess that people don’t use the same conventions when they build an excel model?

Beaks (#3,488)

@ShermMcCoy Another question- does the bonus structure provide a disincentive towards making the excel model understandable? I’m sure excel isn’t helping on the understandable model front, what with the lack of named variables or commenting or any real way of communicating what you’re doing.

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