It may seem hard to work up concern for a comparatively small number of suicides among the young and privileged, particularly when personal tragedies that result from economic stress, like the rise in suicides in Greece, haven’t gotten anywhere the same level of media attention. But one can argue that desperate acts among the poor and struggling are tragic but normal, but desperate acts by those who have far more in the way of options and resources, seem far more perplexing.
The handwringing among the chieftans of Wall Street firms about the rash of deaths has to be taken with a fistful of salt. Job loss (or even mere setbacks) can kick off a cascade of bad events that leads to death: suicide, drug overdose, or a car accident that may not be an accident if there’s a family left to collect life insurance proceeds.
But the chain of personal failure is generally attenuated enough so that the person or institution that knocked the first domino over is far enough away from the tragic outcome as to be a mere part of a long causal chain. It looks quite different when a young man that relatives and friends see far too seldom recognize that he’s not holding up well under unrelenting pressure leaps to his death hours before a deadline he fears he can’t make, as 22 year old Goldman banker Sarvshreshth Gupta did in April.
But truth be told, Wall Street has had jobs that made demands like that for decades. The people who wind up in those positions are so deeply invested in the idea of career success that the consequences of failure have always loomed much larger than they really were; otherwise, it would be well-nigh impossible to motivate people to work so hard in the first place. So what if anything is different now?
It’s hard to understand what this world is like unless you’ve been in it. While most people have endured periods of extreme time pressure and personal stress, the mix in certain sought-after finance roles is particularly daunting. And that then feeds an abuser/abused cycle: since the older generation went through this guantlet, they see it as perfectly reasonable to expect it of the newbies. And the punishing hours and the perceived importance of the work, and the way the job demands isolate the young financiers from their family and former friends also justifies their self-serving belief that their lofty pay is deserved. As I wrote in 2010:
But the firms are white-collar sweatshops with glamorous trappings. You do not know how hard you can work, short of slavery, unless you have been an investment banking analyst or associate. It is not merely the hours, but the extreme and unrelenting time pressure. Priorities are revised every day, numerous times during the day, as markets move. You have many bosses, each with independent demands and deadlines, and none cares what the others want done when. You are not allowed to say no to unreasonable demands. The sense of urgency is so great that waiting for an elevator is typically agonizing. If you manage to get your bills paid and your laundry done, you are managing your personal life well. Exhaustion is normal…
A setting that would seem to reward, nay require, cutting corners has another striking feature: intolerance for error. A computation mistake or a typo in a client document is a career-limiting event…
And the dynamic doesn’t change much over the course of one’s career. The drill of being a medical resident (or pre-Iraq, a tour of duty) has a known endpoint. But investment bankers have signed a Faustian contract: You have no right to personal boundaries. The business says how high to jump, and you are expected to deliver. Yes, more senior people have more dignity, but the idea that your needs are second to those of the business never changes.
In my day, it wasn’t uncommon for the firm to ask associates to reschedule weddings if they conflicted with a deal. It wasn’t that firms were opposed to marriage; indeed, the partners knew a young man was theirs once he procured a wife and, better yet, kids. He was tied hopelessly into a personal overhead structure that would keep him in the business.
Not that there was any real risk that someone would leave voluntarily. Exhaustion and loss of personal boundaries are an ideal setting for brainwashing, which is why people who have spent much of their career in finance have such difficulty understanding why their firm and their worldview might not be the center of the universe, why they might not be deserving of their outsized pay.
In my day, you were more likely to see physical than emotional breakdown. For instance, one recent college grad who had to get a presentation done by next morning went to the bathroom to throw up every half hour, then came back to work on his spreadsheets. This continued till he passed out and had to be hospitalized. He never came back.
And this sort of toll was not limited to the junior staff. One buddy, a vice president in hard-charging, testosterone-filled M&A, spent the better part of a weekend lying on her side on the floor of her office, reading deal documents. She kept reassuring concerned colleagues that she was fine, until on
Sunday the pain got so bad that she relented and called her boyfriend. He came and took her straight to the hospital. The doctors operated immediately, assuming she had appendicitis. They found instead diverticulitis, which usually afflicts the elderly, and she was so close to a colon rupture that they had to remove half of it.
The partners at her firm instructed her to not to return until she had recovered fully. But this was September. Bonuses were paid at year end, and as she read the unwritten code, and knew that staying away too long would be seen as a sign of weakness. She was back at the office three weeks later, looking wan.
She later became the first woman investment banking partner at her prestigious firm. Her instincts served her well. Or maybe not. She later lost 90 percent of the vision in one eye to glaucoma, an easily treated disease, because her overloaded schedule made eye exams seem like a luxury.
And one of the recent suicides was also a mid-career banker, a 29 year old, who’d recently gotten a good review and a $400,000 bonus, a reminder that the pressure and exhaustion are persistent features in some roles.
What has changed? I suspect several things: one is that it was only a small number of jobs in finance that required near total subordination of personal needs to demands of the business. Consider:
In June, Goldman introduced a policy for the 2,900 undergraduate summer interns in investment banking: Leave the office before midnight each day. No more all-nighters.
When I was at Goldman, the entire investment banking division was all of 250 people. Some of the departments in (international, private placements) only very rarely had its members work taxing hours. I’d guesstimate that out of that 250, at most 60 were in the pressure-cooker jobs. Wall Street was more concentrated then, so if you go across all of Wall Street, and even throw in the securities lawyers who were working alongside the stressed out bankers, you wouldn’t come close to that 2,900 figure in total.
But even with the bad press from the deaths, Wall Street still has no perspective on its work model for these jobs. As former McKinsey partner and leadership expert Doug Smith wrote by e-mail:
Sometimes, life is a sick parody of itself. “We want work/life balance. So, you are required to leave no later than midnight”
Do the Goldman folks even read what their own policies say????
These numbers are a classic case of a difference in degree representing a difference in kind. In the 1980s, if you left one of the super-prized, super-stressed roles, even if you took a money or status hit, the drop was not all that far, once you were able to bleach your brain of the acute status-consciousness you’d previously embraced.
By contrast, today, with a vastly more competitive job market, a huge growth in number of highly-sought-after specialities, and employer expectations and technology turning even more of them into high the employment version of iron man triathlons, and far more narrow hiring criteria, it’s not obvious how someone who drops off the fast track will land.
And if someone who is panicked about losing their job financed their graduate degree with student debt, it’s not as if they feel they can risk missing payments and having their interest rates ratchet up to the punitive levels that virtually assure lifetime debt slavery (and that’s before you get to the double-whammy of a bad credit score preventing candidates from even being considered for most jobs).
I suspect the second factor is the impoverishment of personal ties among the young: that young people are pressured much earlier than in my day to perform at a high level, and that overstructuring of schedules and more “friendships” mediated through technology means much weaker emotional support, even among those who by the standards of young people today are well socialized.
The third new factor is the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs, particularly Adderall. It’s become so routine for high school and college students to use amphetamines for exams and deadlines that it’s hard to think that they aren’t a staple in top finance and law jobs. In fact, if you don’t use them, you are probably putting yourself at a serious competitive disadvantage. But being able to push yourself even further past your physical limits on a regular basis has to come at a cost. If Adderall compromises REM sleep (or alternatively, if someone winds up needing to use barbituates to sleep after stimulant overuse, which does mess up REM sleep), that alone can push someone quickly towards psychological instability, even if they have no previous tendency towards that.
Why does this matter? It’s another sign of the fraying of our social structures. Those at the top are willing to have members in good standing of their own cohort chewed up by their own institutions, and these leaders know they have no one else to blame. Yet they deny the smell of gangrene. From a New York Times story on banker suicides:
Mr. Dimon, who is recovering from throat cancer and whose partner, the deal mogul Jimmy Lee, died suddenly in June at 62, took a paternal tone in discussing work-life balance. “You’ve got to take care of your mind, your body, your spirit, your soul, your health,” he said. “JPMorgan can’t do it for you, or wherever you work.” If you neglect those things, he said, “You’ll destroy your personal relationships. You’ll destroy your life. You won’t be healthy. You won’t enjoy it.”
“Taking care of yourself” requires that you have personal resources at your disposal, meaning some control of your time and money. Dimon’s clueless advice is as absurd in its own way as those who tell low income people to eat better, when they lack the time and money to make healthy meals on their limited budgets. His “Let them eat lifestyle cake” is a way of washing his hands of responsibility for workplace deaths. And why shouldn’t he? Given the huge personal costs of the crisis, which includes suicides that were clearly the result of wrongful foreclosures by banks like JP Morgan, why should Dimon and his ilk change a successful business model just to forestall a possible suicide or two a tad closer to home? In other words, don’t be fooled by the crocodile tears being shed by the top brass over these deaths.