Zeitgeist Watch: Wall Street Suicides and the Fear of Falling

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.

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  1. griffen

    I’ve always been struck by the response to Liar’s Poker. Michael Lewis was somewhat awestruck that college / graduate students took his well written narrative as a guide for making the route into a Wall Street firm.

    Man, some Adderall might have really helped the review process of long ago Excel spreadsheets and reporting. But on second thought, possibly not.

    1. Steve H.

      The Adderall note made me think of the current rise in heroin use. The main factor appears to be starting with prescription pain killers, which are then cut off, and with street Oxy prices >$50, heroin is the ‘economic’ substitute.

      On second thought, the ‘Adderall to Cash’ sequence is a different incentive system. Much more productive, if you ignore the husks floating in the breeze.

      1. griffen

        This was several months back, but Sports illustrated conveyed the dire circumstances a young athlete might come into when confronted with an injury. The injury being something more than a simple ankle sprain ( ACL blown, rotator cuff, elbows).

        It was stunning to see the relative ease that high schoolers could obtain powerful substances.

      2. participant-observer-observed

        Some drugs also have suicidal side effects, and there can be no easy way to get data on long-term, intensive, rogue use effects.

      3. Procopius

        So my belief that it is mostly driven by cocaine is wrong? I thought that was where the motto, “Cocaine is God’s way of telling you you’re making too much money,” came from.

  2. Portia

    In most places I have worked (I refer to the U.S.), employers wanted “hungry” employees, and happy ones made them nervous, despite “mission statements” and other HR propaganda. Since I worked in accounting and HR, I heard the truth behind the hiring. “Hungry” employees are more “loyal”. The corporate culture is one of distrust.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      That was the focus of the 2010 post, how these environments were cultish (hours pressure, breaking down of personal boundaries, isolation from family and personal networks, repeated reminders of one’s “specialness”) and how that sort of indoctrination was part of how employees rationalized bad conduct: they were special, the rules didn’t apply to them or were so obviously stupid that they should be ignored. Readers didn’t seem interested in that part of the story, oddly, so I deemphasized it this time. And I don’t sense that ethical conflicts play a role in these junior suicides, but there was a more senior level death (in London, as I dimly recall) that looked pretty sus.

    2. readerOfTeaLeaves

      The problem is that the likelihood of those issues increases as people become exhausted.
      Morality is, in a sense, metabolic.

      The current cover of Scientific American highlights its recent article on sleep.
      The health complications of too little sleep compound over time, and they are nasty.

  3. Roquentin

    This is only half of it. People talk about work/life balance as if the “life” portion of it was even still there to be had. It’s kind of like how if you bought a boat and left it in storage for 20 years, it’d be too decrepit to even put in the water. Society has changed so there really isn’t much of the “life” side of things waiting for them either. When this kind of thing goes on long enough, it becomes normal, and the life that was supposed to be on the other side goes with it. That’s just in a general sense, but to be more specific, if you’ve spent 10, 15, 20, or more years neglecting ever single other facet of your life, does anyone honestly think you could just up and stop? Everyone else involved has probably moved on. No one is going to wait two decades for you to change your mind.

    I don’t get paid worth a shit, but the one saving grace of my job is that I work very close to a 40 hour week every week. I

    1. jrs

      Well there are people to meet and hobbies and interests to take up if one wanted a life and never mind how it conforms to whatever norms.

      But the only moral choice if you have lived that life is probably never to marry and have kids and thus have a spouse and kids you neglect, because at that point the kids don’t know you (and if they have any spirit left at all properly HATE you for the neglect!) and the spouse the same (although unlike the kids at least they made an adult choice to stay or go).

    1. thefutureisowls

      IIRC there was a high level City banker who “committed suicide” by multiple nail gun shots to the chest about two years ago.

  4. Gerard Pierce

    It’s not exactly the same thing, but a lot of years ago, John D McDonald wrote a story called “The Trap of Solid Gold”. The protagonist was on the fast track to higher management, but the financial structure left him the choice of bankruptcy and/or loss of his family. The details of his financial troubles were interesting. His possible solution was to switch to a “non fast-track” job with a lot higher pay but with the loss of any chance for that management role.

    Some things never change.

    1. spoofs

      This whole scenario being described seems to be riffing the “Death of a Salesman”, if not somewhat hyperbolized in its’ current incarnation.

  5. Thure Meyer


    You are correct. It’s hard to have sympathy for any of this. Its just another reason to shut these institutions down. They are a breeding ground for sociopaths.

  6. Norb

    Seeing recent articles about Sweden’s successful move to instituting a 6 hour work day makes you wonder how anyone in the US can still support the work till you drop mentality.

    On a positive note, maybe a tipping point will be reached with the realization that real wealth and happiness are not obtained by money alone. People driven out of the workplace due to having to make an insane choice- participate in inhuman business practices or face unemployment- will be forced to build more humane institutions.

    I don’t know my Marx very well, but was this his meaning when he said Capitalism will inevitably lead to socialism?

    1. James Levy

      Too many people will never realize or admit that adding up chits and coming out with the most money and stuff isn’t “winning”, and our society sees no way to prevent these ultra-rich people from having vastly outsized power and influence. And working like a dog with laser-like focus on making money and moving up the ladder often works. So either the system will collapse or it will be overthrown. It will not change of its own accord, because the very people who profit by it are the ones who cannot see its faults–on the contrary, like Obama or Dimon or any of these other creeps, they see only that it rewards them handsomely, so why change anything.

    2. rusti

      Seeing recent articles about Sweden’s successful move to instituting a 6 hour work day makes you wonder how anyone in the US can still support the work till you drop mentality.

      While I agree with your larger point, those articles don’t really reflect the reality here. There’s been no talk of a six-hour work day at my (very large) Swedish employer, nor for anyone else that I know.

  7. Paper Mac

    Amphetamines have long ago been supplanted by modafinil in most professional contexts, I think.

  8. JP

    These people deserve what they got. There’s a price to everything, and ironically, they can’t even price themselves.

    1. Inverness

      I look at it this way. If you try and do some good (as a teacher or other public servant), you get publicly shamed and low pay. Young people know that if they want to escape debt and get public credibility, Wall Street is a way to do it. Since the 80’s, greed has been glorified to death. So why wouldn’t a 22 year-old consider it as a career, when to be a teacher is to be a sucker?

      It isn’t easy to be young today, with the high unemployment and a weak public sector. There aren’t many good jobs which also promote a balanced lifestyle. If too many young people are trying to get on Wall Street, well I can understand why. They have been programmed to be “winners,” not “losers” who can barely make ends meet. Society tells them this is the way to go.

      I read a poll that in the 60’s, only around 40% American college students preferred a rewarding career to making a lot of money. Now it’s the reverse; most American college students (90%) would prefer to make a lot of money. They’ve been brainwashed, and haven’t been offered many alternatives. (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything).

      Obviously I’m not endorsing Wall Street. I just get why so many kids are drawn to it.

      1. Inverness

        I will also add that work conditions for teachers are horrible, and often involves emotional and even physical abuse by students. I’m sure plenty on Wall Street are harassed, but at least they enjoy prestige and high pay.

        1. Jfarmer

          You must be one of those whiny teachers that conveniently omit the fact that your health and retirement benefits are better than almost any other sector

  9. JustAnObserver

    One question I’ve always wondered about is why would someone in one of these (so-called) prestigious, highly paid, jobs with a $200K+ salary & $400K+ annual bonus even have any student debt at age – say – 30. Is there another phenomenon where in addition to maintaining one’s internal status at the firm (meeting insane deadlines, getting good reviews, etc) there’s also intense pressure to display that status via the clothes you wear, the ludicrous mortgage you take on, $1500 bottles of wine every night, the drugs you use.

    The Wall Street version of what Italians call maintaining “La Bella Figura” comes very expensive and creates a financial treadmill you can never get off … even though you promised yourself at age 22 when you got that Goldman offer you’d pile up the $$$ & get out at 40.

    For a fictional example of this see the head trader’s speech in the film Margin Call about what happens to his $2,000,000 per year. Clothes, Hookers, &Blow take a large part of it but at least he sends some cash home to his parents in England.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      If you are working in these jobs, you need to work close to the office. Physically, you cannot take a long commute.

      You don’t get to the $400K bonus in your first two or three years. And the guy in the story with the $400,000 bonus had a $100K salary.

      State and local taxes take you to a 45% marginal tax rate in NYC, and you’ve got Social Security on the first $110,000 ish. So say a close to 40% effective tax rate on income. And you have a nearly 9% sales tax on top of that.

      I had a friend who had kid who was looking for a rental a full two years ago. They had lived in NYC before and had good contacts. Even so, the best she could get was a 350 square foot studio in the East Village for $3000 a month. So assume $50-$60,000 in rent.

      To the extent you do go out, you are expected to socialize on the level of your Wall Street peers, as in expensively. It’s also considered necessary to have a Hamptons share even if you never get there (no joke, when I was a kid at Goldman, the message was strong re where in the Hamptons the Goldmanites congregated. It was understood that you were putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage if you didn’t make yourself seen, to the extent you could get out there).

      So they key is you get locked into overhead that you can’t afford on your salary alone. You have to have that bonus. It’s even worse if you have a wife and kids in private school at $35,000+ for school costs alone per child. So even those not on the “hooker and blow” track manage to trap themselves.

      1. jrs

        You’d think sooner or later one of them would fizzle and figure they’d almost be better off making 50k a year in the midwest or something.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I left a very long time ago, in the early 1980s

          I did try to switch to another department within Goldman, but for reasons that were peculiar to that era, it was very difficult to do (as in one guy in my department who similarly was put off by the mechanical work content and draining pace was able to get out, but it took the third most powerful guy in the firm a full year to do that. It was pretty clear that one of the ways the firm minimized internal friction was to prohibit partners from poaching on each other’s departments, and it was thus only in pretty unusual cases that exceptions were made). And I have to say that another motivating factor was that I was naive enough to go to Goldman thinking I could become a partner (I was pursued very aggressively by Goldman, so that was not as nutty as it might seem) but it became obvious that being a woman and being not Jewish at Goldman in the early 1980s were two strikes against me, when I could barely afford one.

          I could easily have left Goldman….to go to the same job at a lesser firm, since a Goldman-trained underwriting associate was a highly prized item. There was not much point in that. The point of leaving Goldman was to leave underwriting.

          I was fortunate enough to have gotten a job offer from McKinsey when I was a graduating MBA, and they said, “If you ever change your mind, call us.” That’s what I did. And in those days, unlike now, consultants were initially better paid than people in investment banking, with the crossover happening roughly two years out of business school. So I managed to not have to take a pay cut, although I clearly gave up a lot of upside.

  10. Synoia

    Two points:

    1. There were a number of young Banker suicides in the City of London

    2. This attitude towards the young serfs is addressed by forming a union.

    Companies get the unions they deserve.

    1. Inverness

      You’re right. But Would young bankers ever form a union, though? I suspect they are programmed against anything resembling collective bargaining.

  11. JerryDenim

    I skimmed the Times piece on young Wall Street suicides and was a bit surprised to see the majority of the comments were not sympathetic. I wish I was able to muster more sympathy for those young squandered lives but truthfully I felt the same way. Pointless yes, tragic, maybe? They all did it to themselves by the ruthless and all-consuming worship of money. Nobody goes to Wall Street these days for any reason other than to get rich.

    After the curtain was pulled back on Wall Street in 2008, all of the talk about ‘muppets’, ‘ripping faces off’, and the breath-taking frauds like ‘Timberwolf’ and other such securitized products which were built to implode so the sellers could collect fire insurance on their client’s homes; No one in my opinion could have any illusions regarding just what kind of snake pit they would be getting mixed up in by pursuing a career on Wall Street. I believe the recent wave of Wall Street suicides are self-selecting just as much as they are a product of a toxic work culture. Only a very spiritually and psychologially sick individual would even consider a Wall Street career these days. I believe those young people were already badly damaged and quite ill both spiritually and psychologically before they ever showed up for their internships. The official religion of modern America is materialism, so it’s not surprising that there is no shortage of applicants willing to sell their soul for a shot at big money.

    The flip side of that sad reality is doing good pays sh*t. If you want to do a job that helps people and makes the world a better place it is expected that you should be ready to work for free or next to nothing. If you want to get paid you better be ready to screw over your fellow man because ‘we’ don’t pay people well who get to go home feeling happy about what they do at work. The American workforce seems seems to be bifurcating itself into two distinct ethical halves. There is a middle way with middling pay and a decent lifestyle for mediocre ‘do-no-harm’ type of jobs, but I feel those careers are vanishing by the day.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The “muppets” and “ripping faces off” is on the trader side. They don’t work the insane hours.

      The bankers care more about appearances and also have to have the clients be willing to hire them. The guys in derivatives are the most exploitative and IMHO derivatives played a big role in the decay of Wall Street.The risks are embedded in them and virtually no clients have any idea of the risks they are eating and if they are not being ripped off by having too much risk shifted onto them in the structure. They are perfect for fleecing clients.

      I’m not saying the people on the investment banking side aren’t exploitative in their own way. One of the biggies is making sure their client win a M&A deal, even when the price and terms have evolved during the negotiations so that it’s no longer a good deal. But people on the investment banking side have incentives to keep their clients alive, while traders view everyone in the market as just another counterparty. In the old days management used to work to mitigate that, but now with the shift in Wall Street revenues, traders have moved to the top at many of these firms (look at Lloyd Blankfein).

      And I agree that our priorities are all screwed up. The way teachers are being pressured on pay and demonized is appalling. And home health care aides are paid worse than yard men. I could go on.

      1. JerryDenim

        “The “muppets” and “ripping faces off” is on the trader side. They don’t work the insane hours.

        The bankers care more about appearances and also have to have the clients be willing to hire them. The guys in derivatives are the most exploitative…”

        Slow, drawn-out bleed versus a one-time quick, vicious burn. Same predatory behavior, same generalized lack of ethics, but yes point taken considering the two distinct sides of the biz. If a company is rotten at the top and all of the various departments are still operating under the same name and management structure it seems to me that all bad behavior would reflect poorly upon the entire company/bank regardless of which ‘side’ of the house is the most criminal. This discussion reminds me a bit of the Jake DeSantis (?) letter to the NY Times crying about his bonus because his unit at AIG didn’t sell the ruinous credit default swaps. I’m not aware of workers in any other business outside of finance that are allowed such considerations.

        If the company you work for is evil, any work you do is aiding and enabling regardless of what your day to day tasks consist of. Illegal foreclosures, derivatives, M&A, plain vanilla banking, whatever. Mastermind or cog, there is still personal culpability.

        1. Yves Smith Post author

          I have to tell you, we live in a society where people are required to sell their labor to survive. It’s a big leap to go from Santis, who was a dope for asking for sympathy as an employee of an effectively bankrupt company (employees at Enron lost not only their jobs, but their savings, since they’d been strongly encouraged to put their 401 (k) funds in Enron stock) to demonizing everyone who works in finance. Even at the high end, there are roles that are pretty blameless, like doing stock and bond underwritings (that BTW is largely the result of those areas being heavily regulated).

          You are SERIOUSLY telling me bank tellers should be seen as guilty when they have no decision making authority? Or doctors who work in emergency rooms are guilty because their employers regularly drive people into bankruptcy via the way they game hospital charges (loading in out of network doctors to escape being subjected to negotiated discounts)?

          1. Jerry Denim

            Who among us is without sin or fault? Is there a perfect organization anywhere? No. Of course not, but I believe there are certain companies that are so consistently corrupt and awful that it is in their DNA to profiteer by inflicting harm on others. I would put Goldman, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Wells Fargo on my personal, highly arbitrary list. Others might not include them, others might have a much longer list or no list at all. I don’t bank with companies like that and I would never work for any of them unless I was in the most dire of circumstances. (I don’t consider making the payments on a 1% lifestyle of luxury homes, 100k cars, and elite private schools dire) If you’re the guy who keeps the books for a slaver, a drug cartel or a Nazi death camp you’re still a slaver, a narco, a Nazi etc. Those are my personal ethics but I realize not everyone would agree. I’m not a vegan but I understand why people are. Anyone who earns an outsized paycheck doing what you call a “blameless” job for a criminal finance organization is still part of the problem in my opinion. Corporations have no mind of their own, they are made up of people, lots of them, some good, some bad like anywhere. Any job sliced and diced enough different ways can provide enough separation from one’s employer that a person can rationally argue they are not “directly” involved in bad behavior x,y,z – but I don’t buy it.

            Doctors getting paid outsized salaries while their patients are mercilessly gouged and driven into bankruptcy? That one is a little trickier since some/many people still go into the medical profession out of a genuine desire to help others and many doctors do volunteer work with medical non-profits which aim to help the truly needy, but it seems to me many young people today seek out a career in medicine only because it is a guaranteed high-paying career with little regard for anything else. I saw the worst vanity license plate ever the other day on an expensive Mercedes sports car. It said “PRE-MED”. A boastful ‘ladies-come-get-some-of-this-future-rich-doctor’ announcement for some spoiled little jerk whose daddy had bought him a 100k car and will undoubtedly fork over the hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay his way into a second-rate Caribbean med school when he eventually finishes his “pre-med” program. The comments section of the Times story on young Wall Street suicides was littered with comments from bitter doctors who were angry that their college buddies who choose finance instead of medicine made more money than them, and yet miraculously they themselves avoided suicide during their residencies. I haven’t passed judgement on the medical profession yet, and no one would care if I did, but you’re right Yves the optics of doctors being paid so extravagantly while their patients are driven to financial ruin is getting increasingly ugly looking from the outside.

            1. griffen

              Some of the bank names you reference, they employ ordinary people in mundane places like Charlotte NC or Lewisville, TX, and those employees most likely do not – DO NOT – support a 1% lifestyle.

              The employment profile for a large organization like Bank of America, or Wells Fargo, is very likely assymetrical. Lots of positions near the top pay very well; those nearer the lower end, not so much.

    2. participant-observer-observed

      Thanks for pointing out that the most valuable jobs are never funded: this is the most insidious factor. The social workers, hospital chaplains, etc., are still required to have master’s degrees for board certification, and are expected help hold everyone together when people and their families, rich and poor, experience trauma.

      But there is no funding support or social esteem for such education, and these highly trained professionals have to take on the obscene levels of student debt in order to graduate. But if in arms manufacturing, you will be paid $50k a year to get that master’s degree!

      Notice only rarely do any of the hyper wealthy take up such training in these jobs!

    3. jrs

      “There is a middle way with middling pay and a decent lifestyle for mediocre ‘do-no-harm’ type of jobs, but I feel those careers are vanishing by the day.”

      This has always been my choice. Though I have tried at times, I usually think the labor competition for jobs that do good is too fierce, everyone wants one of those. But I resolved long ago never to do the really evil jobs. Under-acheiver and proud of it!

  12. Ed

    I’ve always wondered why more people didn’t do this for a couple of years and quit. Probably human resource departments are very good at screening out people likely to follow this strategy. And the hazing probably works against it, you either drink the coolaid or are out in a couple months, not leaving in a couple of years.

    In terms of legislation, this could be fixed by ending exemptions from labor laws for “managerial” employees.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      If you are working those kind of hours, everyone you know is at your firm or is a service provider to your firm. Your personal network is pretty shallow. And your contacts from your grad school days will be sufficiently junior in their roles where they landed that they won’t be much help in getting a job either.

      Recall how hiring goes today: recruiters want someone who had done precisely the same job elsewhere. No one wants to train anyone. So sure, you can get a job….doing the job you are doing now and want to leave, just at another firm.

  13. Jim

    What kind of cultural message would be necessary in order to be absolved of the need to physically, emotionally and morally degrade ourselves to the extent necessary to gain wealth, status and supposed supremacy?

    Is the “Left” capable of articulating such an alternative cultural message? Or does the “Left” tend to present itself as above such strivings?

    Can the personal pursuit of supremacy be linked to the national pursuit of supremacy?

    What is strength?

    Does a unrelenting pursuit of strength lead to a type of death instinct?

    Is such a death instinct linked to American foreign policy?

  14. Roquentin

    After thinking about this some more, I’m starting to believe the reason investment banks behave this way towards employees and even management is primarily ideological. The reason boot camp is so brutal is because you’re training people to kill on command without hesitation or question. A predatory environment based on domination and power is a basic component of that ideology. Likewise, if the entire goal of an organization is to raid and pillage as much money as physically possible, you need an culture brutal enough to create people who will serve those goals. It also serves to weed out those who aren’t sufficiently committed to making profits above anything and everything else. Not unlike cults, once one has been willing to sever ties with friends and family, once one has already given up so much in the name of an organization, it makes leaving or questioning the group that much more difficult.

    It’s somewhat depressing to think that even the people getting fantastically wealthy from this system are miserable. That’s when you have to tell yourself that capitalism is about one thing and one thing only: capital accumulating more capital, money making more money off of itself, taking back more in profit from an investment than you put in. Happiness and fulfillment have very little to do with it, not even for the guys at the top.

  15. Ignim Brites

    Would it really be surprising if coming out of our best universities there would be a consensus that death is as good as or better than life.

  16. craazyman

    This is “deep thoughts” territory.

    I myself saw and experienced this phenomenon as a three ring circus operating around me while I rode down Broadway in a limousine. The jugglers and the clowns, how they all did tricks for you. Never understood that it ain’t no good to let other people get your kicks for you. -BD haha. I was in the circus for a while but not a juggler and not a clown. I was a trapeze artist. Then I flew away into the dark and learned how hard it is to make rent. Wow. That was when the real education started.

    What these kids do isn’t really work. They don’t even know what it is to work for a living, for rent, to work for the little pieces of money that make you survive in bodily form. They have no idea. What they are experiencing is a soul crucifixion. It is pain. it’s an illness, a social illness in fact, but it isn’t work.

    Evidently something drives lemmings over a cliff and you look at them and you think it must be something in the universe so far away from you that it’s like a dim galaxy in the eyepiece of a telescope. No. It’s not. It’s in your DNA and you’re looking at yourself. It’s weird.

    1. Jed1571

      Evidently something drives lemmings over a cliff and you look at them and you think it must be something in the universe so far away from you that it’s like a dim galaxy in the eyepiece of a telescope. No. It’s not. It’s in your DNA and you’re looking at yourself. It’s weird.

      This is very profound in my very humble opinion.

      It’s weird, but also beyond most to understand.

  17. floo

    I think this is connected with a broader trend in society: One of the consequences of growing inequality is a magnification in the stakes for the younger generations of things that used to be minor even 10 years ago. Small differences like fractions of a high school gpa can mean the difference between a high-paying job and financially struggling after graduation. Hence, the growth of adderall use and anything else that can give an advantage. Of course, the squillionaires and their children are immune to these issues — they can buy their way into anything they want now because they have been strangling public institutions to the point where public institutions are now dependent upon squillionaires for survival.

    1. craazyman

      those would be big tears for a cockroach!

      this is a very deep thoughts post and topic. the pilot wave vs. the gnostic wave, that’s the topic that floats behind the words like an invisible orb 10 yards wide.

      the pilot wave gets formed by the serpent and the gnostic wave by the being of light. people have to choose. most chose the pilot wave and run over the cliff. it”s weird how simple it all really is. why is it so simple and so hard? Straight is the gate and narrow is the way, so sayeth the Good Book.

      this is in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Testament of Amram, Manuscript B. People can look it up on the internet if they don’t believe me. See for yourselves! I’m not making this up.

  18. greensachs

    I fully realize your background and thus authority in this depiction of societal nutbaggery. However, this topic has spilled over and is swirling about our communities, seemingly, like never before. While the financial food chain being discussed is certainly clear, would not it be just as relevant in other demographics as well?

    Within our real economy many of our debt saddled (educational or otherwise) young adults are working in service positions for corporate leviathans. The same anxieties, lack of emotional support, various department managers, no one cares characteristics you so aptly describe are correlative. The one distinctive difference that sets them apart is that their debt diploma’s, relative to their pay have gotten them a position that cannot possibly foresee how to make ends meet.
    They too bought into an idea of success in America but the punitive and unhealthy levels of participation is coming at a greater cost than their meager pay.
    Of course, in a slack labor market it is all the better to leverage one against the other.
    Fully appreciating your take at the top, are we not lost in today’s market fundamentalism on many
    different levels?

  19. danB

    “Why does this matter? It’s another sign of the fraying of our social structures.” Sounds like Durkheim on suicide, probably the anomic type, “Anomic suicide reflects an individual’s moral confusion and lack of social direction…”

  20. ekstase

    When I was a child and first learned about the suicides on Wall Street in1929, I couldn’t fathom it. Because we are taught to revere these (mostly) men. But then, some of us are also engrained with: do what’s right. This duality comes to a head at some point in life, and I’m beginning to think the date at which it arrives depends, among other things, on our personality type. But it will arrive; your body will do you in if you don’t listen. That is not to say that I think this is deserved. These grueling schedules are insane. Our society devalues souls. You can’t really do this to yourself, or to others. It will backfire.

  21. PQS

    Even though the rarified air of Wall Street can honestly be revealed as the cesspool of overwork and underappreciation that it most certainly is, it has been my suspicion (and those of my peers) that the rot is nowhere near restricted to Wall Street (or the other end of the spectrum – low wage jobs).

    Work in America has become a relentless push, and I firmly believe I’m being asked to do the work of at least 1 1/2 to 2 people all the time, and this has gone on for at least a decade. I’ve been in the construction industry for almost 20 years, and even 10 years ago it wasn’t like this. I regularly put in weekend and late hours on the computer (which I also blame for the constant work cycle), on email, or just “catching up” on correspondence. So do most of my peers, except for the field guys. We’re both killing our bodies – they’re just killing them more directly that we desk jockeys are.

    I blame the push of banking and investment demands on most of the trends on commercial construction, but I think it’s really everywhere: A symptom of an empire in decline, no less: work the slaves harder, harder, for the glory of the King!

  22. flora

    I know nothing about Wall Street or investment banks (except for what I read at NC), but I think a couple things that didn’t exist 30 years ago are now adding to the pressure: smartphones/laptops/tablets 24/7 communication from the company that one is expected to respond to in a timely fashion, and 20 years of reality tv shows such as Survivor that normalize a self-destructive and social-destructive competitiveness once deemed beyond the pale.

  23. Oregoncharles

    A good example of the value a former insider – with connections – can bring to the discussion.

    And it reminds me of something: When Occupy Wall St. was most active, PBS interviewed three (I think it was) young women, former quants, who had resigned their jobs to work with OWS. They were very impressive; I remember hoping they’d left with substantial nest eggs. Unfortunately, I don’t remember their names (never real great at that).

    Does anyone know what became of them – or even their names? They’re the sort of people we really need to take care of, if we can, but frequently can’t. And there were probably more like them, who didn’t appear on TV.

    1. griffen

      One of those women was named Alexis. It could be different than who you thought of, but I have seen her interviewed before; exceptionally smart.

      A small snippet of a website, reflects the work she had performed until 2012;
      “creating proprietary software for equity option pricing and volatility surface modeling.”

  24. Gabriel

    Yves, mega-late, but, from having observed the (far less harsh) competitive pressures at the elite-PhD level in academia, I wonder whether you (and other finance types reading this) think there’s an equivalent in Wall St/finance of what I’ll try to describe below.

    My question would be, apropos your horrifying story about the guy with the spreadsheets (I think you mentioned it before, but it always chills the blood),

    Do you remember how important finishing that last set of spreadsheets might actually have been, even to the most pared-down, short-term, profit-maximizing objective the guy’s firm may have had?

    I ask because I remember how almost everyone around me at the grad/early-tenure-track level was obsessed by what I can only call “real-time observable” measures of performance. The fact that your presentation or whatever might or might not turn out well even a week from now was irrelevant, the thing was to have something that allowed at-least-daily evidence of how smart and high-performing you were.

    An undergrad example I think many nc readers will recognize is the person boasting of having “pulled two all-nighters in a row.” My reaction, both in grad and undergrad, was “yeah, it shows” (in the paper, presentation, whatever). But ultimate quality of paper, etc., didn’t even seem to matter (mine wd do fine, btw, which is partly why I was surprised by the boasting)–the really important thing was this constant, cod-game-theoretic displays of “costly signals” about oneself.

    As it happens, I came across a former Ranger who’s criticized the modern military’s obsession with Ranger School in comparable terms:

    The Ranger Web site says the third phase of Ranger School takes place in a swamp. It sure does. Why? Do military units work in swamps? I suspect it may have happened once in the history of the world. American Revolutionary War officer Francis Marion was known as the Swamp Fox for some of his maneuvers in South Carolina. But I cannot recall off hand any other swamp operations by any other military unit of any country in any war in history.

    When I searched for “military swamp operations” in Google, it asked me if I meant “swap.” Most of the resulting search results were about U.S. Army Ranger School or use of the phrase “drain the swamp” in military discussions. They do not teach Rangers how to drain the swamp. That’s probably the only thing they ought to teach about a swamp—other than to avoid them.

    So why is one-third of Ranger School in a swamp? Probably because it sounds really horrible in a Hollywood way. In other words, it’s a show-off stunt chosen for its public-relations benefits, not its relevance to real military operations—not unlike rappelling and riding the “slide for life.”

    If I were an Army commander near a swamp that contained enemy soldiers, my response to learning of where they were would probably be, “They’re in the swamp? Great! Let ’em stay there. They’ll be straggling out looking for food and medical care soon enough. We’ll get ’em then.” I sure as hell would not go into the swamp after them unless they proved able to mount significant operations against us from there, which I doubt they could. How would they rest? How would they get much equipment, weapons, and ammunition through the swamp? How would they get resupplied? How would they evacuate their wounded and sick? Ranger School students who die in the swamp phase often did so because it took too many hours to get them to a hospital.

    During World War II in the Pacific, we let hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers languish on swamp-like tropical islands for the entire war.

    Most Ranger School student deaths appear to be in the swamp phase.

    So, in terms of the above, I suppose my question is, do you think some of these horrific, deadly tests finance types are subjecting themselves to might simply be a kind of Wall St. equivalent of “the swamp phase”?

    1. Oregoncharles

      You forget the Seminole War. In my youth, the Seminoles were the only native tribe with no peace treaty – because they had fought the army to a standstill in the swamps.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      I hate to say it, but virtually all of the work is necessary to make client sales pitches or get the deals one. At Goldman, there was only one time I had the misfortune to be assigned to a guy who really abused the people under him by making them do disproportionate work for him by preparing for all sorts of contingencies re what the client might want that had low odds of happening.

      Most of what was terrible about the work environment was the result of: having no boss (as in being part of a junior work pool, assigned to a bunch of different people on a bunch of different clients and deals, none of whom cared about your deadlines for anyone else. The onus was on your to figure out how to get it all done), zero tolerance for error (remember, in a setting where exhaustion is routine and thus you are even more at risk of making a mistake), constantly changing priorities due to moving markets (as in you walk in in the morning with a dim idea of what you need to do and it changes pretty much all the time, as in you might need to run back home to grab clothes and make a flight, and wonder how you are going to get all that other work you need to do done…).

      They need to hire more junior staff at a minimum. But that means even fewer of those hired would make it to the more senior levels (as in you increase the base of the pyramid but that would not result in more opportunities for promotion). So more people get blown out in 2-4 years. Or you create a bigger “underclass” of permanent worker bees who never expect to be on the managing director track but are paid pretty well. Maybe those people don’t work in a high cost city. You have those higher-power support people work in say Memphis, or Cleveland or Philadelphia, or Portland Maine, someplace that has office space, is a pretty short direct flight from NYC (in case you need to round up a team to work shoulder by shoulder on a big crunch project), but has way lower real estate costs than NYC so the local wage levels are lower too.

      1. JTMcPhee

        Just exactly like law firms — lots of “grinders” doing the slave labor, fewer “minders” who are supposed to “manage the clients,” mostly to keep other wolves from cutting them out of the firm’s harem, and a very few “finders,” the golf-players and principle suck-ups who stay busy trying to poach other firms’ clients. All in a jungle where you “eat what you kill.” http://www.newrepublic.com/article/114255/collapse-big-law-firms-continues

        Zeero sympathy for any of these bloodsuckers.

  25. BEast

    Interesting essay. My question is, do top executives actually consider the young suicides part of “their cohort”?

    Everything I’ve seen about social stratification is that it does its harm partly by numerically limiting people’s social peers. I.e., in a highly stratified society, everyone is either your superior or your subordinate; you don’t have lateral social ties of equals.

    (When Wall Streeters stood at their windows with signs saying “We Are The 1%” during Occupy, they were in effect saying they didn’t consider their chronological peers on the street their equals in dignity or status.)

    Lack of peer ties may have played a role for the young suicides, but what I wonder about is the mindset of the bosses. In what, if any, sense do they consider their low-level employees theirs? Their cogs, their payroll, yes. Their responsibility, their coworkers, their equals in dignity? I know little about Wall Street, but I’m guessing not.

    If the crisis should have taught us anything, it should be that other people don’t matter to banksters, at all.

    1. Lambert Strether

      Well said:

      When Wall Streeters stood at their windows with signs saying “We Are The 1%” during Occupy, they were in effect saying they didn’t consider their chronological peers on the street their equals in dignity or status

      Yep. Which is why generational analysis is such a crock; it can’t give a coherent account of events like that, or the meaning of events like that.

      1. BEast

        I certainly agree that generational analysis is extremely limited — it leaves out too many other crucial factors like class and race, not to mention lumping together people separated so much in age that claiming they have cultural experiences in common is really stretching it. 15 years is a lot of time these centuries.

        Recently I learned that at the start of WWII, when the first Soviet (or Russian?) draftees were drafted out of high school en masse, out of every 100 young men who were drafted, 3 came home alive. That stunned me. I could see that being an argument for something that affected a whole generation. But everyone of a certain age being affected by some event is not the same as everyone being affected in the same way, and even less does it imply everyone responded the same way.

        1. Oregoncharles

          The butchery in WWI was even more severe. Apparently, at the French military academy, their memorial wall reads, at one, point: “The Class of 1913.” “The Class of 1914,” and so on. Of course, that’s just the officers.

          I agree that generations are a bit long for cultural and historical similarity, but after many years’ experience, I think generations are more significant than Lambert does. Cohorts of maybe 5 years are probably better. There are obviously all sorts of qualifications, like class and location, but within those, generations have a lot in common. What they DON’T have is agency; they have influences in common, but not decisions, except insofar as they were organized.

  26. low_integer

    I just want to express my gratitude for your posts on the finance world. Having someone who has seen the inside workings of this sector firsthand explain the details and provide assessments of the current issues and events is an extremely valuable resource for those of us who are trying to make sense of it from the sidelines. Thankyou.

  27. Tom

    You know all this news on naked capitalism about American culture(work,home,etc) makes it look like as if the USA is in a really really bad state. And the worse part being that this culture is being exported and looked up to in many other parts of the world who know no better or dont read any of this. They still think the USA is the best place to live! I sense a need for a peaceful backlash by American citizens and/or from the outside.

    @Yves – Yves, in my opinion, an important report has come out critiquing the US’s climate action plan by an Indian public-interest organisation that you have previously cross posted from Triple Crisis. Here’s the link – http://cseindia.org/userfiles/Capitan-America-Report.pdf The conclusion in particular is very suprising. The organisation concludes that essentially ” the US has passed on the burden of shifting to renewables to other countries. Countries like India are installing renewables when they are expensive; the US turns to renewables only when they come cheaper.”

    Hope you find it interesting and worth posting about.

  28. Tom

    You reckon this is the culture across all countries in their wall streets? Moroever, you reckon the socio-economic conditions in the USA were deliberately created by many of the top dogs in wall street to sustain this pyramid?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      It certainly is in all the businesses that are internationally competitive and the US and UK firms dominate. But there are a lot of parts of the finance business that don’t have brutal hours, like asset management. And the trading side requires intense concentration (most people burn out by the time they are 40) but you leave your desk at the end of the trading day (now the salesmen have to work longer hours, but that’s almost always entertainment).

  29. Joaquin Closet

    Just like the rash of suicides during the fiscal crisis, the real worry or story isn’t the actual suicide itself; it is actually the harm – usually criminal, although the DoJ would never follow through on it – done to others by the suicidee. That’s right – nameless faces losing thousands or millions of dollars because of your bad choices, risk parameters, whatever. Lack of training and vetting – usually the psychological kind – are to blame for a lot of these ballsy kids failing. To take a kid out of college and throw him into the maw of making (or losing) millions of dollars with a bunch of other kids is akin (in a manner) of taking a kid out of college, giving him (or her) 16 weeks of officer training, then throwing them into the maw of war, or whatever we’re calling our asinine perpetual state of conflict these days. In both cases, neither one is ready for the pressures of the job.

    No one wants to fail; it isn’t the loss of money (or the resultant job loss) or the loss of life (for the military officer) which is the direct cause of remorse. No, it’s the act of failing – something few of these kids ever got a chance to do (or were allowed to do – yeah, I’m looking at you, “Helicopter parents.”)

    We saw this in Vietnam A LOT. Those of us with four years of military academy training and indoctrination ran circles around those who got the Officer Candidate School (OCS) 16 week “Kiddie Course.” Yeah, it was logical – take a Yalie or Princeton grad used to Burberry tweed and, four months later, YOU’RE A CERTIFIED LEADER OF MEN! Works every time.

    More to the point of Wall Streeters – my brother flamed out back in the 1980’s from the rigors of bond selling. It devastated him, but he found his true calling in the porn industry, so he always has something to fall back on. Pun intended.

  30. different clue

    How many of these suicides are genuine suicides? And how many (if any) might be murders made to look like suicides by expert suiciders . . . to seal the lips of the potential whistle blower or testifier at a possible future trial?

    Some of these remind me of the classic National Lampoon “fake news” headline: ” Allende shoots self in head 47 times, pausing only twice to reload.”

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