News of young talent fleeing investment banks, employers scrambling to lure them back, and all the memes of overworked analysts might make it seem like woke millennials aren’t willing to burn the midnight oil. Post-pandemic life has been an opportunity for introspection. Gone are the days when a long, lucrative career in finance — and all the social capital that comes with it — seemed appealing.
But the real reason no one wants to work in banking isn’t just the terrible hours and a generational awakening. It’s that, like banks themselves, the work isn’t what it used to be.
Sources of investment banking revenue have been the same for years. Bankers have been talking the same old book. Slides that proposed companies for mergers have shown up in pitchbooks year after year. (Many of those firms ended up merging almost a decade after such ideas were first floated.) It’s a far cry from the fast-paced, creative dealmaking that eager new hires imagined they’d be doing.
It’s true that frenzied trading over the past year has led to blowout earnings. Large volumes of deals, and the fees that go with them, have helped, too. But even if you find inspiration in the digitization of finance and fintech, the guts of the banking business remain plain-vanilla market making and brokering. The sector is structurally stagnating.
Every time there has been an opportunity to reinvent how money is used or raised — or an industry is chased — a boom has been followed by a spectacular bust. Think of all the hype around equity derivatives that preceded the dotcom bubble. Then the flurry of activity in credit structured products, which ended in the global financial crisis. Those implosions were followed by tightening regulation that killed financial innovation, the ethos of risk-taking and the growth that made work thrilling for hotshot graduates of top schools. Businesses that minted money doing things like proprietary trading and balance sheet lending have been relegated to the past.
Many of those changes have been important and necessary for the broader stability of the financial system. Yet it’s also worth recognizing how regulation changed the nature of banking in the post-crisis era, and the type of employees the industry can now attract. Companies are more focused on paying for compliance functions and the costs that come with it.
These dim prospects for growth have sent job-seekers elsewhere, usually after putting in a year or two at a mainstream bank. Ask a first-year analyst why she’s churning through Excel models and PowerPoints, and she’ll tell you she’s headed off to an asset manager for a better work-life balance and higher pay. As J.P. Morgan analysts wrote recently, increased regulation triggered more automation and led to “the human factor becoming less important unlike in a… highly bespoke world of financial industries,” referring to the products of the dotcom bubble and the 2008 crisis. The analysts noted that banks are becoming more like machines, “with less dependency on human capital.”
For those who want to stay in finance, non-bank financial institutions, growth equity firms and other, smaller financial-services businesses have become better options. Partly because they are less regulated and more nimble, such employers can give young workers a venue to learn how to take risk. Meanwhile, pure science and engineering graduates who once would have been lured into structuring and building quantitative trading models, would rather go to Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) or work on battery technology and at electric vehicle startups like Rivian Automotive Inc.
Over a decade ago, analysts loved to spout off self-deprecating comments like, “On a per hour basis, we get paid like a McDonald’s worker.” But secretly they prided themselves in the 20-hour days and high pay. That is no longer something to flaunt, especially when there isn’t a real end-goal in sight. Nobody hunkers down in a bullpen and banks for decades anymore.
Those who have lasted are martyrs of sorts. I was speaking to a workhorse-banker friend recently, who began his career almost 15 years ago, when I did. After sleepless nights in the office, we’d have existential conversations at Starbucks on Park Avenue. He stayed in the industry long after I decided to leave.
He’s now a managing director, watching these “kids come and go” as “money is being thrown at them.” Much like the discussions we once had, there’s even less upward mobility now. Giants — and dinosaurs — of the industry are still around, moving across and around firms, capping growth. He wonders where to go from here, with his family in tow. His boss has been around for the last 20-odd years, and while he was able to get out from under him for a while and try new things, he’s once again operating in his shadow.
Banks, no doubt, need to be regulated and some of the riskiest businesses shouldn’t come back. But, with that in mind, the industry should be thinking about the types of candidates they’re trying to recruit. This round of talent-shedding should be a wake-up call: In the post-pandemic era, keeping young employees will be about something more existential than money and perks.