There’s been a lot of press coverage this morning of a 21-year old Merrill Lynch intern who apparently died of a heart attack after working 3 all-nighters in a row. The press has made this largely into a story about how tough it is these days for young people to secure a good job, and the lengths they will go to to assure success. That’s another rather lazy way for a journalist to draw a conclusion that segues neatly into a discussion about government policy and the economy, so that they can extend the article into a rather longer one about the effects of immigration, and sell it to the Daily Mail – the usual elliptical argument on the lines of “poor British students being turned into slaves as they compete for jobs on a global scale…working practices that would have been scandalous 100 years ago”, and another 1,000 words about the EU being a terribly bad thing. The intern in question was in fact a German on a programme arranged by his university, so yes, he was indeed competing on a global scale, because he was a driven individual who sadly thought that the City was the best place to develop and express a passion for success, and London is the place to be. It says nothing at all about immigration or globalisation, and everything about how superficial society’s concept of a valuable career is.
It makes me really sad that the best students genuinely believe that life in the financial centres of the world – whether London, Hong Kong, New York or Singapore – will fulfil them and give them that answer to everything that has ever frustrated them at school. They think it will stretch them. In fact, a lot of the work strikes me as dull and repetitive, but it requires the ability to process and select from absolutely huge volumes of data at high speed, which gives an illusion of intellectual stimulation. They soon figure this out, but by this time they will already be so tired, and have sacrificed so much to get this “great” job, that they have to keep justifying it on the basis that it will make them rich, which often wasn’t their primary motivation in the first place. They just wanted to prove they could be the best. Only those who have come from poor families really value the money, and perhaps it does make them happy. The ones from the middle classes trail around listlessly ordering champagne they don’t really like, going out with pretty girls they don’t care about, and eventually marrying either a neurotic limpet that makes them feel wanted, or a dull girl that will run their household in exchange for jewellery and will happily collude in the pretence of fidelity. The ones that get promoted won’t necessarily be the ones that work the hardest; as in most hierarchies, the most successful are the ones who delegate well. The reason I don’t talk about the women who do these jobs is that there basically aren’t any.
I’ve only worked on the operations side of the city, which on the whole is populated by more straightforwardly greedy people who want as much money for as little work as possible, so I only really infer all this from some of the people I know. For all I know, it really is an intellectually fulfilling job, and the ridiculous hours are somehow worth it, even if your kids don’t really know who you are, and you have the physiognomy of a 60 year old at 40.
If you’re talented, you’ll become Picasso. Otherwise, forget about “making it”. Friends, family, sport and booze will make you an awful lot happier.
- Investment bank calls for review after intern dies during summer placement (london24.com)
- Bank Intern Dies After ‘Pulling All-Nighters’ (news.sky.com)
- Too much for too little… the death of a Bank of America intern must herald reform of the internship industry (independent.co.uk)
- Bank of America reviews long-hours culture after intern’s death (theguardian.com)