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Goldman Sachs: banks benefit from trainees who think they must be superhuman to measure up

Young female executive with her hands in the air in front of some skyscrapers
Supertrainee! PKPix

The working conditions at leading investment bank Goldman Sachs are “inhumane” and “abusive”, according to a group of junior bankers who work there. In an unofficial survey circulating on social media, they complained of 95-hour average working weeks and getting only five hours of sleep a night, starting at 3am.

Listen to an audio version of this story here.

This wasn’t entirely news. Such conditions are not uncommon in financial services and have been for a long time, as explored so intelligently by the recent BBC series Industry.

Neither are the Goldman junior bankers demanding a radical change. They make clear in the survey that they knew they weren’t getting into a nine-to-five job. Their main demands are maximum 80-hour weeks and no work between 9pm on Friday nights and Sunday mornings.

One case we previously looked at was the notorious story of Moritz Erhardt, a summer intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, who died in August 2013 after attempting to work non-stop for three days and nights. The 21-year-old had been desperately trying to ensure a “return offer” – a job offer after finishing his university studies.

We analysed Moritz’s case at the time. What struck us, among other things, was that his father, a psychoanalyst, emphasised that the bank was not exploiting his son. He believed that Moritz did it to himself:

He wasn’t just interested in the money. He wanted to do good in the world. I’ve been sorting through some of his things and I found a quote from Marilyn Monroe he’d made a note of which went, ‘I don’t want to make money, I just want to be wonderful’.

It raises a question that we had been trying to answer even before Moritz’s tragic death. Why are people in finance willing to work to such levels of intensity on a continuous basis?

The obvious answer would be the financial rewards, but it might not be as simple. Moritz’s father explained that “part of what Moritz loved about the work was the intensity and the esprit de corps that developed during those long days and nights in the office”.

To make sense of this, we have to look at the cultural context.

Employability above all

When the leading philologist George Steiner gave an extensive autobiographical interview in 2007, he said:

The young in Europe have never been as hopeless … [They have] no sense of an ideology, no sense of any political or utopian future … Nobody is going to die for a hedge fund, nobody is going to die for the enormous entertainment industries, for the mass media, for athletic worship – which is all the young have.

Professor Steiner was a refined observer of society and culture, but did not somehow see that hedge funds, entertainment industries, mass media and sport have become prime sources of a new ideology of personal success and advancement. They mobilise, sometimes totally, the interests, energies and commitment of large numbers of people around the world.

It is a world in which money, success, status and celebrity are now central ingredients of culture. They dictate what is of value, and popular culture seems to reinforce them constantly.

Goldman Sachs posters
Sachs appeal. 360b

Having observed intake after intake of university students, they nowadays view their education as an “investment” in terms of how employable it will make them. Their primary preoccupation is with the status of the job they will get after graduation. Financial services are among the most sought-after. As a result, financial institutions can create intense, almost desperate bonds of commitment from the people they hire.

Super me

The last two decades have witnessed the exponential growth of a new language about employment in major corporations. Replete with the superlative human qualities that these employers expect of candidates, the vocabulary of employability has been fused with the jargon of the “self”.

As one recent advert put it by quoting a successful graduate from its management scheme, “I’m still me, but the most confident, all-conquering version of me.” This was the supermarket chain Aldi, but it neatly sums up the mindset in financial services.

Something very powerful happens through this kind of vocabulary. It provides clues for understanding why employability has gained such overarching importance too: corporations have become almost like temples, and in an era obsessed with the self, we believe that we must become somehow superhuman to meet their standards – it’s a vicious circle in which the self and perceptions of top corporations reinforce one another.

Working for such employers is not the only thing that validates people’s sense of self here. The accounting consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) advertised its graduate scheme some years ago with the following message: “Being the one who never stands still.” This is not to suggest that PwC shares a work culture with Goldman, but it encapsulates the other side of the coin to the complaints of the junior bankers: working for such organisations promises personal growth, development, learning, achievement, creativity and so on.

These now define the horizon of expectations for such jobs. But when workers reach breaking point, be it in the financial sector or elsewhere, we must recognise this as the moment when superlative expectations run into reality. None of this superlative human “potential” is endless.

PwC poster
Consultancy PwC capturing the personal rewards linked to working for top firms. PricewaterhoouseCoopers

When performing at work is presented as a kind of absolute and inescapable test of the “self”, we need to grasp the broader cultural dynamic in which many young people need to be valued in this way. We are all “creative talents” now – we keep telling ourselves this constantly and demand recognition for it too.

This is why the revelations at Goldman Sachs do not feel surprising or exceptional. It means that calls for intervention and regulation to improve conditions might be futile. We need to have an urgent debate about the values that we have instilled in young people, and the ways in which they are judged by would-be employers.

A Goldman spokesperson said:

We recognise that our people are very busy, because business is strong and volumes are at historic levels … A year into COVID, people are understandably quite stretched, and that’s why we are listening to their concerns and taking multiple steps to address them.

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