Cognitive Triage on Wall Street

What’s it like to be a junior analyst on Wall Street making $70,000 a year in your early 20s? What sort of people are drawn towards this career path? Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits attempts to answer these questions by tracking a handful of millennial recruits to Wall Street as they navigate a post-crash environment that has changed in some ways yet stubbornly remains the same in others. This immensely readable book is something akin to longitudinal quantitative research, albeit in an obviously journalistic mode, recurrently interviewing these recent graduates as they attempt to cope with the 18 hour working days considered the norm for new analysts. It’s a fascinating read in many respects, not least of all because of its counter-intuitive insights into how graduates are drawn to Wall Street and how they come to remain there:

As strange as it sounds, a big paycheck may not in fact be central to Wall Street’s allure for a certain cohort of young people. This possibility was explained to me several weeks before my Penn trip by a second-year Goldman Sachs analyst, who stopped me short when I posited that college students flock to Wall Street in order to cash in. “Money is part of it,” he said. “But mostly, they do it because it’s easy.” He proceeded to explain that by coming onto campus to recruit, by blitzing students with information and making the application process as simple as dropping a résumé into a box, by following up relentlessly and promising to inform applicants about job offers in the fall of their senior year—months before firms in most other industries—Wall Street banks had made themselves the obvious destinations for students at top-tier colleges who are confused about their careers, don’t want to lock themselves in to a narrow preprofessional track by going to law or medical school, and are looking to put off the big decisions for two years while they figure things out. Banks, in other words, have become extremely skilled at appealing to the anxieties of overachieving young people and inserting themselves as the solution to those worries. And the irony is that although we think of Wall Street as a risk-loving business, the recruiting process often appeals most to the terrified and insecure.

I think this argument coheres with many of the insights that can be found within the emerging adulthoods literature. Immediate material rewards in a climate of endemic insecurity and the promise of postponing difficult decisions by a number of years would inevitably seem tempting to many who might have been profoundly unlikely to be drawn into the orbit of finance in the 1980s or 1990s (not least of all because of the radically different climate greeting new graduates in those decades). However this isn’t true of all, with the author recognising the likelihood that those young financiers willing to risk their jobs by sharing their anxieties with him are likely to be atypical. What I found particularly compelling though was his insight into what it is like day-to-day to live with the demands placed upon the young analysts:

Today, as before the financial crisis, it’s not uncommon for a first-year IBD analyst to work one hundred hours a week—the equivalent of sixteen hours a day during the week, then a mere ten hours on each weekend day. Which is not to say that these twenty-two-year-olds are actively doing one hundred hours’ worth of work every week. In fact, many sit around idly for hours a day, listening to music or reading their favorite blogs while they wait for a more senior banker to assign them work. (These drop-offs are never pleasant, but they’re worst when they happen at 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. as the senior banker is leaving for the day, giving the analyst a graveyard shift’s worth of work before he or she can go home and sleep.)

In an important sense they forego personal responsibility to choose how to spend their time, with the challenges this poses for synchronising everyday routine with longer term plans and aspirations. They are cut off from the non-financial world, with social media blocked within the offices where they spend 18 hours each day and on site services designed to minimise the need for errands and their attendant human contact outside the firm. They are encouraged to socialise together, within specific venues that graduate in cost and prestige as the analysts work their way through the clearly delineated hierarchy. Rigid sartorial norms are enforced aggressively: don’t over-dress but don’t under-dress. Certainly don’t out-dress the boss. The whole thing generates something the author describes as cognitive triage, with everyday demands blotting out reflexivity about the medium and the long term:

The compartmentalization phenomenon turned out to be bigger than Jeremy and Samson, and bigger even than Goldman Sachs. As I interviewed dozens of young analysts at firms across the financial sector, I heard the same kinds of answers to my questions about morality and ethics: “I don’t know, I never really think about it.” “I’m just trying not to fuck up.” “Dude, I’m so far away from anything like that…” Entry-level analysts, it seemed, were so routinely exhausted, and so minutely focused on their day-to-day tasks—on pleasing their bosses, nailing every page of their pitch books, and avoiding getting in trouble—that they often avoided thinking about the big picture. It was a sort of cognitive triage, and daily concerns always took priority over long-term, large-scale worries. Still, there was no doubt that these worries existe

I love this phrase. I think ‘cognitive triage’ is something by no means restricted to those working in finance. However what the author skilfully demonstrates is how cognitive triage can work to render these frantic actors uniquely susceptible to professional socialisation, accumulating habits of manner and outlook because the intensity of daily precludes the time for withdrawal and consideration, making it impossible to reflect in a consistent way upon whether this is really what they want to do and who they want to be. This is great book – highly recommended.


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