The City Syndrome

The recent death of Mortiz Erhardt during his internship at the Bank of America has caused a lot of stir in national media. Articles condemning exploitation of youth, and the cutthroat and inhumane culture in the realms of investment banking were brought to the front pages of all self-respecting tabloids.

Shock, terror, disgust and a series of personal confessions of the miserable lives of the ex-employees,ex-interns and ex-believers in the dreaming spires of glass skyscrapers have been painted on the walls and screens of all news providers.

Some direct their anger to the industry itself. “Investment banking,” they scream, “is just awful. It’s morally repugnant, heatless and soulless.” Others look to laws and regulations. The government should invest more time and money in clearer policy in industries known for their inhumane hours. There should be more done to monitor employersand prevent the exploitation of youths.

There are even threats directed at the interns themselves who are said to self-enforce and self-perpetuate stereotypes of all-nighters and magic roundabouts as the symptoms of a prestigious highlife, not a chronically unhealthy one.

What a lot of these articles fail to address directly, however, is the much more pertinent issue of how exactly the city and industries like that of investment banking fit into the broader picture of society and, more specifically, the opportunities available to outstanding graduates. The fact stands – the investment banking industry draws disproportionately large part of some of the UK’s most academically talented youths. What does not seem so clear, however, is how thousands of intelligent people are willing to give up their time, friends, academic curiosity and, some might say, their souls, to commit to a 100hour-a-week job which requires nothing more than routinely repetition, a rigid hierarchy preventing too rapid a promotion, and the removal of all sense of ownership as you plough through numbers which ensure the maintenance of someone else’s wealth.

Where the error seems to be rooted however lies in the fact that those high achievers are not merely interested in academia in the abstract – if so we’d be in the library, not the examination schools. They (and I mean We) are also interested in general, if not institutionalized, success. And more importantly, they are interested in the fact that a straightforward university ranking system allows them to prove or measure their success easily. It also allows society to do so. Whether you went to Oxbridge, LSE, UCL or any other Russell Group university, what you come out with is some knowledge of your subject and a much more thorough knowledge of your worth as a graduate of that given prestigious institution.

The rules at this level are simple and straightforward – success is getting into a good university. Upon graduation, however, the system becomes more complex. Now there appears to be a diaspora of success. Everyone can be successful in their chosen sphere and no simple TIME Guide can tell them which sphere it is that really means success.

Anyone with such motivation is therefore driven into a very bizarre phenomenon of the modern age – what I have chosen to call the City Syndrome (which may have been said before, but I’m far too lazy to research it).

In many ways the city is the modern Oxbridge. The spires are there but instead they are made of glass. They are slick and modern, but more importantly – they are not ordinary buildings. The Canary Wharfs of business are becoming increasingly more secluded from the rest of society. They are starting to have their own locations, shops, restaurants and needless to say they already have their ‘bod card’ and ‘matriculash’ lingo.

This self-imposed alienation breeds from ideas on prestige and success which have become central to our society and social development. Investment banking is far too close to becoming one of the modern synonyms for success.

It is possible to see this as a matter of money alone. University education here benefits from a cap on tuition fees. Bankers pay best, so they must be the best. It’s simple. And the simplicity is appealing. It reminds of the simplicity of A-level. A and A* are the best grades, so those who get them must be the best.

Stripped of money however the city offers token prestige – slaving to spreadsheets, yes, but with some wonderful scenery, whilst checking the time on your £1,500 watch. A designer suit to sleep on your desk in. A free smart phone to email from in the midst of the early morning.

This well-sealed package presents its sacrifices not as exploitations, but as novelty – it is the labour one must work to be successful. Before we target the government, the industry, or the interns we must first target ourselves. The ones who submissively accepted this new definition of success and the luxury glass-sealed package it came in. This is not everyone. We, as a whole, will always differ. There will always the those of us who prefer to work for less, who do not subscribe to the glamour of trading, who feel most successful when they are doing what they thoroughly enjoy.

But those who are most endangered remain the swing states of graduate career choices – those slightly baffled by the new horizon of opportunity and the endless matrixes of careers available.

Perhaps what remains most disturbing is not the sheer depth of coverage of a single young man’s death, the dissection of someone’s life choices for the public to judge, but the fact that business news has moved on. Death is not business – and financial news swiftly sail on their profit path perhaps already misremembering Moritz Erhardt’s name or the bank he worked at. It’s all one sea of epidemic waters. In the waves of the City Syndrome, the business media subtly suggests, you either sink or swim tirelessly on.