I had some precious down time on my hands over spring break. I was heading off to spend the week surfing with my high school friend whose family just moved to Kona, Hawaii, and had been eagerly anticipating the stint in the sunshine for most of winter quarter. However, I had a six-hour plane ride to enjoy before jumping into the sweet Hawaiian surf. While the movie selection was tempting, Kevin Roose’s book Young Money held my attention instead.
Young Money tracks the lives of eight recent college grads as they navigate their careers on Wall Street in the post-crash market. Roose’s narrative weaves their stories together in a compelling and manageable way, allowing the writer the space to draw conclusions from his research into the young financer’s lives. While Roose makes many notable observations regarding post-crash Wall Street, his focus centers on how Wall Street has contributed to (and continues to widen) a creative void in our society today. No one comes to NBR for a book report, and I’m not interested in providing one – my History courses offer ample opportunity for that as it is. However, Roose’s insights into the world of finance should be shared with those who plan to occupy it, perhaps as a cautionary word of warning.
Ivy Leaguers and their cohorts around the country are lining up for the opportunity to pursue challenging and stimulating jobs in finance. While most of us are aware of the long hours that await a budding career on Wall Street, many don’t anticipate a mind numbing work environment – why would the recruiters lie to you about what the experience will be? Regardless of where you begin as tenured grunt in the financial sector, you are just that – a grunt. You are tasked with filing and filling spreadsheet after spreadsheet, and are in charge of the nitty-gritty details that your boss will barely notice come pitch time. Simply put, your daily challenge as a newcomer to Wall Street could be handled by those who are simply competent at Excel.
For those accustomed to the academic rigors that come from studying at a highly -regarded university, the work you do will be stifling and monotonous. We are constantly encouraged by professors at Northwestern to think creatively when engaging in our course work. Whether we are fully conscious of it or not, we have developed into a body of (God help me) critical thinkers. Roose laments that a large percentage of our creatively-inclined, highly capable student body joins the rank and file of Wall Street every year, only to be confined to menial work that ignores our potential for deep analytical thinking and vision.
This may sound like the ubiquitous complaining of a spoiled Millennial, but I am by no means suggesting that first jobs should be completely free of the requirement for menial or simple work. Unlike college, everything must be accounted for in the world of business. Logistical issues need to be sorted, and spreadsheets need to be done. Like it or not, many Gen Y’ers have a long way to go in terms of building a backbone of accountability in their daily lives. Ultimately, the necessary drudgery of an entry-level position (yes, even the highly competitive job markets have them) provides the benefit of teaching recent grads important workforce resilience and “grit”. Yet, should we only be working on menial tasks? Any ISBE acolyte worth their salt could refer to the law of marginal return in considering this question. But this question has a deeper import – how are we improving society by filing pitch reports?
It is in this regard that Roose’s view resonates most profoundly. As trite as it may seem, we have the power to change the world. Generation Y will forever be associated with the Internet explosion. As by-products of our “instantaneous information” upbringing, some Millennials have already begun to affect the ways in which people communicate and conduct business around the globe. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to engage in and to a large extent drive these conversations at an unprecedented early age. With all the resources and communications tools at our disposal, why do we settle on finance? While managing money may be profitable, it doesn’t create any tangible benefit for society at large.
Ok, now I am rambling, and at risk of getting too focused on my point. Honestly, I don’t care what you do. You could work for a startup, a non-profit, a theater company, or manage a restaurant – whatever suits your fancy (and if it happens to be finance more power to you). However, why follow the masses and work a not-so-productive-for-others-around-you kind of job that stifles your carefully cultivated sense of inventiveness simply because you want a fat paycheck? You’re in your twenties, and the real driving “need” for money comes later – when you are more likely to have a different set of responsibilities and obligations. What really matters is that you do what you love – and success of all measures will likely follow. If more people did so, we would have a better world. Period.
Photo Credit: MSNBC