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Margaret Heffernan Headshot

Beware the Students Who Want to Be Bankers Now

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According to the Guardian, UK students are now queuing up for the privilege of becoming bankers. A shortage of jobs, together with historic levels of personal debt, is used to explain why supposedly idealistic young people are willing to work for an industry persistently characterized as brutal, venal and corrupt.

But that assumes that these students don't really want to work for banks; they just have no choice. My experience teaching in many universities suggests there is something a little scarier going on here.

In contrast to past years, most of my students don't want to go into banking; they are even pretty cynical about large corporations. And most are more attracted to entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship: building businesses that solve social problems.

But the minority, who don't feel like this, do want to work on Wall Street or in the City of London not despite their toxic reputation -- but because of it. For this minority, the gravy train is where they want to be -- and if people (nations) get hurt, well that's just part of the fun, isn't it? Stories of lewd parties, obscene wealth, even court cases around sexual harassment don't dissuade these applicants: they excite them.

In the past, a lot of my students used to go into banking thinking, "I know it's brutal, I'll have no life -- but after ten years, I'll have made my fortune and I can leave and regain my humanity." Many leave well before their fortunes are made because that fudge proved wrong: they'd underestimated how annihilated they'd feel and they couldn't stand it. But at least these neophytes had some kind of moral compass. I'm not sure you can say that with such confidence about the new recruits.

This should give any hiring manager pause. Because at heart, what caused the banking crisis wasn't derivatives, CDOs, ABSs or any other fancy financial instruments. The banking crisis was caused by cultural failures. A subsequent survey of 563 risk managers undertaken by Paul Moore, in conjunction with Cranfield School of Management, cited culture and remuneration practices as two of the chief causes of the banking failure. These most hard-nosed and numerate of executives didn't think regulation or economic models were chiefly at fault, and they were entirely dismissive of the idea that banks had failed due to 'global circumstances beyond anyone's control.'

Culture was the problem then. It's the problem now. The fact that young people line up for these jobs should give no comfort at all. Quite the reverse.