'Tragedy of wasted minds' as young quietly crave becoming bankers

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It seemed to mark the end of an era. Last week's research from YouGov suggesting that only 2% of British university students now want to be bankers suggested the end of youthful materialism and the start of something a whole lot more wholesome, like professional knitting. In fact, however, YouGov may have over-egged its end-of-banking pudding. It transpires that the youth does still want to work in banking: it's just not telling anyone about it.

"Students are ashamed to admit it, but they're still choosing banks," said Claudia Tattanelli, chairman of the strategic advisory board at Universum, a global employer branding company. In the past, Tattanelli said students who attended Universum focus groups said they wanted to work in banks for the prestige: "they wanted to be able to tell their friends and family about their careers."

Nowadays, the prestige has gone, but the urge to become bankers remains.

Surprise: students want to become bankers for the money 

In the new world order, Tattanelli said banks' big selling point is financial security and the resulting student debt annihilation. "As soon as the UK introduced university fees, we saw students turning to high paying careers in banking, consulting and big pharma," she said. "Banks know they can't offer job security, but they have been emphasizing their ability to offer a secure financial future."

If banks are bigging-up their pay, there's little sign of this happening on their student websites. J.P.Morgan, for example, talks of culture, inclusion and philanthropy. Goldman Sachs has designed a graduate personality quiz which intimates that it hires animal-loving charity workers. But Rachit Goyal, a 26 year old MBA student at the London Business School, said money remains a big motivating factor. "Even now - if you compare the numbers - banking pays four times as much as consulting, which is the closest alternative in terms of compensation," he told us.

The biggest banks are the biggest beneficiaries 

Ironically, it's the biggest banks - the so-called 'too big to fail banks', arguably most scarred in terms of reputation from the financial crisis - which have emerged as particularly attractive graduate employers in the new landscape.

In Universum's list of top U.S. student employers for 2013 (based upon a survey of 65,679 students), J.P. Morgan ranks 6th and Goldman Sachs ranks 9th. Both are below Google (1st), but above Microsoft (11th) or Amazon (13th).

"Students are being really picky about the banks they work for," said Tattanelli. "In every geographical market, we've seen them going for the market leaders. In Germany it's Deutsche Bank. In the U.S. it's J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs. Students aren't choosing to work for the second tier banks at all."

Wasted youth. Or not

Students' ongoing interest in big jobs at big banks runs contrary to the established view of the Millennial generation. Last March, Barry Salzberg, the global chief executive officer of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu wrote an article for Forbes citing undergraduate opinion that banking careers were a 'tragedy of wasted minds.'

Goyal, a millennial, denies that banking is a waste of brain, however. "Trading takes intellect - even if you're doing a market making role you need to take proprietary positions and to hedge against them," he said. "I used to work as a structurer because I love quantitative work. Meaningful work is different for different people - if you're looking for a social impact from your job, finance is not for you. But if you're looking for something intellectually challenging, then it is."

David Ainscough, deputy director of the careers service at Cambridge University, said banking still appeals to a particular kind of student. "It all depends upon the nature of the mind," he told us. "You will find a lot of individuals whose core intelligence comes from a detailed and analytical approach choosing to work in banking. But we find that equal numbers of students are turned off as turned on after completing summer internships in investment banks."

Part of the problem with eschewing banking and other corporate jobs altogether is that the alternatives aren't necessarily viable career options. As computer science pioneer Jaron Lanier observes in a new book, many of the 'exciting' jobs in the media and creative industries have been corroded by the internet. Being a member of the creative class may seem great, but very few people make any money.

One woman who decided against banking in favour of creativity after completing an internship is 25 year old Xenia Tchoumitcheva, a former J.P. Morgan analyst and model. She who now runs the luxury blog website Chicoverdose.com.

"Banking attracts very smart people," said Xenia. "To work in the industry you need to have a very quick brain. But not always those people are given full freedom and flexibility to be intellectually creative."

Tchoumitcheva said she forewent a banking career because she wanted "independence and an entrepreneurial challenge, to take my own risks and be creative." However, she added that her time in banking was a good preparation for running her won website. "Banking taught me how a hiearchcial organisation works and how different roles interact. That experience is helping me build my own business," she said.


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