How Wall Street sold out America (the first time around)

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Curmudgeon57 has asked that I not forget to blog about a Q&A I did with Karen Ho, a University of Minnesota anthropologist who spent some time working on Wall Street and lays the blame for our rent-a-job work culture firmly at the feet of investment bankers. She says:

What I found in my research was that in many ways investment bankers and how they approach work became a model for how work should be conducted… What a lot of folks don’t realize is there are tons of layoffs on Wall Street even during a boom. What they value is not worker stability but constant market simultaneity… The kind of worker they imagine is a worker like themselves. A worker who is constantly retraining, a worker who is constantly networked, a worker whose skill set is very interchangeable, a worker who thinks of downsizing as a challenge — a worker who thrives on this. This becomes the prototype, but in many ways that’s quite removed from the daily lives of most American workers. Before this crazy crash of 2008, bankers always landed on their feet, almost always. Job insecurity isn’t the same thing for the average American worker. They often experience downward mobility or don’t land on their feet.

Curmudgeon57 disagrees. In an email, he writes:

I have to confess that I don’t buy it.  I think the forces promoting change in the way we work and manage careers go far beyond Wall Street into a world where someone who grew up in a shack with a dirt floor in the Philippines has been able to acquire the education and skills to compete with me in a professional job.  Thomas Friedman, for all his detractors, I think got this one right.  Does it really matter if computer software (one of my so-called skills) is written in New Hampshire or California or Korea?

I’ve worked in too many places that Wall Street rarely touches, including government, academia, non-profit, and non-public organizations (disclosure: currently at a publicly held company).  Wall Street may be reacting to such a trend more quickly and dramatically than some of us, but to say that they are driving work culture across America seems disingenuous.

I hear you, but I think Ho might argue that if you’ve got a 403 (b) at that non-profit of yours—i.e., a retirement in the hands of a defined-contribution plan instead of a pension—then Wall Street and its ethos are touching you.

Not that I buy what Ho is saying 100% either. One thing I pressed her on is why investment bankers. Why not traders at hedge funds or institutional investors insistent on a fraction more yield or the American consumer who cares most of all about what things cost and not whether the price at which they’re buying gives companies a chance to hold onto more expensive, long-term workers? Part of the rationale is that investment bankers constantly hand out advice, both to companies and big investors, so they’re the ones in a position to not just have ideas but spread them.

But there’s something else important: Ho is an anthropologist and her technique is to get inside a culture and analyze it. Her methodology is to dive deep into one particular realm, not to look out over the world and pull together a lot of disparate bits of information. She’s written a really interesting book, especially for people who don’t have other windows onto what it’s like to work on Wall Street. Yet it’s not the final answer the guy who has to change jobs every two years might be looking for.