getting a job on wall street, circa 2009

wallstreet

I got an email from a fellow alumnus of my university asking for help in finding a position on Wall Street. The first thing I replied was – of course – that I had left New York and now lived in Florida, so his attempt at networking would be virtual instead of meeting in person. My second point was that this was not the time to be finding work in New York as an inexperienced graduate of a small public university in the southeast.

I’ve spent enough time around young people to realize that they dream big. When you are young, you are invincible and old people are pathetic losers. Everything is possible and the only reason you’ll fail is that you haven’t been hitting LinkedIn or Facebook hard enough. Well and good – perhaps that is the truth, and perhaps that may be the way to go in the future.

When I arrived in New York almost 12 years ago, I had the experience and skills to make most companies swoon – an MBA, experience working in the world’s most insane market (Russia) and hardcore Big 4 experience. I didn’t have to network – doors opened up for me without asking. From day one in New York I earned more than I spent – and I spent a lot. But four things happened that changed things forever: 1, the dot com meltdown; 2, Enron (and Sarbanes-Oxley); 3, the real estate market collapse and 4, the end of Wall Street as we knew it.

I always suspected the good times wouldn’t last forever. Money was insane in the late 90s and early 2000s. If you had the basic skills and some half-hearted charisma, you’d go far. When the four crises hit, things went south – you suddenly needed more than to be a well-spoken grad of a southern public university.

Right now you can’t get in with a good firm unless you’re willing to accept a reduced lifestyle. Times are tough. Nobody wants – or needs – to hire a fresh-faced grad at a premium price. Grads are a dime a dozen, and the only people being hired are people who are willing to suck it up now in hopes of a future reward. I wasn’t one of those people. I bailed on the high-cost-of-living, low-quality-of-living lifestyle. Would I have bailed if I was younger, or single? Probably not. New York is the Mecca of single, young American lifestyles. But now I couldn’t think of a single reason to stay.

What could you tell a young person today? Stay in New York at a deflated salary, living in a horrible neighborhood and struggling out a difficult existence in hope of future returns? I probably would. Why not? There’s time enough for the suburbs in the future. But it’s sobering to get an email from a young college grad and realize that for them – today’s grads – the fun times and glory days that some of us had in the dot-com years and shortly thereafter are gone, and gone for good.

Photo by David Paul Ohmer

9 comments

  • This is a great look at how Wall Street has changed but also a reminder of what it was like to be young, naive, and willing to dream big. There was a really good article on Yahoo Finance (I think) yesterday about how this might free up some of the minds that typically go to Wall Street and enrich other fields.

    More entrepreneurship too. All of which I think sounds better than what you described was the case 12 years ago.

  • In our early 20s, I think career choices are too often about a failure of imagination. We can't see all the possible career paths, so we hone in on the two or three that we understand – teacher, investment banker, whatever. My lawyer husband often finds himself explaining the shortcomings – and potential – of the law as a career path to undergrads who assume it is a ticket to big bucks and power. And glory.

    If you do talk with your young friend, it is probably worth helping him think through his goals beyond “get a job on Wall Street.” As you write, it ain't the place to make money these days – and he probably has better career prospects elsewhere, too.

  • Just curious- how did Sarbanes-Oxley hurt accountants? I was under the impression that it created a lot of work for them by establishing new reporting requirements.

    • @Altair33: It probably seemed that since I lumped that in with other negatives I meant it was a negative, too. It wasn't – it simply changed the game a lot. In the short term it was great, and created a lot of work, but now SOX has created a glut. The work was available for a few years and now that companies have a handle on it, the work is drying up. It did also put a huge strain on a lot of companies – the costs were high and the benefits have yet to be really proven (it didn't help whatsoever in the financial services industry meltdown, for example).

      So SOX was a mixed bag, but you're right – in the short term we jokingly called it “The 2002 Full Employment for Auditors Act”.

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  • “A man's got to know his limitations.”

    – “Dirty” Harry Callaghan in Magnum Force

    I would never have survived as a 22-year old country boy in NYC. You also need to understand what you're capable of doing, even at that age. Of course, failure at that age wouldn't be a disaster, as long as you learned the right lessons from it.

  • With Wall Street coming off one of its worst months in history, but its best week in over 30 years, how do you think the market will react to each of the nominees becoming president?

  • What a pessimist.
    Is living in Greenwich Village or Soho a horrible neighborhood.
    Do you actually believe Wall Street will never roar great again.
    Life in Manhattan can be a great.

  • What a pessimist.
    Is living in Greenwich Village or Soho a horrible neighborhood.
    Do you actually believe Wall Street will never roar great again.
    Life in Manhattan can be a great.