A 21-Year-Old Intern Had To Die To Get Wall Street To Change Its Ways

It's no secret that banking interns work extremely long hours, frequently pull all-nighters, earn little respect from higher-ups and perform the most tedious of tasks.

For several years, the Ivy League’s best and brightest had started to signal they wanted something different from their careers, quietly eschewing high-paying Wall Street gigs for jobs in Silicon Valley or with nonprofits like Teach For America. Yet the banks didn’t seem all that concerned about the toll their long hours were taking -- until a 21-year-old summer intern died.

In August, an intern working for Bank of America’s investment banking division was found dead in his London apartment toward the end of his seven-week summer assignment. News reports first said Morris Erhardt died of exhaustion, worn out after working all night for several nights in row. And though that turned out not to be the case -- an investigation after his death determined he died of natural causes, according to Reuters -- it was too late to quiet the firestorm of criticism about the way the financial industry treats its youngest workers.

The banks were forced to reckon with what many view as an old-fashioned office culture that no longer meshes with how 20-somethings view work. At least six banks have since changed key workplace policies as they aim to entice 20-somethings to stick with the company and help young workers carve out more time away from the office.

Bank of America now requires that the bank's youngest staffers take at least four weekend days off per month. In addition, bank officials said in January that BofA would have staffers dedicated to monitoring junior bankers’ work hours and making sure they were developing important skills. Citigroup was the latest of several Wall Street banks to acknowledge it had at least a PR problem when the company announced in a memo to staff last month that junior bankers should stay home on Saturdays and are expected to use all of their vacation days.

Goldman Sachs saw the writing on the wall before some of the other banks woke up to the fact that junior bankers were decamping to different industries to avoid such long hours. The company created a "Junior Banker Task Force," focused on making conditions for young staffers a bit more livable, months before Erhardt's death.

"We're at a period of time where the people seem to be screaming 'We want more balance.' We're listening to them," said Jason Wingard, the chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs. A large part of Wingard’s job is to think about how to best address the needs of young bankers who aren't interested in working 18-hour days, but who want to grow with the company.

The result: Goldman announced in October that junior staffers should stay away from the office on Saturdays. It's is a small step, Wingrad acknowledged, speaking to The Huffington Post at a conference in New York where business leaders and researchers discussed the best ways to create a sustainable, happy and healthy workforce.

Goldman is also starting to tap into practices typically more associated with a touchy-feely startup than a staid bank. The Wall Street giant now offers meditation classes, for example.

"We understand the disconnect now," Wingrad said. "They've seen the effects of parents who work very hard, and they're afraid of it. What is it that we can do to entice them so that they stay longer (at the firm)?”

For the past several years, grueling internships at Wall Street banks have marked the pinnacle of success for young, ambitious students. Finance interns typically earn between $3,000 and $5,000 a month and are in the running for full-time jobs that can start in the six figures in some cases. But today’s 20-somethings are starting to demand a little bit more than prestige. They want promises their contributions will be valued and a schedule that gives them a life -- or, at least if they're going to stick around the office all day, they want to have fun.

When Blake was an investment banking intern at JPMorgan Chase, he pulled 12-hour days toiling away -- often in boredom. Blake, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his career, remembers one particularly late night, or rather early morning, when he found himself walking home at 4:30 a.m. after sitting behind a computer for hours tweaking PowerPoint slides to death.

“What am I doing?” Blake said he remembers thinking, as the sun began to peek out from the horizon on his walk home. “This is just two and a half months. I was dying doing it, and people do this for two years.”

Blake earned about $12,000 that summer, but it wasn't worth it, he said. “The attitude is just always having to be there and just always trying to impress people. Sometimes you needed to be sitting there just to be sitting there.”

Now at a smaller private equity firm, Blake works from 9 to 7, and he said he's occupied every day with actual responsibilities. The 24-year-old leads conference calls with CFOs of small companies and travels across the country giving clients advice. And when he does have to stay late, the atmosphere is much more collegial than on Wall Street, Blake said. He recently went on a 5-mile run with his boss during a business trip, something he said would have never happened at his old job.

"Everybody knows each other; we shoot the shit all the time," Blake said. For him, leaving the world of suits and the need to constantly check his BlackBerry was such a "no brainer" that he left his bonus on the table -- essentially passing up thousands of dollars -- to do so.

“[Young people] definitely want a different deal from their work than their fathers and mothers did,” said Stewart Friedman, the director of the Work/Life Integration program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School. “Part of it is the role models -- or lack of role models -- for the kinds of lives they want to live in their own parents. They see a lifestyle of all-consuming immersion in work that is not something that they want to do.”

Friedman conducted a study comparing the expectations of college seniors in 1992 to those of graduating seniors in 2012. He found today’s 20-somethings were more likely than their older counterparts to say their job should provide them with a sense of purpose and the chance to help others. In addition, the 2012 seniors were more likely to associate career success with being able to determine their own hours and have time to themselves.

More traditional companies outside of banking are catching on. MGM resorts advertises a “work, live, play” attitude for its program, which provides paid interns with opportunities like pool parties with a DJ, volunteer trips during work hours and running one of the resorts’ famed roller coasters. Their strategy of catering to interns is paying off. According to Adam Miller, who runs the program, the company has so far received more than 1,000 applications for just 40 slots open for this summer.



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