It's time for bankers to stop pretending they're not just in it for the money
Lord Turner believes much of the City is 'socially useless'. Is that such a bad thing, asks Tracy CorriganTelegraph, 31 Aug 2009
As if the stress of trying to find a new job – or hang on to the one you have – isn't enough, here's something else to worry about: is the work you do socially productive? Lord Turner, the chairman of the FSA, thinks that much of what the City does is "socially useless".
That might be true, but why is it such a bad thing? It seems that it's not enough any more just to be able to pay your bills and taxes – in itself a significant contribution to society. Now we all want to express ourselves, achieve our potential – oh, and if possible, help save the world.
Bankers are the ultimate example of this syndrome: some of them are truly convinced that they are working for world peace as well as that large bonus. I can't count the number of lectures I have (sort of) listened to on how the capital markets have facilitated the development of emerging economies and heralded a new dawn for democracy. Some of it is even true: access to a sound banking sector underpins economic growth and social change; and every economy needs functional banks, which is why governments rode to the rescue their during the financial crisis.
Lord Turner was making the point that silly derivatives, bundled together at five removes from any real asset, serve no positive purpose. In fact, such activities are a bit worse than useless. But the originators of subprime mortgages and the creators of related derivatives didn't think so. They liked to boast that they were providing access to the first rung of the housing ladder to people who had never before had the prospect of owning their own homes, or that their derivative products were "facilitating the democratisation of the housing market". Maybe it was only the shysters at the bottom of the food chain that were honest enough to think, if not to say out loud: "Here's a schmuck willing to buy a house, even though he doesn't have a job, and my company is dumb enough to let him."
What's strange about the financial crisis is how little it has done to discourage this sort of self-satisfaction. Vikram Pandit, the Citigroup boss who is currently the subject of an external review, declared in March that "the reshaping of global financial markets in the next few years will have an extraordinary impact on the potential for raising living standards… improving quality of life, and confronting climate change and other urgent global issues over the next 50 years".
But bankers aren't the only culprits. Everyone is at it. Advertisers are "informing the public". Double-glazing salesmen are "promoting energy efficiency". Soldiers aren't just defending their country, they are – according to the Army's careers website – being offered "true life fulfilment". Is this tendency to emphasise the social and spiritual side of work just spin? Or are we so keen to pursue personal fulfilment that we detect it in the most unlikely places?
Well, actually, it's nothing new. Molière, the French dramatist, argued in the 17th century that his job was to "corriger les vices des hommes en les divertissant" – to correct men while diverting them. He could have just said, "Look, I make people laugh."
To be fair, Molière did have a bunch of very disgruntled clerics after him, so I can see why he wanted to sound a bit loftier in his aims. Today's bankers are similarly sensitive, because, having helped drive the economy into a deep hole, they are still earning ridiculous sums.
Until some of it turned out to be taxpayers' money, the big packages didn't bother me too much, because I've always thought that investment banking is an awful job. The long hours, cut-throat culture, constant travel… It's a matter of choice. If you want a lot of money and status and respect, as well as job satisfaction and security – well, you can't have them all.
I was once offered a very big pay rise to go into financial PR (and I am about to wreck the chances of that ever happening again, which just goes to show that I wouldn't have been very good at it). I toyed with the notion for about a week – pondering whether my new look would be designer trouser suits or designer dresses and whether I would still take public transport. Then I considered the reality of getting to work at 7.30 in the morning, being shouted at by bankers and saying "I'm in PR" at dinner parties, and I realised it was not for me. You can't have everything.
I think we should all start being a bit more honest about our jobs and a bit more reasonable in our aspirations. Finding a greater purpose beyond hitting a deadline or making a sale is difficult. In fact, it may even be dangerous. This, as we approach the anniversary of its demise, is Lehman Brothers' mission statement: "We are one firm, defined by our unwavering commitment to our clients, our shareholders, and each other. Our mission is to build unrivalled partnerships with and value for our clients, through the knowledge, creativity, and dedication of our people, leading to superior returns to our shareholders."
Sometimes, trying to survive to the end of 2009 is as socially useful as a business can manage. If you still want to serve your community, that's great. Try volunteering.