There's a game played among young Wall Street analysts, usually late at night after everyone but the janitors have gone home. It goes by various names, but the one I've heard most often is "Misery Poker." The rules are simple: If your workload is worse than your colleagues', you win. So "I'm staffed on two deals, and I haven't left before midnight in a week" might prompt a raise of "Oh, yeah? Well, I'm staffed on three deals, and I stayed past 2 a.m. six nights out of the last eight."
Usually Misery Poker is played with a wink to its ridiculousness. These are 22-year-old investment bankers, after all, not battlefield medics or single moms working three jobs. All of them are being well compensated for the pain they endure. But last weekend, when a London-based Bank of America intern dropped dead, reportedly after pulling three all-nighters in a row, we learned what happens when a game of Misery Poker goes high-stakes.
While reporting my upcoming book about young Wall Street bankers, I heard dozens of horror stories about overwork: A banker who set up a cot in the boiler room of his firm's office to minimize his commute. A group of young analysts who turned to black-market amphetamines in order to get themselves through a particularly tough stretch. A banker who got severely ill, then paid out of pocket for a hotel room near his workplace so that he wouldn't miss any hours (or put his big bonus at risk). Almost every young banker I spoke with had pulled the so-called "banker 9-to-5" — working from 9 a.m. until 5 a.m. the next day, a twenty-hour shift — and most of them expressed a sort of macho pride in having made it through.
We don't know, definitively, what caused the death of Moritz Erhardt, a 21-year-old German business student who was finishing up his summer internship at Bank of America Merrill Lynch's London office. But several sources have claimed, credibly, that Erhardt was working exceedingly long hours in an attempt to secure a full-time offer. An intern who worked with him told the Guardian that Erhardt "worked very hard and was very focused. We typically work 15 hours a day or more and you would not find a harder worker than him."
After news of Erhardt's death rocketed around Wall Street, most of my young banker sources were shocked but not surprised. "This was only a matter of time, given how many people go through similar stretches," one told me. "The human body is not meant for such abuse."
For decades, working hard has been part of the basic bargain of being a young worker on Wall Street. Inside a bank, "staffers" routinely assign complicated projects to young analysts at all hours, and a second shift often begins for young analysts around 7 p.m., when senior bankers leave for the day. Part of this scheduling springs from necessity — a bank's clients will often demand overnight changes to a pitch book or an Excel model, and that work falls to the lowest workers on the food chain. But it's also about career advancement. Work ethic is currency on Wall Street, and young workers are rewarded for being available, at all hours, to do any task assigned to them. That goes double for summer interns, who are locked in a ten-week competition for a limited number of full-time slots.
When I asked senior executives across Wall Street why it had to be this way — why you couldn't hire twice as many young workers, pay them each half as much, and create a more reasonable work environment for everyone — their answers often boiled down to "because it's always been this way." Like older frat members running a pledge process, senior bankers remembered being mistreated and overworked as young analysts and viewed it as a galvanizing experience that confers special status, and that should be passed on to the next generation. Anthropologist Karen Ho, the author of Liquidated, calls this status the "cultural geography of segregation," and says it allows young bankers to feel superior to workers in the "real economy," who put in 40-hour workweeks, enjoy weekends off, and aren't on call around the clock.
Even before Moritz Erhardt's death, HR executives at many of the major Wall Street firms were questioning the wisdom of working their young analysts like oxen. Partly, they worried about losing competitive advantage and having employees defect to tech start-ups and other companies with more flexible work environments. But they also worried that it might one day lead to a tragedy like this.
"Is there a way to make this easier on analysts?” one hiring manager told me. “Yeah, probably. A lot of it you can’t control. But we try to get managers to think about, how do you distribute work evenly to analysts and do it sooner in the day? That seems to make a difference."
The problem, of course, is that it's often the analysts themselves who choose to work late. In a financial sector that has been weakened by the crisis and decimated by layoffs, young workers are the most vulnerable to being cast aside. And since the work performed by these workers is often fairly standardized, one of the only ways a 22-year-old banker can separate himself from his peers before bonus or promotion time is by working longer and harder than everyone around him.
Erhardt's death could — and should — spark changes in the work policies for young investment bankers. Perhaps a bank could mandate one day off a week or limit the hours worked in a certain period by bankers (as happens with pilots or doctors). But the real change will have to come from the young workers themselves. Only when winning Misery Poker is seen not as a point of pride but a cry for help will Wall Street become a safer place for the young and ambitious.