If You Want to Be Happy, Work at a Hedge Fund

By
These smiling, happy people definitely aren't bankers. Photo: Sam Edwards/Getty Images

If you want to be happier at work, quit your big-bank job and work at a hedge fund, preferably one that will pay you more than $1 million a year.

Easy, right? Maybe not, but that's the conclusion of a new study by Wall Street recruiting firm Options Group, which surveyed roughly 1,000 workers in finance and technology and found a high correlation between working at smaller, less-regulated firms and job satisfaction.

The study, from which preliminary results were provided exclusively to Intelligencer, allows us to peer inside the psyches of those working inside the world's biggest banks, hedge funds, and private-equity firms, as well as tech firms like Google and IBM. Their answers tell a familiar story: Among financial and tech workers, compensation matters most, upward mobility is important, and the greatest satisfaction is found among those making the most money. The crash of 2008 resulted in lower pay and more rules for bankers, and made jobs on the buy side (private equity and hedge funds, which generally pay more and are more loosely regulated) look more attractive.

But there are some surprising findings, too. In particular, look at how survey respondents answered a question about their own job satisfaction. Those coddled, enthusiastic tech workers? Turns out they're about as happy in their jobs as bankers. 48 percent of tech workers said they agreed with the statement I am satisfied with my job, compared to 45 percent at banks and private-equity firms. The happiest group was hedge-fund workers, 62 percent of whom were satisfied in their seats.

Accordingly, fewer hedge-fund workers are looking to leave their jobs – just 32 percent, compared to half of bankers.

In general, people in tech are paid less than people in finance, but they seem happier with the amounts they get. 42 percent of tech workers agreed with the statement I was compensated fairly for 2013, compared with just 22 and 23 percent at banks and private-equity firms, respectively.

The biggest determinant of satisfaction among these workers, though, was money. Slice the survey data another way, and it becomes clear that no matter where they work, respondents who were paid more than $1 million a year reported being substantially more satisfied with their jobs and compensation (surprise!) than workers being paid less than $100,000 a year.

Looking at these charts, it's clear that the one percent has its own one percent, and that the .01 percent feel like winners relative to their own peers who are making less for similar work.

It's also clear that the "hedonic treadmill," a social-psychology phenomenon in which desires rise relative to incomes, applies to people on Wall Street and in tech. Nearly everyone working in finance or tech is rich, objectively speaking, with incomes that put them in the top 5 or 10 percent of all earners nationwide. But there's always a reason to feel poor – the guy in the next seat is making five times more than you, the woman you used to work with who went to a hedge fund gets better perks and a bigger bonus now. This is the stuff golden handcuffs are made of – the feeling that, if you could just stick around for a few more years, make a little more money in your cushy finance or tech job, the happiness boost would be worth the grind.

There are some humanizing details among the data in Options Group's survey. Namely, when you dig into the details, it turns out that a lot of high-earning finance and tech workers want the same things from their jobs as the rest of us – upward mobility, good benefits, weekends off. (Granted, some of their needs are more exotic – among the replies to a survey question about desired benefits were "country club membership," "martini Fridays," and "first-class air travel.") Mostly, the data still seem to be confirming that despite recovering bonus levels, bankers and other Wall Street workers still aren't altogether happy.

It turns out that there might be some truth to the upward ambitions of young Wall Streeters – since working at a hedge fund does increase job satisfaction, and since hedge-fund workers are generally hired from banks and private-equity firms, it may make sense to keep toiling away in the hopes of a buy-side promotion. Still, it doesn't sound like a fun row to hoe.

"I wish my firm would stop sucking," wrote one U.S. banker on the survey, in response to a question about which extra benefits were most desirable. "It's a miserable place to work."