What’s Life Really Like on Wall Street?

Masters of the universe. One percenters. Titans of industry.

There’s no shortage of hyperbolic descriptions for Wall Street’s elite. Yet is that what life’s truly like for most bankers and traders? Is it all 80-hour weeks and bottle service on the weekend? Or have times changed?

Let’s take a look at what it’s really like to work on Wall Street.

A different sort of “banker’s hours”

There are traditional banker’s hours — and then there are Wall Street banker’s hours. One is nine to five. The other is nine to five in the morning.

If you’re a young Wall Streeter working at a place such as Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase, you can count on work weeks approaching the 100-hour mark. The hours get less exhausting as your career progresses, but they’ll rarely approach the regular 40-hour weeks of a Main Street banker.

Journalist Kevin Roose spent several years following eight Wall Street workers while researching a book on the lives of young bankers. Roose found it was not uncommon for them to work 18-hours at a time, for several days running.

That’s a punishing regimen. What makes it even more taxing is the uncertainty and irregularity of Wall Street schedules. Even on a day off, bankers often must drop everything to rush into the office at the request of management or clients.

There’s plenty of work to occupy bankers during their extensive work schedules. It’s not uncommon for one project to require dozens of revisions. Young Wall Street workers have to prioritize their job over virtually everything else. The ability to do any kind of advance planning is almost entirely compromised.

Even though some firms have slightly cut back on the hours young bankers work, it’s unlikely these tough schedules disappear anytime soon. “Work until you drop” is an ingrained part of Wall Street culture for first and second year employees, as these extreme requirements tend to weed out those who aren’t fully dedicated.

It’s an extremely competitive environment

If you’re looking for a job where you don’t have to worry too much about performance or look over your shoulder, Wall Street isn’t the place for you. The best and the brightest from the world’s top universities flock here in droves.

Following the financial crisis of 2008, the number of available jobs declined. That means competition for a limited number of highly desirable spots became even more intense. A degree from an Ivy League institution isn’t a requirement, but it certainly helps.

Yet even the best connections and credentials will only afford you an opportunity. Wall Street culture is ruthlessly Darwinian — if you’re not ready to compete at the highest level, watch out.

The Wall Street lifestyle

Films such as Oliver Stone’s 1980s classic “Wall Street” and Martin Scorsese’s more recent “The Wolf of Wall Street” captured the public’s imagination, thanks to their portrayals of the high-flying lives of bankers and brokers. Yet while the “champagne and private plane” lifestyle certainly sounds appealing, it’s hardly the norm for all bankers.

Younger bankers often work 80-100 hour weeks and are consequently too tired to party like Leonardo DiCaprio. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of fun to be had — Wall Street employees are well-compensated and live in (or near) one of the world’s greatest cities.

While the lifestyle isn’t always an endless parade of parties and luxury goods, it’s certainly fast-paced, exciting and demanding.

The magnetic pull of Wall Street

The hours are brutal. The competition is unrelenting. The work isn’t always rewarding.

So why is Wall Street such a magnet for America’s best young workers?

The money certainly doesn’t hurt. Entry level investment bankers often earn well over six figures. Yet high starting salaries aren’t the real draw. Once you’ve put in a few years, your pay can increase exponentially.

Investment bankers typically experience a serious spike in compensation between the ages of 25 and 30. It’s not uncommon for bankers in this age bracket to earn four or five times what a beginning banker earns.

That’s an increase that can’t be matched in virtually any other field. That’s one reason Wall Street jobs are in such high demand.

Money, of course, doesn’t cure all ills. Yet if you’re young, talented and highly competitive, there are few greater challenges than a career on Wall Street.

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