The financial world has a complicated relationship with the American public. It is vilified but also revered—a monument to America’s finest and foulest characteristics. It is a world full of drive and hard work, but also greed and corruption. The Great Recession exposed the darker side of the financial sector, when the public learned about the toxic subprime mortgages that large corporate banks had been underwriting for years. Prior to this period of massive failure, large banks took advantage of the American public’s naiveté, duping the common man in order to make themselves richer. As the recession’s effects permeated daily life, much of the American public held the banks responsible. People were livid—how was this toxicity allowed to penetrate the economic structure of the United States, and why did nobody stop it? Large movements, the most infamous known as Occupy Wall Street, pointed fingers at major banks like Lehman Brothers and J.P. Morgan. In the end, executives at these institutions suffered few consequences to their personal bank accounts. And as tends to happen, the public moved on. Thanks to this short collective memory, Americans have started to forget these institutions and the trouble they caused for so many. Wall Street is still vilified, yet not with the same level of vitriol as before.
Understanding the role these companies played in bringing about the recession, I was puzzled by the attraction many liberal arts college students, particularly those at Bowdoin, have to the world of finance. Although it is a widely held view that large financial corporations and corruption go hand in hand, it seems as though this matters little to students hoping to start a career in this field. Certain demographics at these colleges consider it a prestigious career choice, often an unpopular opinion on a small, liberally skewed campus.
The first student I spoke to in my search for understanding was Ellen Pham, a sophomore at the College. Ellen and I took microeconomics together during the fall of our freshman year, and the same experience that caused me to veer entirely away from the financial world propelled her right into it. She now holds a leadership position for the Bowdoin Women in Business group and is currently interning part-time at a small accounting firm in Brunswick. Ever smiling, Ellen explained, “What I like about finance is that you’re always solving new problems and immersed in a world that is ever changing. The markets are so volatile everything is incredibly fast-paced and I really like that.”
When I asked her about the importance of salary in her decision, she said, “I think that money plays a role, but actually the more I learn about business and finance, the less the money becomes important for me. I think that when people think of those in banking they think ‘Oh, it’s for the millions of dollars,’ but for me the idea of working with businesses is really fascinating.”
There is something to be said for the practicality of securing a consistently high salary soon after graduating from school. It allows for a sense of independence and at least a temporary escape from financial stress. One might question, however, what else an intelligent, driven, young person could be doing with his or her time?
Another Bowdoin sophomore, Whit Seaverns, had a different experience with similar motivations and takeaways. He explained the work he did for an asset management firm with a philanthropic mission over the summer:
The company that I worked for was really interesting because they were an asset management firm, but you have to have at least $50 million dollars as investable assets as a family. The other stipulation is that you have to have a common mission, somewhat philanthropic, greater than just wanting money… it’s this new space in finance that’s looking at shifting the idea of what people are doing with their investments and what the purpose of investing is.
He went on to add:
If you really get down to it, you’re investing your money to get the most out of it. And traditionally, the easiest way to quantify that is by getting the biggest return. But these ultra-high net worth families that do have this philanthropic view think: ‘I don’t really care about the money as much. Yes, I obviously want some return but I have this greater goal.’ A lot of people have this idea of ‘I want to be good,’ but people are having a really hard time kind of making that leap when it’s not exactly quantifiable. So, one of the big steps being done now is quantifying how the benefits of these things so that they can see: Yes, I’m getting this much money but also this much social benefit.
Kevin Ma, a junior at the College, has interned at J.P. Morgan for the past two summers.
I like looking at things from different perspectives and through that I like seeing how things are connected. Last summer I went back to JP Morgan and was working in investor relations and that really gave me a macro view of the bank and the firm, and an understanding of what a bank does. But over the summer I did a lot of thinking about why I want to go into finance. For me it’s rewarding because I’m working with clients. I love working with people, helping them manage their funds, it puts a more human quality on it. I get how a lot of people would say people are interested in going into finance for the money, and there is a lot of money to be made in finance, I’m not going to lie, but I’m also interested in perspectives, connections, working with people.
Admittedly, before taking the time to actually talk to students interested in this field of work, I was quick to stereotype this career choice. But by interviewing several students, even those who declined to speak on the record, I was astonished by the diverse personalities attracted to the field and the similar intellectual passion that seemed to drive students’ pursuit of this career path. It seems as though interest in the financial world stems from an admiration of the market as well as the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of the field.
It was, in many ways, a relief to realize that not everyone who plans on pursuing work in the financial world is in it solely for the money. Of course, this does play a role: who can deny the appeal of a steady paycheck straight out of school? But it seems that students are attracted to the the fast paced, almost game-like atmosphere, rather than the money.