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Celebrating the End of Kids’ Wall Street Dreams

Posted on Dec 1, 2011
David Wiley (CC-BY)

By David Sirota

Amid fears of high youth unemployment creating a “lost generation,” there is suddenly a bright spot: Apparently, fewer young people are going to work in the industry that destroyed our economy.

That’s the word from The New York Times, which reports that since 2008, “the number of investment bank and brokerage firm employees between the ages 20 and 34 fell by 25 percent,” as banks have laid off young people and slowed college recruiting.

For young Wall Streeters, this is a bummer. But for society as a whole, it’s cause for celebration because it may finally allow America to counter the destructive Gordon Gekko-ization of youth culture.

Recall that in recent years, up to a third of kids at elite universities have entered finance-related jobs. Such a mass shift in career preferences is, to put it mildly, alarming. A country whose best and brightest begin avoiding occupations that add value to society (doctors, engineers, etc.) in favor of vapid get-rich-quick gigs is a country that has stopped investing in itself and started mortgaging its future.

In light of that, Wall Street’s youth layoffs raise a bigger question: Why have so many more kids been pursuing careers in finance?


Square, Site wide

Part of it is greed, as a 2010 Higher Education Research Institute report found a record-high three-quarters of freshmen said being “very well-off financially” was their top objective. Not surprisingly, many graduate with speculation and usury in their plans.

Such a mindset, though, hasn’t emerged in a vacuum—it tracks two larger greed-driven trends.

The first is a change in the American Dream from a middle-class aspiration to an “MTV Cribs”-style fantasy. In that shift, we began portraying Wall Street fat cats as idols—the Great Men to be worshiped in our media and consulted by presidents. Taking cues from the larger culture, kids have naturally tried to follow in the idols’ footsteps.

Simultaneously, the American economy changed from producing tangible assets to now more often generating paper profits for bankers. The numbers, as recounted from economist Simon Johnson, tell that tale: “From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits ... last decade, it reached 41 percent.”

This metamorphosis was no force of nature—it was the result of bank-owned politicians deregulating and subsidizing the finance industry, turning it into a monster swallowing an outsized share of national wealth. That, in turn, prompted an employment shift, which included young people.

“When banks get 25 percent to 30 percent on credit cards, and 500 or more percent on payday loans, capital flees from honest pursuits, like auto manufacturing,” author Thomas Geoghegan wrote in Harper’s Magazine. “We set up the incentives to keep our best and brightest out of Detroit. ... (They) went off to work at AIG.”

Those incentives highlight the final part of the youth story: need.

Today, the average undergraduate matriculates with $25,000 in student debt. That burden compels kids to base career moves on where they can get the richest the quickest so as to pay off their loans. In an economy that has privileged finance, that often means heading to Wall Street.

Now, though, that career path may be closed—and even if it’s only temporarily closed, the reprieve is significant.

A few semesters worth of kids driven into occupations that build and sustain rather than cannibalize and leech could begin moving a nation back to economic fundamentals. It could mean kids finally appreciating that greed isn’t so good and that policy debates—whether they’re about regulation or student loans—aren’t meaningless.

Ultimately, young people might see that those debates actually matter—and that they better get involved in them or their future will remain in jeopardy.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now.” He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

© 2011

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By Sistertongue, December 5, 2011 at 5:31 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The more you see on the outside, the less there is on the inside.  Those who pursue and accumulate those little pieces of paper with the word “god” stamped on them are spiritual/emotional/relational flat landers with no internal substance nor adult abilities in these areas.  Power over other people is the name of the game and it is very much like watching little head start children fight over whose pile of paper is bigger than the others.  The fact that we all allow these kinds of folks to determine our economic, cultural and social structures is mind boggling.  They have determined that what destroys gets the big money (military/medical/agricultural complexes) and preservation and improvement of life is given nothing.  Well, the roman empire crashed and burned and, because we have founded our own modern civilization on their ashes, so shall we.

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John Best asks,

By John Best asks, "What IS Progress"?, December 4, 2011 at 7:11 pm Link to this comment

Migs, I’m going to say peoples desire for status, as you put it, is cultural or environmental.  Materialism, as Lafayette suggests. 

I’m not sure how good or bad we were doing, but I’d say the TV show ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’, and so much ‘programming’ (in a broad sense) which has followed it, have brought out the worst in many of us.  ‘Lifestyles’, though is just an intermediate form of the media outpouring of the design to make the American People into consumers to fuel the full-bore manufacturing economy we we left with as WWII closed down.

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By Migs, December 4, 2011 at 1:36 am Link to this comment

“‘Greedy people’.  Is there a gene for that, or is it a culture?”

That doesn’t take into account people’s desire for status. A lot of the time the pursuit of money and possessions in and of itself isn’t the primary motivation for people pursuing them. Often it’s the status and the ascetically attractive sexual partners the status attracts that motivates people. You can also toss in death anxiety. Some people are driven to be better (read richer) than the vast majority of people because they have a deep seeded fear of death and they subconsciously think that if they can transcend the norm then they maybe they can transcend death too.  Who knows why greedy people do what they do?  I’d like to see the Government introduce more regulations to curtail the type of greed that causes harm to the broader community and also take a tougher stand on white collar crime. Corporate criminals (and for that matter corporations that break the law, because they have the same rights as individuals) should be treated like drug dealers and have all their assets seized.  Once the Government seizes the assets it could use them to serve the public interest either by selling them or keeping them. Or a combination of the two.

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By Lafayette, December 4, 2011 at 12:17 am Link to this comment


For young Wall Streeters, this is a bummer. But for society as a whole, it’s cause for celebration because it may finally allow America to counter the destructive Gordon Gekko-ization of youth culture.

Let’s come off the high-horse.

The American culture has become soooo materialistic some people will do anything to be seen driving a Ferrari.

The employment downturn generalized in the Finance industry is just due to the times. As soon as business picks up the blood-suckers will be once again beating a path to the canyons of Wall Street.

It’s not the economy, stupid (to paraphrase the saying) - it’s the rampant materialism of the American consumer! We are what we buy ... or so we think. The suit never made the man, it only made him think he was a man.

Wall Street has proven time and time again how Gecko was the essence of the place. A being devoid of any humanity and run by the numbers (and dollar signs).

The MBA-school pumps will be working again some time soon. Everybody wants a chance at grabbing the Golden Ring on the finance GetRichQuick Merry-go-round.

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By prosefights, December 3, 2011 at 6:10 pm Link to this comment

Caution is advised in oil and natural gas investments.

Phone calls at inconvient times from these guys.

Bill asked Mike for phone number to return call

1-877-435-3272 x20 since he was involved in something else.

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John Best asks,

By John Best asks, "What IS Progress"?, December 3, 2011 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

And…....your reply indicates ‘greedy people’.  This is not a trivial statement.  Is there a ‘greedy’ type of person, greedy by nature?  You know here this discussion will go I assume.  I will save time by saying,

a. 1f particular people are greedy by nature, then they should be encouraged to stay away from positions of trust.

b. if particular people are not greedy by nature, that is, they become greedy by exposure to culture and other environmental factors, then we should be discouraging the promotion of greed as a positive virtue within at least those professions requiring trust and are providing necessities of life. 

‘Greedy people’.  Is there a gene for that, or is it a culture?

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John Best asks,

By John Best asks, "What IS Progress"?, December 3, 2011 at 12:04 pm Link to this comment

I don’t see you offering any evidence.

That notwithstanding, I again draw a distinction between the rates at which a various professions become unproductive and eventually counterproductive relative to the level of promotion of greed as virtue within those professions. 

Fine, consider the financial industry relative to the health-care industry, the example you chose.  Health-care is far, far from perfect, but you surely agree it is providing significant value to society relative to losses from corruption.  I am speaking about actual providers, doctors, nurses, techs, etc. Now, if you are lumping the health insurance industry in with the health care industry, we are in a gray area.  The upper echelons of the health insurance industry are in a symbiotic relationship with Wall St.

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By Anarcissie, December 3, 2011 at 8:20 am Link to this comment

Well, all I can do is give examples of professions and industries where greed—the strong desire for financial gain—does not seem like a qualification for entry, like medical care, yet which are deeply corrupted by greed.  On the basis of this evidence, I anticipate that greedy people will not cease to be greedy because they are not working in a field where greed is a requirement.  I concede that evidence and reason are far less attractive than romance, so believe what you want.

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John Best asks,

By John Best asks, "What IS Progress"?, December 3, 2011 at 7:52 am Link to this comment

Anarchisse….... every profession is corrupted to a different extent, and some are by their nature not only more corrupt, but essentially ‘overhead’, that is, less useful toward serving the real needs of society. 

IF we were do do the math, I’d bet the author is right, the net effect of fewer bright people going toward Wall St. gives us a much higher statistical chance of these bright people ending up in very worthwhile positions. 

Speaking of statistics…..just consider the number of statisticians who are available for geonomics research rather than various fiscal analysis (for the purpose of simply raiding various 401K’s).  The new geneticist has a much higher chance of actually contributing to real productivity gains, not paper shuffling, and those real gains make real wealth, not unbacked ‘paper wealth’. 

There are thousands of very productive professions bright people can follow where instead of begin sucked into a ‘greed is good’ philosophy, they can apply their talents in productive pursuits.  I offer that these individuals themselves will grow to be less greedy over their careers, even if they start out hunting the buck.

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By safara, December 2, 2011 at 11:50 pm Link to this comment

I very much believe that values and ideals change in populations much as styles do.  From time to time events in society form a new reality. Suddenly a lot of young people came to realize success on Wall Street would probably elude them.  They came to realize that there are other vocations more worth while.  Greed was a factor in some of the previous choices. So was intellectual laziness.  Could it be that the young have found a new vocation paradigm and that maybe there is more to the good life than financial gain?

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By Anarcissie, December 2, 2011 at 8:13 pm Link to this comment

What Is Progress—I don’t agree.  I think many professions have been deeply corrupted by greed.  Consider the medical care industry and the music recording and publishing industry.

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By Patrick, December 2, 2011 at 6:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Apparently, fewer young people are going to work.”

Article is now fixed for greater accuracy.  This is the worst time to ever graduate.

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By prosefights, December 2, 2011 at 5:44 pm Link to this comment

Wall street looks to have stolen future retirement funds with zero percent interest rates?

Wanna try oil and natural gas investment to try to save your retirement?

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By Big B, December 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment

I recommend tha book “American theocracy”. It describes how all of the last millenium’s great empires fell when they stopped making things and started counting money instead. Sound familiar?

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John Best asks,

By John Best asks, "What IS Progress"?, December 2, 2011 at 2:01 pm Link to this comment

Anarchisse, here is the answer, “ and brightest begin avoiding occupations that add value to society (doctors, engineers, etc.) in favor of vapid get-rich-quick gigs is a country that has stopped investing in itself and started mortgaging its future”

They may still be greedy, but they’ll be doing something positive (tangible with lasting intrinsic value) in their pursuit of their particular dream.

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By balkas, December 2, 2011 at 9:29 am Link to this comment

sirota: “it was result of bank-owned politicians deregulating and subsidizing
financial industry”.
let’s for now leave the meanings of the term “deregulating” aside, and note that in
stark reality [the naked one, like the king with no clothes on] that people [some
more, others less; still others nil] own banks, constitution, laws [or ‘laws’],
[de]regulations [i am still leaving it undefined], politicians, W.H., judiciary, cia, fbi,
police, MSM, education [or, really, ‘education’].

a ‘law’, a [de]regulation is owned, i think, just like ore, a soldier, church, house,
trees, etc. as for owing banks, we now need only to find by whom and how much
by each owner. [in case of owning a soldier, it appears to be the matter of
where/when/why/how and of the degree of ownership, but that cld also apply to
THE STORE. or what? anybody willing to study this phenomenon?]

so, i wld then reword the above quote thus: it was result of a governmental and/or
constitutional demand/command that politicians [owned by said governance or
THE SYSTEM] [de]regulate banking practices.

and what does regulate, deregulate, reform, deform [goddevil forbid pols wld use
that term—they know better than that] entails on doing-it-it-to-u level?
well, probably just what i said: sticking it to u!! and what is so novel about the
hadn’t THEY [the store owners] run the store for millennia now and exactly as the
‘law’ says it shld be run?
btw, i note, that sirota does not split pols into democrats and republicans. he,
correctly, lumps them together. and i have been harping on that topic for ca. two
decades. tnx bozhidar balkas vancouver

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By felicity, December 2, 2011 at 9:28 am Link to this comment

Thank God.  It’s a biological fact that offspring are
slightly less intelligent than their parents.  After
years of ‘legacies’ being admitted to elite schools and
graduating into Wall Street, given that biological
fact, by now the Street has to be manned by blithering

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By Anarcissie, December 2, 2011 at 8:30 am Link to this comment

I doubt if the present ‘kids’ are a lot different from those of the recent past.  What the Times is reporting seems to be that those who are greedy are moving to exercise their greed in different fields.  I don’t know why this is any cause for celebration.

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