Kevin Roose is a former writer for the New York Times’ Dealbook and is a current columnist for New York Magazine. His second book, “Young Money,” which follows eight Wall Street analysts at the start of their careers, was published in February. The Weekender sat down with Kevin to discuss what surprised him most about Wall Street, how the culture of finance has changed since the financial crisis, and why he writes about technology now.
Daily Cal: How did you get the idea to write “Young Money?”
Kevin Roose: One of the things I noticed upon moving to New York after college is it’s like every third person works on Wall Street. This was right after the crisis, and I thought, “What does it feel like to be 22 and working in this industry that everyone hates?”
After the financial crisis, we now know the executives really well. We know what color shoes they wear. But the young people, I think, are a lot more interesting. They are very new to this. They come to it with a whole lot of preconceptions and dreams and hopes and fears, and they get this sort of cultural education that happens very quickly.
DC: How did you go about gaining the trust of your subjects enough for them to divulge personal information to you?
KR: Wall Street is an industry where talking to the press can get you fired, so I was in some sense asking them to go against their self-interest. I was going to make them all anonymous, so it wasn’t going to benefit them in any way. I talked to dozens, if not hundreds, of people before finding eight people who were nice enough or trusting enough or just had enough weird curiosity about me to be my subjects.
But once I had earned trust, they were pretty forthright. They told me about relationships, bad bosses and projects they were working on. One guy gave me his diary.
DC: What surprised you the most?
KR: From the outside, Wall Street looks like this army of men and women in suits who are very self-assured and have no compunction about what they are doing. When you actually talk to them, there is a lot of doubt, a lot of dissent, a lot of people feeling like, “Why the hell am I doing this?”
That surprised me in the same way the book on religion surprised me. That was a community that also seemed monolithic, true believers. And then a layer below the surface, people have really conflicted feelings about how this all works and why they are here.
DC: What changes did you notice in the analysts you followed as they continued in their jobs?
KR: In month one they would be talking one way, and six months later, they would be using a whole other lexicon. Some of it was really crass and offensive. They would talk about meeting girls at a bar and if they felt like she was rebounding, they would say “I feel like I could buy the dip on that one.” They would talk about girls as “undervalued assets.” Some of it is less obvious than that. They just start thinking about markets or capitalism in different ways, justifying things that maybe they wouldn’t have in college — for example, talking about sweatshops as a sort of economic necessity.
Also, they just got progressively grumpier.
DC: What was the cultural education process like in your observation?
KR: I sort of expected that it would be more top down — people upstairs say something, and the cadets downstairs repeat it. We think of institutions like the Wall Street or the military or other sort of hardline cultural institutions as being pretty one directional.
I think that started to change during the time I was writing the book because around 2012, young people started leaving Wall Street in droves. I think that really changed the power dynamics. Before that, the executives and managing directors had sort of been able to foist whatever on the young people working there.
Part of that was tech, but I also think Occupy had something to do with it. Suddenly, it was not that cool to work on Wall Street, and, actually, being cool is pretty important to a lot of young people — myself included. That is something I heard over and over. One guy started telling people he was a consultant, rather than a banker. I think that was a pretty big catalyst in a way I don’t think a lot of people realized at the time. All the focus was on what this was going to do to capitalism and regulation, and no one was thinking, “Is this going to make young bankers feel bad about themselves?”
DC: Did you feel at the time that you were observing a catastrophic shift, or is it only in retrospect that you see it that way?
KR: I knew it was happening when one of my banker sources asked me if I knew anyone in recruiting at Facebook. I think a lot of analysts started asking those kind of questions around that time.
DC: Almost all of the characters in “Young Money” end up really unhappy after two years. Do you think that’s typical of the Wall Street analyst experience?
KR: I definitely had a conflicted, nonrepresentative sample. If you really loved your job on Wall Street and wanted to continue it for the rest of your career, you wouldn’t talk to the press. I did meet people along the way who like their jobs. I think what united them was a long-term vision — those who had dreams of making a lot of money and bringing their families out of the middle class or those who genuinely loved finance and loved the machinations of the markets and the energy of trading and the kinetic force of that. Those are really good reasons to do finance. I only think it is dangerous when you get into it without knowing why you are there, which I think is true for at least half the people that get into it.
I think one good effect of the cultural shift on Wall Street over the past few years is weeding out a lot of the people who are there for the wrong reasons. Now, if you want to be on Wall Street, you have to put up with shit from your friends and professors and your parents. You have to be willing to put up with the hours that are not a secret anymore.
DC: Tell me a little bit about your current projects.
KR: I am the tech columnist at New York Magazine. So I am still writing about the young and ambitious — just on a different coast, with more free lunches and yoga balls. Technology has become this enormous gold rush filled with hucksters and charlatans and visionaries and geniuses, and I am interested in what is going to come from all of this. Are we just going to end up with 16 great social networks, or are we really going to make the world a lot better?