Enough Suicide in Finance!

As a symptom of an epidemic of blaming bankers for all of society’s ills, rather than taking a measured approach to diagnosing our economy’s problems, a rash of suicides on the part of bankers has recently provoked headlines in major news outlets. The tragedy of such early ends to promising lives can’t be overstated, as the professional class’s best and brightest seem to struggle with a lack of self-worth and value to society. 

This series of tragedies comes as a public dismayed by lack of private sector growth increasingly turns to blaming the financial industry for a sluggish economic recovery. The tendency of private citizens to reduce bankers to caricatures of fat-cats and greed-driven aristocrats often ignores the meritocratic nature of these jobs, which are often handed to students who’ve worked their ways up the ranks of the nation’s top universities and entry-level jobs.

What is often ignored in these scenarios is that bankers are identical in their needs to any other worker. Without positive reinforcement or a feeling of contribution to society, work can become dispassionate and emotionally unfulfilling. While bankers often are at the forefront of financing economies, they are often the first to be blamed when economies sink. Maybe driven by jealousy or envy, bankers become easy targets for disenfranchised workers with little to no inside view of how the investment banking field actually operates or the levels of ethics and work standards that financial professionals are held to.

This combination of high stress, long hours, and verbal abuse is akin to a surgeon working 80-hour weeks and coming home to headlines berating surgeons for the world’s problems. And the results have been catastrophic on the financial industry: in the last few months alone, high profile suicides in the investment banking sector have become so omnipresent in news that the pattern is still shocking in its raw effect on the public. What do these deaths, often among younger bankers working enormous hours, tell us about what we can do to prevent future tragedies?

Firstly, it must be acknowledged that investment bankers play a key role in facilitating meritocratic social mobility among the general population. Few critics of the banking industry acknowledge that a very small amount of startups would ever have had the chance to change the world had it not been for the sympathetic ear of investment bankers. Of course, the innovator and risk-takers are the ones to praise but the banker are a role to play.

Secondly, the general population must acknowledge that investment banking is an imperfect art, and that while frustrations due to poor economic growth can be legitimate, tirades against professionals doing their job rarely help anyone and essentially come down to a more legitimized form of bullying.

Thirdly, greater understanding of the causes of economic downturns must be made available to the public. While it’s convenient to blame a few bad apples for a financial crash, the reality is that the 2008 recession was far more complicated than most people were willing to admit. With these ideas in mind, bankers should be reminded that their work does much to further the aims of society in profound ways. A healthy private sector has always been tied to free countries and prevented some problems (such as famine and long-term unemployment) that have been created by centralized, unilateral government-run economies, such as those seen in Russia and China prior to the mid-20th Century.

Without private enterprise and the financial backing of free-market banks, it is unlikely that economic recovery would be even possible, as zero incentive for progress would become the norm to most citizens. Would a Steve Jobs with no startup capital have created Apple Inc.? It is highly unlikely, and yet the same people who praise Jobs’ ingenuity will verbally target the same system that brought Jobs success.

All in all, the shame of the spate of suicides that has marked recent headlines is that they may not be enough to turn the tide of public opinion in favor of sympathy to all citizens regardless of their job. What is certain is that as long as bankers become scapegoats for society’s ills, the guilt that many bankers feel will often turn fatal: and that is a fate that no one deserves. We must do better than the short-term fix of verbal abuse and scapegoating to relieve the tension of financial stress in a slow economic recovery. Of course, as in any industry some abuse have been done and should be fights but it is represents a very small part of an heavily regulated industry. Financial industry should seek for ethics not suicide.

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