The City is not a pretty place to be right now. Markets are tumbling and economies are sinking. Fund managers can't make money, salesmen lament the dearth of commission, traders are being replaced by machines, and corporate financiers spend months toiling over deals that never happen. Most of us employed in this sector haven't earned any real money since 2007. No wonder small firms are going bust and investment banks are preparing (yet again) to guillotine employees in their thousands.
So why on earth would you want to work here?
It's a good question, but don't be fooled by everything you read in the papers. Things aren't great in the City today - there's no denying it - but no industry has a greater capacity for reinvention or self-revitalisation than financial services. History tells us that the City will recover - it's simply a question of when, not if. What the City does best is provide capital, and capital is the one thing businesses will always need (in recessionary and boom times alike).
It's a virtue
I've worked in banking since 1998, loving it and loathing it in equal measure. I often wonder whether it's a real job. Doctors save lives. Teachers provide inspiration. Lawyers tie the world in knots. Each and every one has a trade, a skill that must be mastered for the wider benefit of society. But finance is a world where people push paper around for personal gain, where words of "advice" can appear to be determined by the flick of a coin, and where mediocrities can become millionaires. What is the value of those of us who have had some success here, beyond our street level dexterity and bulging address books?
Recently, I discovered the answer to this question: our capacity for patience. What you get right in the early years of your career in the world of finance - and this is particularly true for any of you who end up in markets-based jobs - will often be down to luck as much as anything else. For as many in the City will tell you, only those who have watched and waited here a while, mastered the rules, and been buffeted by - and survived - a hurricane or two can experience the huge professional fulfillment that a City career can bring.
Experience is everything in the City, even though it's a young person's world in many ways. If you can develop the endurance needed to learn how to make a business grow or to help it stave off death, then you'll have something to smile about - and you will have acquired great professional value.
Speaking of value, you'll be well paid for the wisdom and skills you accrue in this industry, of that there's no doubt. And once economies right themselves, large bonuses will be back on the agenda too. But if you seek more from life than a fat cheque at the end of the month and have aspirations beyond being a cog in a well-oiled machine, you might have to show a little patience in this regard too. You may not find job satisfaction here immediately. Indeed you may not find it for several years. You may spend years working for somebody you loathe. But once again, be patient. One day you'll be the boss. One day you might even work out what truly makes you tick.
The City is made up of real people, pure and simple, something the press chooses to forget when it tars every one of us with the blackest of brushes. The industry certainly has its share of villains, but it also has its saints. It contains the whole kaleidoscope of humanity, and, accordingly, the greed, fear, passion, envy, sympathy, bullying, and kindness that individuals everywhere else exhibit.
When I began my book about the City, The Game, I thought I would be painting this world in a somewhat bleak light. But as I progressed, I was surprised to find myself feeling ever more positive about it - I was in danger of growing fond of an industry that was being publicly reviled.
But then a revelation struck me: if you dislike the City, you have no interest in the ways of humankind - it's as simple as that. The people who go furthest here aren't those with the keenest intellects, the greatest skills or the finest qualifications, but those who recognise the City as a social system - and understand how to exploit it. Getting ahead in finance is not that different to getting ahead in any other walk of life. Finance is a game, admittedly a baffling, grown-up game, but a game like any other that humans play nonetheless.
Winning this game is as much about political cunning as intelligence, sad as it may seem. People who are on paper quite undeserving will often trample over those whose CVs imply they'll have the world at their feet. An academically mediocre tactician will generally do better than a brilliant rebel. Outsiders imagine that a sound grasp of mathematics or economics will take you a long way, but they'll only carry you so far. In the City, diplomacy and psychological insight are the keys to the kingdom.