The City of London can be fun. But it’s only fun to a point. I worked as a broker for two years, and sure, I learned some cool things and made some great friends. It’s a system rigged to diminishing personal returns though. There might be rising salaries and bonuses, but the longer one spends, the more wearisome it is, and the more your opportunities to branch out close up.
The lure of the City is, I believe, nothing but a giant economic opportunity cost. A generation of graduates who can do discounted cash flow valuations or options-pricing is a far-cry from a resourceful nation of inventors and adventurers. There are far more pressing challenges in this world to solve than whether a market is liquid, or whether a portfolio is balanced, or whether you can execute trades 2 milliseconds faster than the next company.
The UK has the potential for an incredible startup scene, but it is a shadow of what it could be. There is one glaring reason for this. It’s not that the UK doesn’t have a ‘startup mentality’ – sure, British people are more reserved than Americans, but they’ve proved themselves resourceful, cunning and even ingenious throughout history. Why then is the current generation lacking that DIY ethos? It’s because half the bright-young-things have been indoctrinated into believing that working in the financial sector is what you do.
City lobbyists and PR agencies like to talk about the financial sector as a place of opportunity – which to some extent it obviously is – but it robs young people of two things. Firstly, it encourages them to embrace a worldview of rational calculation of risk and return, rather than one of unlikely adventures, allowances for failure, and artistic flair. The banks waffle on about the ‘entreprenurial culture’ inside them, but the true entrepreneur ethic cannot flourish in giant institutions that have a sole goal of extracting as much out of individual employees as possible.
Secondly, it pays them too much money, and in so doing removes the sense of true risk from their lives. The authentic bootstrapping spirit of the entrepreneur is one who is forced to be resourceful and flexible, living by their wits, not someone bloated from too much money, and overconfident with unnecessary skills. You need experience of the diversity and richness of life, not experience with how to build spreadsheets for elites.
Furthermore, there is more to a startup culture than just the entrepreneurs. You also need the venture capitalists and mentors who can give them support. Ideally those people should be ex-entrepreneurs. Take a look at Mark Andreessen, Jason Calacanis, Theresia Gouw and Vinod Khosla. These people invest with their gut based on personal experience, not with spurious attempts to quantify the value of unquantifiable companies.
If you look at the UK venture capital scene, the money doesn’t come from ex-tech entrepreneurs, it comes from ex-finance workers who are now trying to get creative. That’s fine to start off with, but to build intuitive VCs for the future requires a decisive shift away from the financial sector now. This is why I welcome initiatives like Escape the City, which is trying to catalyse that shift. Their tagline is simple: “We help talented people escape or avoid jobs at big corporates”.
These observations resonate with broader points raised in Nick Shaxson’s new book called ‘The Finance curse’: How oversized financial centres attack democracy and corrupt economies. Here’s an extract from the press release:
A resource curse casts a shadow over certain mineral- and oil-rich nations damaging their economic growth and development. Now [The Finance Curse]… shows countries with oversized financial services suffer similar fates. As the resource curse stalks Nigeria, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo; so a finance curse has captured the UK, Cyprus and Jersey.
It’s a catchy concept, but it’s backed with hard-hitting evidence that most people intuitively sense already. Most people easily recognise that a vibrant economic life in a nation does not come from the domineering, patronising sneer of an arrogant overbloated sector. It isn’t particularly prudent from a long-term perspective, and as Shaxson notes, such a sector acts like a cuckoo “crowding out productive, sustainable industrial sectors”, “exaggerating and routinely overstating their economic contribution to gain distorting tax subsidies and lax financial regulation” and generally exerting an unhealthy level of political sway.
To put it bluntly, the sector is a net loss, and furthermore, it increases inequality, helps authoritarian regimes and tax avoidance via upholding the global system of tax havens, and generally behaves like the loud egotistical drunk at the party.
The final point though, is that even if it was proven that the financial sector was actually on net, an economic positive, it is still, deep down, unrewarding. Does the UK want to be a nation of money-obsessed people with narrow skills and no time, or a nation of creative people solving real world problems? I’d take lower income any day over a slow-motion impoverishment of imagination at the hands of an oligopoly of outdated institutions.
I’d be interested to know if you would to, so please do leave comments. Have I been unfair? What could be done to change this situation? Which areas would you like to see graduates applying their skills to?
Brett Scott is a campaigner and writer who works in alternative finance and financial activism. His new book – The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money – is published by Pluto Press and is available now. Brett tweets as @suitpossum.