London Therapist for Disheartened Bankers Tells Their Tales of Woe

London therapist for disheartened bankers tells their tales of woe
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The latest register of how far the banking profession has fallen in public esteem is provided by "a life and executive coach" who works with clients employed in London's financial sector. Writing at The Guardian's Banking Blog, Karin Peeters paints a dismal picture of many bankers' lives, describing deep disaffection and gnawing unhappiness, even outright embarrassment at being affiliated with finance.

Peeters criticizes condemnations of the entire business, which she considers both unfair and "counterproductive": "In my eyes, banker bashing will not lead people with low self-esteem to change course. They will only become more defensive since you attack their core sense of self."

According to Peeters, bankers can no longer count on the support of those closest to them. "It's as if they feel ashamed of working for a bank nowadays," she reports. "Their own parents accuse them of misusing tax money." To disclose one's true professional identity at a party is to risk enduring "another terrible discussion about bonuses and bailouts" -- a small price to pay for all those bonuses and bailouts, one would think, but apparently mortifying nonetheless.

These days, it seems you can't even count on a City of London gig to open romantic doors: "Some of my clients have removed their job title from internet-dating sites," Peeters informs us.

It's jarring to remember the enormous prestige that investment banking used to enjoy in this society. After the lurid excesses of the 1980s -- encapsulated in popular culture by Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" and in reality by the Savings and Loan crisis -- the financial industry reentered the realm of respectability under President Bill Clinton, primarily in the person of former Goldman Sachs (GS) co-chairman Robert Rubin. With Rubin at the helm of the Treasury Department, the Clinton administration advanced a program of financial liberalization and deregulation -- about which the former president would later express regret, saying he'd been wrong to take Rubin's advice on derivatives -- and Wall Street's portion of the economic pie grew ever larger.

This era of deference to, bordering on veneration of, Wall Street-affiliated financial wizards reached a symbolic apogee in February 1999, when Rubin and his protege, Harvard economist Lawrence Summers, were featured on the cover of TIME with Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan and the grandiose billing "The Committee to Save the World." We all know how that turned out: Just look at the story of Citigroup (C), the megabank Rubin ran as CEO after leaving government.

But Peeters thinks we've overcorrected since the financial crisis, going from stoking the profession's collective ego to unfairly denigrating all its members. She wants us to understand that "nine out of 10 bankers are like the rest of us." (What the tenth banker is like she doesn't dare to say.) "They are hoping for a nice day at work. They hope their partner will go on loving them. This idea that bankers wake up in the morning thinking: 'Ah, can't wait to screw someone over...' is total nonsense."

That might strike you as a straw man, since what's at issue in critical discussions of the financial sector is not bankers' personalities but rather their institutional roles. (And as Peeters herself notes, in corporate life the wearing of a mask or persona -- for instance that of "a robot-like person", unconnected to others through empathy -- "may be useful in some cases".) But Peeters keeps things strictly personal, explaining that in her experience bankers are motivated not by greed --"I have never heard a client say: 'I'm doing this for the money' " -- but by the intellectual challenge the job provides. At the same time, she sure makes banking sound like an awful, empty exercise:

Work is no longer fulfilling, they tell me in our first session. "This is not me." They might disagree with the culture, the products they have to sell, the corporate strategy, how people are treated or the aim of the company as a whole.

"Nobody at work knows who I am," they say. "Maybe one person on the entire trading floor is aware of what I really think and feel." One client talked about standing in the shower screaming without a sound. Then she straightened out her face, glued on a smile and went to work.

So why keep working in such a dystopia? Because the banking sector offers people "the promise of emotional security":

Some people have a literally insatiable need for validation by external impulses (people, salary, bonus, car) because this helps them increase their sense of self-worth. They believe they always need to be more/better/higher, and this inner fear drives everything they do.

This seems like a pretty good therapeutic paraphrase of "greed" -- who besides Scrooge McDuck wants money as "an end in itself", to be hoarded in some chamber rather than exchanged for gratification? -- but you probably don't get very far as a life coach in the City of London by telling people that they're greedy. And Peeters seems to be doing well in her chosen specialty: Banks themselves hire her, "to train their staff in authentic leadership, mindfulness and self-awareness."

For all the misery she relates, there's no indication that Peeters's advice ever touches on the possibility of career change. Instead, she counsels her clients to cultivate sources of self-esteem aside from the trappings of their jobs, some of which have been devalued by the "trampl[ing]" of a cruel media. "It takes self-worth to say: no, I can't come into the office this weekend because I am going away with my loved-one on a weekend to Rome." Yes, that's more like it.