Journalist Joris Luyendijk: ‘We shouldn’t hate bankers, we should hug them’

Bridget Galton talks to the writer who spent 18 months penetrating the secretive world of London’s finance workers, only to find they are victims of a rotten system.

“We shouldn’t hate bankers, we should hug them”, says journalist Joris Luyendijk, who spent 18 months researching the secretive world of London’s finance workers for his Guardian blog.

The Dutchman met more than 200 traders and moneymen for furtive coffees in the square mile, before publishing his observations in Swimming With Sharks, My Journey into the Life of Bankers. (Faber £12.99)

“We should stop being jealous of these people. As long as we are angry and jealous it implies they have something we want. But when you look at their lives, they are the victims of a system that makes all of us victims.

“They have the house, the car, the money, but ask themselves if I am the epitome of success, why aren’t I happy?’”

The Gospel Oak resident set out to write an accessible book about the financial world, but his first problem was getting people to speak - even anonymously.

“Finance is an extremely closed world. They are intimidated by their PR departments. If you are known as having spoken out you are in real trouble. It’s such a cult, there’s even a code of silence about the code of silence.”

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After the 2008 financial crisis, Luyendijk says many bankers retreated into self-imposed isolation when they became the villains of the piece.

“Some felt maligned because they had nothing to do with the crash. One said his father had been extremely proud that his son had made it, until 2008. That really hurt.

“It’s quite a lonely life. Once you step out of your closed world you become this villain, so many bankers limit their social exposure to other people in finance who convince themselves they deserve their bonuses and that critics are jealous.”

Luyendijk says the fiercely competitive environment creates an unhealthy, long hours fear-driven work culture where it’s hard to show vulnerability.

“Your identity is all about status, your bonus marks your place in the hierarchy.”

One interviewee, who handed out bonuses said bankers’ first question was ‘what’s everyone else getting?’

“If they got £1,000 and everyone else got a doughnut they’d be happier than if they got £500,000 and someone else got more. They burn through it, the don’t invest it.”

Yet he was surprised that bankers have almost zero job security.

“They can be out of the door in five minutes. It’s a long termist infrastructure run from a short-termist perspective. Imagine that people running a nuclear reactor were encouraged to extract as much out of it as they can and if we threatened to bring in rules to make it safer said they would sail to another harbour.”

Many interviewees were workaholics who hardly saw their families.

“How well can you know your partner or children if you work 80 hours a week? When they showed the interview transcript to their partners a lot of them said ‘this is the first time I had some idea what you do all day.’

“Workaholics are boring, narrow people, only interested in their work. Their addiction means they are no longer aware of it. Instead of spending time with the people they love they give them lots of money. But you never heard a child say ‘I wish I had spent less time with my parents.’”

The argument that huge bonuses are vital to attract the brightest doesn’t wash with Luyendjik, who also interviewed finance workers outside the banking system.

“The most impressive people I met were intellectually not financially motivated and refused to go into banks because they are such a status-conscious environment where you have to elbow your way up, run by the sort of people who demand big bonuses.”

He fears whistleblowers are unlikely in a system where incentives are based on short term greed that reward bankers for making money at the expense of the client - or anyone else.

“Many said what they do is not against the law, and if they didn’t do it the person opposite would.”

He adds: “Bankers can wreck our society in ways terrorists never could. I don’t know if London could bail out its banks if there was another crisis. The UK is over indebted and a crash sooner or later is inevitable.”

Both politicians and the public are complicit in the problem. “You can’t borrow seven times your income against three percent interest then blame the banks for giving you the loan”.

Focusing on bankers’ greed, he says stops us demanding change.

“Bankers are not evil people, they are in a system that brings out the worst in people. We need a better system not better bankers; better government, better laws protecting us, better incentives a better culture.

“One country alone can’t reform its banking system. We need a European-wide solution. A better system will turn people into better bankers.”