27/08/2013 07:16 BST | Updated 25/10/2013 06:12 BST

Too Eager To Please

Last week a summer intern at a global investment bank in London died after allegedly working for 72 hours without sleep. He was 21. Whilst Moritz Erhardt's parents are trying to come to terms with this tragedy, the coroners in East London are investigating the exact cause of death and the investment banks are promising to review the long-hours working culture, I am wondering about the mindset of students, who are so keen to get into the City in the first place and those interns who stayed put even after their colleague's death.

According to the Daily Mail, "more than 9,000 students fought for the 127 places" available at the Bank of America Merrill Lynch summer programme this year. No doubt, the brightest, most ambitious, competitive high-achievers from the top universities in Britain and overseas were selected. This begs the question: have the universities' career offices done a good enough job to educate their students about the options available to them? Or are career fairs being dominated by the investment banks and management consultancies, investing heavily into marketing themselves as the "natural" next steps for the best, most talented students?

The long hours culture of the City's banks, consultancies and law firms isn't a mystery. Polly Courtney, writing for the Independent, gave details of her "so-called life as an intern at Merrill Lynch", which should help to dismiss the myth about investment banking career delivering intellectual challenge and fulfilment, especially at the junior level.

Still, the students applied, got in and found themselves in the Square Mile. If they thought working past midnight, checking typos in presentations and preparing briefing packs their superiors weren't likely to read wasn't "normal", they kept it to themselves because who are they to question the status quo culture, established and followed by their superiors - successful, driven, important senior bankers, clad in expensive suits, casually picking up bar tabs and dropping "second homes in the South France" into the conversations. Twenty-somethings may be academically bright but they may not be wise yet to question the City's tribal culture or examine their own set of values. At this stage, they are too eager to please. It may take them years to develop independence of mind and re-prioritise their values.

Meanwhile, despite the bank offering the interns the option to end their placements early, they decided to keep working, as the FT reports. It's disturbing but not at all surprising. The remaining 126 are now on the home run. Remember, they are ultra competitive, high-achieving all-rounders who view life as a running track. They won't admit tiredness or defeat, they will soldier on and never give up because they cannot fail. Back at universities they'll be exchanging "war stories" about "all-nighters" and "important" projects they worked on, not daring to admit their own doubts. They will be proudly accepting the offers to join the City's ranks and accuse those choosing different career paths of being inferior. They'll work hard, anaesthetise their unhappiness with money and become the proverbial bankers and lawyers the newspapers rant against. Of course, some will quit and follow other paths.

What can we do to open their bright, young, eager to please minds to consider other options beyond the Square Mile?


Jana Bakunina will be interviewing writer and commentator Polly Courtney about her escape from the City live on 11 September. For tickets to Why Conform When You Can Rebel talk, please visit