A lesson for our young: get a real job, if you can

South China Morning Post  |  Oct 16, 2008

By Sin-ming Shaw

We are in the eye of the "perfect financial storm". More fortunes will be lost. Ludicrously lucrative Wall Street jobs are gone.

How ludicrous have they been? "In 2007 alone, the five-largest Wall Street firms paid their staff US$66 billion, including US$39 billion in bonuses", a recent Bloomberg report claimed. Among these beneficiaries were many in Hong Kong, an important global financial hub.

The two US presidential candidates have condemned the Wall Street culture as one of "greed and corruption". These are strong words for what was once the habitat of "Masters of the Universe", the high-testosterone symbol of global financial capitalism.

"Wall Street" has, for sometime, been more than a street in lower Manhattan. Its avaricious culture has long been adopted in other countries.

Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, head of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority - whose salary is several times higher than that of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen - has always justified his remuneration by referring to Wall Street financial sector salaries.

Writer Tom Wolfe coined the term "Masters of the Universe" to satirise the vain, arrogant Wall Street traders. But investment bankers and traders took the words literally. They never knew the joke was on them.

There is perhaps a silver lining to the destruction of Wall Street. The humiliating implosion of blue-chip investment banks should give pause to future generations of the "best and the brightest" young minds all over the world educated at the elite universities. They should reconsider whether selling complex investment ideas is such a worthwhile way to spend one's limited time on Earth.

Providing financial services is a respectable profession but the bloated financial rewards to those "masters" playing with other people's money in years past have been abnormal and unsustainable.

Ask the elite Hong Kong families and I bet eight out of 10 would tell you their children have gone to a branded university and are working, or seek to work, in an investment bank. Forty per cent of Princeton graduates in recent years have gone to Wall Street - more than the combined total choosing law and medicine, according to Daily Princetonian, the student paper. At its state-of-the-art engineering and science graduate school, more than 55 per cent of new students are foreign.

One Princeton professor told me that, excluding just the Chinese student contingent, the engineering school would have to close, unable to justify its existence financially. A little dramatic perhaps, but probably not far from the truth. Other top-ranked graduate engineering and sciences schools such as MIT and Berkeley report similar figures. Consider the latest report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. It has given a D (a non-pass grade) to the conditions of basic infrastructure in the US; D+ for aviation. D for dams, energy, hazardous waste, roads, schools and public transit; C- for rail, public parks; and C for bridges. There isn't one grade higher than C+ for a country whose basic infrastructure used to set the world's gold standards.

Easy money and greed have indeed twisted the values of many of our best and brightest, be they in the US or Hong Kong, and detracted them from pursuing careers that actually produce something "real".

The Harvard Crimson student paper recently reported that economics professor Kenneth Rogoff received "spontaneous applause at a public forum for his jabs at recent Harvard graduates who had gone into investment banking by saying that many of them would now be free to 'go into other activities'."

There is a huge demand for those who want to do something "real", rather than playing "master of the universe", a role that was never that real to begin with. This is a perfect time in the perfect storm for parents and youngsters to reconsider chasing a career whose prime has passed.

Sin-ming Shaw was a former visiting fellow at Harvard and Princeton

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