In college I majored in Anthropology and Economics. I took a job at an investment bank out of school. I wanted to join the Peace Corps, but figured it would be easier to work and then serve, rather than vice versa. I live in Brooklyn (although I am one of the few Wall Streeters who do), and commute daily over the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve seen the protestors, both in person on Wall Street (the actual, physical street) and on the news. Most of them look to be college-aged men and women, or middle-aged unionized laborers. In spite of the fact that I seem to represent public enemy #1 to these people, I do not object to the motivation behind their act. I do take issue with how uninformed their message is, and how little responsibility they seem to be taking for their own circumstances.
If I was halfway, or worse, all the way through college, facing a youth unemployment rate of nearly 20%, and already in debt, I’d feel helpless and frustrated too. When I was in college, I certainly never contemplated the possibility of being unemployed and underutilized after graduating. After all, the whole reason you go to college is to make sure that doesn’t happen. Similarly, if everyone else in my union had been able to retire with a benefits package that gave them full healthcare, and a pay package that was benchmarked off their regular hours plus as much overtime as they could pack in during their last years at work, I’d be very disappointed to see much less coming to me, especially if I had built a life around the expectation of having those benefits and that income.
I’ve read a few articles, watched a few videos, and even marched with the protesters during their first demonstration on Wall St. a few weeks ago while trying to cross the street to get to my girlfriend’s apartment. I’ve yet to hear a cohesive message on what it is they are protesting.
I’ve heard articulate young people, at times eloquently — but more often angrily — voicing empty messages protesting the general state of affairs. Highlights have included:
– “How to fix the deficit: End the war, tax the rich!”
– “a symbolic gesture of our discontent with the current economic and political climate and as an example of a better world to come.”
– “STOP Capitalism”
– “F@CK WALL STREET”
– “We’re down with these protesters. We support the notion that rich folk are not paying their fair share”
According to the cursory research I’ve done, the top 5% of earners pay more than 50% of the tax burden. Watching the protestors, I’ve wondered what percentage of them have ever cut a check to the IRS in their lives, no less one for 36% of their annual income. I’ve wondered how they’ve paid for the retro nike high-tops they’re wearing, or the horn-rimmed Prada frames that hold the lenses of their glasses in place. I’d be interested in knowing if the various union members who were participating later in the week knew how pension accounting worked. If they did, counting on that pension package to be there might not have seemed as safe a bet.
You want money? No one I know has ever been paid for protesting or received any health insurance for it. The financial sector lost more jobs than any other during the financial crisis of the late 2000’s. Many, many of my colleagues lost their jobs. Not one protested about it.
If I were them, and some “Wall Street Fat Cat” levied the charge of ignorance and lack of self awareness at me, I’d fire the same question back at them: Do you know why you do what you do? Do you take responsibility for your actions?
Not only do I concede the fact that Wall Street is rife with unbalanced compensation practices, I confess that that’s the exact reason I decided to work here. I wanted to make money. My parents both underwent years of graduate schooling, and toiled a eighty hours a week between the two of them to make sure they could afford to send me and my brother to school. You bet your ass I planned on making money when I got out! Both to repay the favor to them in their old age, to make sure my unborn children were afforded the same opportunities, and yes, to drive a Lexus while I was doing it.
So, while I do not take issue with their frustration, I do take issue with who it is directed towards. I take issue with expecting other people to better your circumstance for you, and blaming them for your state of affairs. When an economy contracts, which economies will do, choosing to major in neo-classical art history may not be the best way to assure yourself gainful employment after graduation. Similarly, the average “lifespan” of a fortune 500 company is 40 to 50 years. Is betting your company is going to be around to pay for your retirement the best idea when you’ll likely outlive it?
On my way to the gym in the afternoon, I pass by a TIME Magazine Billboard north of Times Square (image at the top of this post). It seems these protests are a manifested from reconciling the observations that this billboard astutely makes, and the state of affairs this country currently finds itself in. The millennial generation: overeducated (but unexperienced), underemployed (but overestimating), wildly optimistic (but coming to terms with reality).