WHILE THE CHANTS of the protesters and the thrumming of the drum circle echoed through New York’s financial district, I spent a pleasant October weekend in Chicago drinking with the people who used to occupy Wall Street.
It was my 10-year reunion at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Obviously I wanted to see if people had gotten fatter, balder, and wrinklier. (Surprisingly, not really.) But I also wanted to know what had become of us, and our careers.
Ten years ago, we graduated into a country where the Twin Towers were still standing, Webvan was a going concern, and the unemployment rate was 4.5 percent. Many of us headed to New York or other cities to become what Tom Wolfe, in The Bonfire of the Vanities, called “the Masters of the Universe”—the financiers who can earn lottery-size sums on a single deal. Others went to Silicon Valley start-ups, or became the consultants who worked with them. I couldn’t find anyone at the reunion who admitted to trading dodgy residential mortgage-backed securities, but we participated in all the other madness of two decades of financial froth—and got smashed in two crashes.
We weren’t the people who inflated the bubbles; we were the ones hired, and then fired, by those people. We were the ones who happened to be standing next to the guy who was pushing the buttons when everything went to hell.
The good news is that most of my classmates seem to have landed somewhere safe, warm, and in the workforce, which should reassure recent graduates wondering if their life is over. Less happily, that somewhere isn’t really where many expected to end up; reality has taken us down a peg or nine.
On the last night of the reunion, I found myself talking to an old friend whom I had vainly tried, when we were both students, to talk out of pursuing investment banking, on the grounds that it required 100-hour workweeks doing nothing very interesting. His rebuttal back then was simple, and irrefutable.
“I want to retire when I’m 45. I can’t do that if I go back to consulting.”…………………………………..
My classmates and I might not all have 1 percent–level incomes, but almost everyone seemed to have what Occupy Wall Street says it wants: stable, interesting, well-paying jobs … and a clear future. The few people who are still in finance are the ones who really like it, and are presumably really good at it. And the rest of us are probably better off than if we’d bartered away every waking moment of our 30s.
The most remarkable thing about my business-school reunion was, in fact, how little people talked about money or jobs. They talked about family, friends, the trips they took, and the houses they were turning into homes. According to the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, they were talking about what is really important: “It is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you.” Now, that’s a universe worth mastering.