The Occupy Wall Street protests once seemed so futile to me. You just can’t stop smart people from making money, and I’m not really sure why you’d want to. But it turns out you can persuade those people to make money by doing something useful beyond lining up on either side of a financial bet. They can instead build software, or reinvent real estate.
I’ve spent 15 years making that case, often to the Winklevoss types Wall Street loves to hire: folks from elite schools, with high grades, a history of leadership, strong math skills, a broad education. Every year Wall Street paid more, with Bridgewater now offering college graduates $130,000, and every year recruiting got harder.
The same starry-eyed idealists who spent the first third of their life digging wells in Tibet and marching for every crunchy cause would chuck it all after graduation to run numbers for a bank. But that is changing this year.
Redfin is interviewing at least a dozen Ivy-League students, many studying the disciplines of math, philosophy and economics that Wall Street loves, who refused even to consider finance. Many worked on Wall Street last summer, but recently decided that wherever their career takes them next spring, it won’t be to a hedge fund.
I’m sure New York-based start-ups, venture capitalists and even management consulting firms are seeing the same trend: recruiting against Wall Street got much easier this year.
What changed? Part of it may be “The Social Network,” which made a sort of poetry out of writing software alone. Part of it may be the beatification of Steve Jobs. But at least part of the reason has to be that Occupy Wall Street has stigmatized a career in finance. The first slide of Redfin’s standard talk for Ivy League campuses begins with the headline, “Consider the Alternatives,” and shows poor Lloyd Blankfein squirming before a Congressional lynch mob.
These are the images that matter. Previous critiques of Wall Street failed because they were rational: Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” and Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker nominally deplored Wall Street’s excess while reveling in its glamour. Who after all would you rather be, the virile corporate raider Gordon Gekko or the aging union boss played by Martin Sheen? Believe me, no one at Yale in the ’80s seriously considered a life at Bluestar Airlines. But now many I’m sure want to be like Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network.”
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are finishing the job, re-casting Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe in a more disdainful light. Like the animal-rights activists who splatter fur-wearing women with blood, these protesters are people you just don’t want to walk by every day on your way to work. No matter how easily you can dismiss the logic of their arguments, their presence might make you feel dismayed, shamed, tainted, unsavory. How many 21-year-olds are ready to sign up for that?
Probably not as many. And this I think will be the most serious outcome of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It won’t result in any legislation that stymies Wall Street’s essential money-making powers, but it may in fact divert some of our best and brightest away from Wall Street and toward careers creating more useful products, and more jobs.
Though I respect the work that bankers do, and would far prefer that America rather than China or the United Kingdom dominate the financial services market, I think having more of our best and brightest work on Main Street rather than Wall Street is is a good direction for America, and I’m glad to see it happening now. You can’t fight the beast, and in many cases we shouldn’t try to anyway, but maybe we can starve it for a little talent.