Helping front office teams grow better

What if it's ok - #385

A lot of the more entertaining reading these days amounts to nervous hand-wringing about potentially bad futures. A lot of the best writing is the essay equivalent of ruin porn. Smartphones, front-facing cameras, and mobile social media accounts are ruining kids (especially girls). Increasing personal atomization is ruining the social fabric of our society. The nationalization of our politics promotes national tribal division and increasing violence. Various of the crazies are perpetually attempting an immanentization of the eschaton, with ruinous results. I've linked to enough of these pieces for you to know the authors getting worked up about the ruination.

Contrarian views are harder to find and sometimes not as entertaining to read. The "what if it's ok" crowd can sound a lot like the ignorant optimist, "it'll all work out, somehow." There's wisdom in a more hopeful outlook. After all, many things have gotten much better, even in recent decades, despite the entertaining doomsdayers.

I got to thinking about this after reading Ross Douthat's meta review of Tim Carney's new book about how difficult our culture has made parenting. (Family Unfriendly is the book. I haven't read it, but it's on my list.) Douthat pairs the Jonathan Haidt observations about phone use with parenting trends and wonders if a little screen time actually lowers the burden of parenting. With some digital help, maybe raising our kids will be a little more doable. None of my biases agree with this idea, but it's certainly worth considering. The incredible rise of screen time may have some upside.

The possible OK-ness of new things came to my mind in the link below. On the hand-wringing side, we have concerns about where the banking mandarins of high finance will find their replacements. Up to now, they've followed an indentured servitude model: aspiring bankers work a hundred hours a week for a few years, with under-performers perpetually culled and tossed aside, for the chance at a top job. While the "entry level" wage here is hundreds of thousands, the junior analysts are the lowest on the totem pole and required to to the most menial banking tasks they can find. These people populate a knowledge worker assembly line which produces spreadsheets and slide decks and documents from other spreadsheets, slide decks, and documents, ad infinitum. It's like the scene at the opening of a Gordon Ramsay cooking show, where whichever cook stops peeling potatoes first is eliminated.

What the top bankers like about the grunt work in the first few years of a banking career is the sorting effect: those who do sharp work, hit the long hours, and outlast their peers signal they have some level of grit and commitment (and, maybe, greed). This ensures those who begin to rise up the ranks to eventually replace the current partners are, well, similar enough to the current partners that they think the bank itself will survive. If any industry is ruthlessly capitalistic, though, it's finance. And the grunt white collar work of creating analysis documents, derivative spreadsheets, and summary slide decks is now eminently automate-able. If a computer can do the low-level work, the average investment bank will save hundreds of thousands per analyst they don't have to hire, and some of then hire a thousand a year. It's hard to justify a signaling and sorting exercise for future mid-level workers at that cost.

Enter the hand-wringers: with AI replacing analysts, where will the future bankers come from?

Most of us probably aren't too worried about where they'll find the next class of top-level bankers. And I'll bet even some aspiring bankers aren't too concerned about not needing to spend a hundred hours a week endlessly preparing spreadsheets, documents, and decks. I would bet they'll need people to make sure the AI does its work well and they'll find another way to hire the best, brightest, and most greedy to join the investment banks. Maybe this change is good and maybe it'll be ok. If we took this attitude about more of the things on the horizon, finding the good in them, then I'd bet we'd find more ways to navigate around the potentially bad in them, too.


00ai-analysts-superJumboThe Worst Part of a Wall Street Career May Be Coming to an End

Artificial intelligence tools can replace much of Wall Street’s entry-level white-collar work, raising tough questions about the future of finance.