New Internationalist

Why sell your youth to big business?

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Demanding jobs leave little time to relax Mario Pleitez under a Creative Commons Licence

A 21-year-old German banking intern, Moritz Erhardt, died working at the London branch of Merrill Lynch. He was found dead in the shower and an investigation into his death is currently underway.

Moritz was by all accounts hard working in the extreme. Diligent, driven, capable, efficient, he was considered one of the lucky ones. He’d got the coveted position in a prestigious global bank, cherry-picked from hundreds of other good, probably excellent, applicants.

Bank colleagues and fellow interns told the media that the aspiring student was a ‘superstar’, adding. ’he worked very hard and was very focused. We typically work 15 hours a day or more and you would not find a harder worker than him.’ One colleague told the Evening Standard: ‘He seemed a lovely guy and was very popular with everyone. He was tipped for greatness.’

Young people who make it into much sought-after firms know they are the ‘chosen ones’. They are paid handsomely and have perks thrown at them: fancy lunches and dinners, chauffeur driven cars. They feel they’ve made it. And since the bank or company treats them like VIPs, which they are, they need to perform in a manner commensurate with the fat salaries and unlimited perks. So their corporate bosses fatten them up beautifully before going for the jugular. They sign up for the good life and that’s it. They step into their gilded cages and are in bondage for the next few years. When you are 21, burnout, exhaustion, or sleep deprivation seems a joke. So does work-life balance. You are only young once, is the logic. And if you can’t work at a frenetic pace now, what will you produce when you get old and tired? Meaning 40, probably.

It’s not just the City of London which drives young folk into the ground. All over the world, people in fancy corporate jobs are living on the brink. ‘We are in a recession,’ they are told. ‘Consider yourself lucky to be in a job at all. Work hard. Keep your complaints to yourself.’ So they work themselves into exhaustion, feel a failure if they can’t cope with working six and a half days a week for months on end. Constantly on call, they can never switch their mobiles off. They have no time for friends or family. A Bangalore techie told me, ‘it’s a dog eat-dog-world. You can’t make real friends because at the end of the month someone may get a pink slip. All my colleagues are competent, good people but you are trying to show you are better, to get yourself promoted and stay ahead of others who are your peers. So you can’t trust your colleagues. It’s a nasty, unpleasant world in spite of the corporate-driven pubbing, clubbing and five-star team-building, socializing exercises. The pressure is unbearable.

Young people don’t have time to socialize or relax. Forget ‘no time to stand and stare’, there’s never time for an old-fashioned picnic, a day at the beach, to read a book or poetry. They rush to a spa to chill and detox. New Age relaxing has to be done in a driven, slickly managed package. The most serious problem however, is that they are not allowed time for normal, healthy relationships. And if they do manage to meet someone special, relationships and marriages fall apart because of the tremendous pressure of work, outputs, deadlines and horrendously long hours.

The pace of life is not negotiable any more. It’s a given, a package that is taken for granted, comes with the job and the perks and the pay. People think when they land a much coveted, greatly sought-after job, that they’ve arrived. In actual fact, they are putting their lives on hold. Missing out on their youth, on the fun of being young and carefree. Sometimes the realization hits them. But mostly it’s difficult to jump off the treadmill. You may never get such a well-paid job again. It takes guts, it’s risky.

And all this angst and heartbreak merely for a few dollars more.

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  1. #1 chandrika sen sharma 25 Aug 13

    I have a friend whose daughter left a high paying job with a prestigious bank in London for just this reason - burnout! She very wisely changed her career and is now in a position where she is happy and has time for family and friends! Sometimes the wise ones do make the right decisions.

  2. #2 Hazel 25 Aug 13

    Come to Australia! They're paid handsomely and work not a minute beyond they're cut off time even if the job isn't done. Then they're at the beach or doing some form of extreme sport. I used to find it very irritating at first when I'd just arrived from super efficient Hong Kong. Now I think I'm a new convert. They work for the time they can play and I think we can all learn from them. Efficiency has a heavy price tag.

  3. #3 Josette Kersters 26 Aug 13

    This is so very true, Mari, I see it all around, also in my family; and only yes..! terday I talked about it wth a relative, young son of a cousin, who - rather exceptional ! - agreed fully. And the crisis we are in doesn't help. Hold on.But keepo time for yourself!! Love, Josette..!

  4. #4 david cohen 04 Sep 13

    Mari Marcel's Thekaekara's trenchant blog on youth and big business really encapsulates the Faustian bargain that young people are involved in as they try to ’make it’. It's about ’getting ahead’ at all costs.

    Two recent American studies have caught my eye. I hope that this is not one of our ’exports.’

    An analysis of words published in books in the US since 1800 through 2000 shows an increase in words that emphasizes the individual and competition rather than the community or cooperation.

    Another documents lower income people contributing a greater percentage of their income to charity and causes they believe in than those with more income and certainly more than wealthy people. Lower income people also volunteer more.

    We can try to reverse these trends by example and making a different norm attractive.
    There is also no avoiding personal responsibility for not contributing or volunteering more.
    We should expect more from those who have more.

    David Cohen
    Washington, DC
    September 4, 2013

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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