A pandemic that's killed close to 3 million people worldwide and shut down entire economies was always going to force a fundamental re-evaluation of life goals and priorities. The death of the office and the hollowing out of city centres are just two of the possible aftereffects that have loomed into view. More than one year in, the shock waves are reaching an even more basic level.
The 13 junior analysts at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. who protested last month over long working hours, unreasonable demands and deteriorating mental and physical health gave voice to an equation that is part of almost everyone's internal calculus: How much are we prepared to put up with now for what we want later? The evidence suggests that the pandemic has shifted the balance decisively toward "not as much as before."
There's a psychological term for this bargain that we strike with the future: delayed gratification. In one of the most famous social-science experiments, researchers at Stanford in the early 1970s measured the ability of children to withstand the urge for instant reward: Subjects were offered the choice of one marshmallow now, or two if they would wait 15 minutes while the researcher left the room. Children who did well on the marshmallow test, by demonstrating they had the willpower to wait, did better at school and later in life on a range of measures (these results have since been disputed).
Junior investment bank analysts trade a life of 80- to 100-hour workweeks and relentless Excel and PowerPoint drudgery for the promise of becoming fabulously wealthy later. It's easy to see how Covid-19 may have diminished the attractiveness of this covenant. When work consumes almost all of life, the importance of scarce downtime increases. But how to decompress when all the bars and gyms are closed? Most of us have a threshold for misery, even future masters of the finance universe.
In effect, the Goldman analysts are saying: more marshmallows now, please. Their grievances (amusingly aired in an authentic Goldman-style slide deck) drew some sneering from the macho finance crowd, who all no doubt used to get up at 10 p.m. half an hour before they went to bed when they were juniors. For this correspondent, asserting a duty of self-care in the face of intolerable conditions is an act of psychological health.
The ability to delay gratification is seen as a character strength. Is it always, though? There's a point at which it can easily tip over into masochism. We risk a Faustian bargain when we trade the present for the lure of an ephemeral future. It can become a habit that robs us of pleasure and joy in the here and now. The trouble is that when one objective is reached, another tends to take its place. In this way, people can find themselves running perpetually in pursuit of an imagined point of "arrival" that is never quite reached — the famous hedonic treadmill. All well and good if you love your work, but if you're not getting enough time to sleep or shower, feel abused and find your relationships deteriorating, perhaps you want to examine your career choices.
Maybe we should worry more about the analysts who stay and don't complain. Take too much punishment, and it's possible to become so dissociated from oneself that a life of wretchedness starts to feel normal. Eventually, you become a hollow husk of humanity, unable to enjoy the infinite richness of the eternal present, focused only on the next deal, the next bonus, the next promotion. On the bright side, you're on the path to making a managing director.
The disaffected analysts triggered memories of one friend who left journalism to go into banking a couple of decades ago. We've kept in touch, sporadically, over the years. At one meeting in the mid-2000s when I was living in Shanghai and he was doing some work there, he was struggling to stay awake amid a punishing schedule of building spreadsheets for an upcoming IPO. Back in Hong Kong, about a decade ago, he complained of the long hours and talked about plans to set up his own business. He's still there.
The pandemic has put a psychological strain on many of us, causing a surge of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders. Jobs have been lost, careers have been disrupted, and working from home has brought its special challenges. If there's been a benefit, though, it has been to force people to focus on what matters in life and examine the tradeoffs we've chosen to accept.
Amid so much distress and death, it makes sense to stop and smell the roses when you can, have a shower, even sleep for eight hours. As for my friend, the last time we were in touch he said work only gets harder and he's aiming to be out by year-end. On behalf of all marshmallow-now people, I hope he means it.