The VICE UK Census

VICE UK Census: City Workers

Meeting the faces behind London's suits.

by Angus Harrison; photos by Chris Bethell
15 December 2017, 11:58am

Who are they? City workers.
What are they? According to a 2016 survey, 454,700 people are currently employed in the City of London. The sector contributed the equivalent of 11.5 percent of total UK government tax receipts last year. Even in the face of Brexit, London is still considered the financial centre of the world.

Yet, despite their central role in City life, the hedge-fund managers and insurance brokers remain something of a mystery, beyond the cliches that exist in everyone’s heads. For those living in the capital, "City boys", and girls, are phantom figures. We envisage them to be brash and braying – materialistic and cut-throat, balancing long hours in the office with a taste for the flashier end of hedonism. As ever, the truth is far more complicated than that.

For this instalment of the VICE UK census, we spoke to people under 30 who work in demanding jobs in the City – from banking to commercial law – in an effort to understand the people behind the suits.

Andreas, 29 (Photographed)

I was born in Germany. When I was 18 there was an opportunity to come to England, to work in assisted living – caring for people suffering from schizophrenia – in King’s Lynn. I was sent there for a year. I fell in love with the English countryside.

Now I work in research, so I’m not really a banker. I trade ideas, and how people can maybe profit on things that come from the research. For instance, we wrote a report on how to play the Article 50 triggering: what are the moving parts, who’s negotiating, what are they bringing to the table? We are quite pessimistic on the outcome for the UK. It’s a big lose, lose. I then tell our clients what we’ve found, and maybe they do their business with us or maybe with someone else.

I did a lot of long hours when I first moved here. Like 80 or 90 hours in a week, for sure. There were stretches where I’d have three or four weeks with no break. That really got me down. When it was the first year of my career I was more willing to sacrifice my social life in order to be productive and mentally present. Now, things are better. I socialise a lot on the weekends. I’m a social guy. I guess there is an element of being more hedonistic on weekends because I’ve been constrained in the week. I do feel the need to let loose on a Saturday.

There’s one guy on my floor who is 24 – he didn’t do a masters, so went straight into work at 21. He told me his hobbies were young women and aged wine. I thought, 'Jesus, I bet your dad told you to say that.' What a hollow statement.

Jess, 22

My previous job in London involved getting in at 9AM and not leaving 'til 10PM. You don’t settle down, because you leave work full of adrenalin. I was on Tinder looking for something to do. I’d go out and drink, get home and sleep. I got to the point where I was like: when was the last time I cooked myself a dinner?

When you’re in a corporate job the people that manage you are often megalomaniacs – proper cokehead nutjobs. The bosses were horrible. They’d make jokes about Russian hookers and shit. We had a Christmas party and it was just a big public wank to show off how rich the CEO was. They bought us all Apple watches and took us to really fancy clubs. It was the kind of place where grown men were throwing tantrums. They hired people because of contacts, so it was just little rich kids who hadn’t had a job before. I’m from a working class background, but you wouldn’t know it. I don’t think they realised how much I felt like an outsider looking in.

When we were growing up, me and all my friends said we were never going to work for The Man. Now, I’ve got a friend who works for a company that makes missiles, I’m like, where did your morals go? I think everything goes out the window when you put on a suit and tie.

Elena, 26

I’m 26 now and I’ve been in the UK for three years. I was born in Venice, Italy. I was in the middle of my final exams when I started interviewing for this company in London, and in June of 2015 I managed to get a job as a paralegal. I finished my degree, took a couple of months off for the summer and then moved to the UK. The job turned out to be insane. Crazy hours, crazy people, getting shouted at on a daily basis. It was supposed to be a firm that specialised in human rights, but the human rights abuses that went on in that place... it was ridiculous.

In my second week of work the secretary on the desk next to me had to go home early because she was feeling ill. She told me she’d done everything she needed to do that day, that she’d given some documents to the CEO – who was the main psycho – but knowing how short tempered he is, she left another copy with me, as a back-up. She goes home, and within a couple of hours he comes storming through screaming, "WHERE’S THE DOCUMENT?" I offer the back-up and tell him she left a copy with me. He starts screaming and throwing shit across the room. He tells me to get on a computer, so I do, and he tells me to password-protect and send the document to a client. I’m like, 'Oh god' – I don’t know how to password-protect documents. He loses it. He sits on my desk, throws my shit everywhere, snaps pens, shouts, "WHO IS THIS USELESS PERSON?" He starts calling everyone, and next thing I know half of the office has gathered around my desk to watch him yell at me. That was week two.

You actually end up bonding with your colleagues. Almost like comrades in the military. A lot of my colleagues I’m still friends with. Eventually I got a job somewhere else. It was less money, less in the way of benefits, they weren’t offering me a training contract, but it was another job, so I was like, "I’ll take it" and quit immediately.

Edward, 25

In my final year of uni I realised I wanted to work in banking. I never drank on weeknights until I worked in the City. Once you see other respectable people going to the pub three nights a week it becomes normal. Which is a shame, cos it’s expensive and boring. It’s boring getting to the end of a month and having no money and having to call your parents.

I think the finance sector is our biggest contributor to tax in the UK. Without it, London wouldn’t be what it is, like it or not. We are the global centre of finance. We’re not a world leader in any other sector any more, not engineering or medical. I’m not an overtly political person – I wouldn’t dream of voting Labour, but I don’t know if I could bring myself to vote Conservative either. I think the working culture affects my views; most of my colleagues are Tories and probably wouldn’t ever vote any other way.

Leonie, 24

When I was at school I decided I wanted to be rich. That was my main goal in life. I wasn’t sure how exactly to do that, but I decided a good education was probably the best. I thought being a lawyer would be boring, but that law would be a career that gave me lots of options.

The actual day-to-day work is fucking boring, but they pay you loads. My hours are my main problem. When you go into the office in the morning you have no idea when you’re going to leave again. There are beds and a doctor’s surgery in the office. There’s a hairdressers and a gym. You actually don’t need to leave. My worst night ever, I was here until 4:30AM. Once it gets past a certain time you can order food, so I ended up crying into chicken nuggets.

I don’t think there's much space for someone who is black and not posh. For me, it’s a big reason why I don’t think I’ll stay very long. There just isn’t anyone like me here, which is really tiring. There’s a lot of ignorance, rarely intentioned, but it’s tiring. There is no diversity at the top at all.

AJ, 28

I hate the weather in this country, but what I hate even more than the weather are the high taxes. It can be frustrating working as hard as I do in the City and then seeing almost half the money you’ve earned not even reach your bank account. If I could change anything, it would be that.

People think it’s all numbers in investment banking, but it’s not true. In my role as a relationship manager my focus is around building and maintaining relationships. You have to be a people person for that, be able to create a rapport with people from different walks of life. The paperwork side of things can be hell, and sometimes clients who may be in different timezones, forget you're off the clock at 5:30PM. Then you end up staying in the office till 9PM, sometimes even past 12 in the morning.

I think with time, though, you regulate the much craved-for work-life balance. I have, anyway. I no longer allow my job to affect my social life. In fact, because relationships are at the core of my role, I’ve become even more sociable. Bankers work very hard and they play hard too, but please don’t think we’re all out here living the life of the characters in the Wolf of Wall Street movie – that’s definitely not the case.

Kaz, 27

Working in the City has afforded me the luxury of being able to go on theatre trips and travelling more frequently than before. It’s the increased income and, with that, I make a concerted effort to do things I enjoy outside of work and not live solely for the weekend, no matter how tired I get during the week. One thing I notice is that people do definitely judge a book by its cover. It’s only when I start talking and having in-depth conversations with people that they realise I’m intelligent. It’s always, "I didn't know you were this smart." I don’t take it to heart, though. I like the surprised faces I see when I answer questions about what I do, who I work for or how much I earn.

Nicholas, 25

I’ve always been a pretty outgoing guy, so I figured out quite early on that I wanted to work in a finance role, something that would provide me with the fortuity to use my confidence in speaking and my strengths with numbers. And that’s what I’ve ended up doing – I’m a management consultant at one of the big four.

I’m still quite young, but for a kid from east London, I think I'm doing quite well for myself. Getting to travel internationally to meet and work with clients is great, but that can sometimes impact my work-life balance. It leaves less time to spend with those I love – friends and family. But these are the sacrifices you have to be willing to make in this industry. And we are reimbursed well financially, so much so that I’m lucky enough to own a home and be paying the mortgage on that. I’m not your typical City worker, so when people outside of work first meet me, they’re quite surprised about the field I work in.

Mariam, 25

I knew from about 17 that I wanted to be a banker, so I worked hard to actualise my ambition. I guess that’s why there are some who wrongly think I’m cold and stuck up. I’m not snobby, I just like nice things and a good glass of wine – I need one sometimes, after a long day at the office. The exposure to corporate finance, working on huge deals and completing them is exciting to me. And the perks of the job are cool, too. It means I can afford to rent a great flat in London.

Nikki, 25

My social life is definitely not what it used to be before I started my job as a trainee solicitor at a huge law firm in central London. I still get excited every time I start working for new clients and I recognise their brand name. Working with household names is still a "pinch me" moment – I haven’t gotten used to that yet. It’s been an adjustment working these long hours; my days can be so unpredictable, and sometimes I work way into the night. That makes planning after-work meet-ups with friends almost impossible. It’s hard missing out on quality time with my close friends, but I wouldn't say my work dominates my life – not just yet, anyway.

I think you’ll find, with a lot of young women who are striving for success in their careers, people think they’re stuck-up and high maintenance. I know people think that about me, but I promise it’s simply not true.

Additional reporting by Ruth Faj.

@a_n_g_u_s / @CBethell_photo

More from the VICE UK Census:

Goths

Streetwear Kids

Young Tories

Lefties