Ageism may be the last bastion of discrimination in investment banking, but the situation in China is even more overt. Job ads often include the requirement that candidates need to be “under 35”.
The assumption is that once you hit your mid-30s you’re no longer able to (physically) compete with fresh young recruits on working hours and if you haven’t made it to MD or the executive suite, it’s time to go.
Even worse, if you’re a Chinese banker working in a Western institution, it’s quite difficult to make it past executive director (depending on the organisation). That’s not to say that there aren’t any Chinese MDs, but the bankers we spoke to suggest that the glass ceiling remains relatively thick and the route to managing director is daunting. Career stasis hits and if you haven’t moved to a local bank by the time you hit 40, start looking for alternative options.
The (almost) impossible track to MD
One investment banker at ED level who is “only” 42, says he remains hopeful of making it to MD one day, largely because the demographics of his team is changing. "It's almost all local Chinese here now, including many desk heads,” he says.
But, he admits, life is catching up. "The higher your title is, the more responsibility you have, " he says, "But at the same time, I'm not as energetic as before, sometimes I easily feel tired."
This isn’t just physical, the added responsibility is taking its toll on stress levels. "The fear of making grave mistakes is always there,” he says.
Sticking in investment banking as you get older in China also depends on which division you work in. Advisory functions may still be demanding, but investment bankers with a few grey hairs are still valued. Keeping pace in the markets divisions as you get older is more of a challenge, suggest the bankers we spoke to.
One 46-year-old derivatives salesman in an Australian investment bank in China quit last year after 20 years in the industry. "There are always huge pressures to meet targets in sales," he says. "But I've done this for 20 years, and have lost the necessary passion.”
The pressure of sales targets is interspersed with the need to engage in office politics to manoeuvre through the organisation. You need to schmooze and say the right things to the right people. "I don't like this," he admits.
Another 40-something salesman tells us he’d just seen one too many downturns. He worked as an ED within a large UK bank and couldn’t see a progression to MD happening any time soon. He ran exchange rate strategy sales at that time, but was facing increasingly bigger challenges as his client base began to stagnate due to a dearth of product innovation. "I could have carried on," he recalls. "But I would have lost much of my sense of worth."
Making it work when you quit banking
The one benefit of working through the boom years of investment banking is that quitting is not such a daunting prospect. "I had a look at my bank account and found that I was able to live on interest payments, so I quit,” the 46-year-old says, half-joking.
And leaving the industry doesn’t necessarily mean casting yourself adrift. The skills gained during an investment banking career can be applied new ventures.
One banker is now making his own investments, together with a few friends, the other runs his own business doing consulting and training.
Not that it’s all plain sailing – one banker says that competitors in his new business area are “huge”. He also remembers awkward conversations with his wife explaining that he was walking away from a large – comparatively stable – salary.
"I needed to talk to my wife and ask for her support," he recalls. "And particularly I needed to make her aware that life might not be as good as before."