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October 26, 2021 0 By Anton

The Important Cog

It was another Monday morning when Bill sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. While waiting for the machine to power up, Bill looked around: it was 7:30am, an hour and a half earlier than when most people would start showing up. The computer was showing an update was being installed, so Bill decided to get up from his black office chair and make himself a coffee. He went into the common area where there was a coffee machine and looked at the options.

Bill decided on a cappuccino. However, he chose the hot brew with two extra shots of coffee. As he pressed the button, Bill thought to himself: ‘I might as well get a strong one – I am here early, let’s get cracking’. As the black liquid was being poured into a brown cup made out of recycled plastic, Bill recalled the extra tasks he had to do for another manager in the firm. He smiled confidently, but his heart filled with anxiety as he quickly went over the daily schedule in his mind and realised that not even if he came earlier (or if he stood over hours) could he finished everything in time.

Nevertheless, Bill went back to his desk where the computer finished the update – the twentieth that month – and began work. First, the emails from last Friday and the ones that came over the weekend. This took Bill about an hour to deal with them. Then, he began the real work. Bill opened up a Power Point presentation and started typing on the keyboard, clicking the mouse buttons and squinting at the screen: tremendous effort was being focused into the task.

Bill was a product specialist at an asset management company which was headquartered in London. His main task was to produce slick Power Point decks for the sales team – the people who would try and pitch the products offered by the asset manager to investors. The presentations were packed with data points, charts, graphs, powerful images and carefully chosen talking points presented in bullet point format.

However, Bill wasn’t responsible for creating the content for these Power Point decks. He would only copy and paste the content form other departments within the company and make sure that the colours were on brand (red and black) and that the font types and sizes were correct.

The company was proud of itself for having a “global footprint” and for offering a culture of “inclusiveness and meritocracy”, which were the two elements that made Bill join it about five years ago. The asset manager had over twenty offices, across all continents and in all major financial hubs: New York, Beijing, Milan, Paris, Tokyo and so on. These nods of financial services were united by a strict policies that touched upon anything from dressing code to what constituted “hard work”.

The asset manager’s CEO, L. Junker, was a veteran of the industry and surrounded himself with prestigious politicians, lawyers, professors and bankers who regularly met and discussed current affairs. Bill was proud to be part of Mr. Junker’s team, even if he was “a small cog in a big machine”, as the CEO put it the yearly presentation, referring as such to all the employees that did not have a C-rank in the company: “Small cogs are very important: they make this company grow and the economic machine function, and without you all, progress at a grand scale wouldn’t be possible”.

Bill was happy to be a small cog, at least for the time being. After all, he was told that hard work was going to be remunerated proportionately with the effort and that opportunities to develop, both professionally and personally, were provided by the company to all its employees who showed a desire to “do more”.

Bill was still young, in his mid-20s, and had plenty of fire to prove himself in the eyes of his colleagues and his family that he was a worthy member of society. Therefore, he certainly wanted to display that hunger for perfection which, hopefully, one day, would lead to him being promoted from a “small cog” to something more meaningful: a “shot caller”.

Slowly, other colleagues appeared in the office. Bill saluted them with a nod. Most of the younger ones, who were most likely juniors, came first, just before the clock hit 9 am. Later, around 10:30 am, the more senior people began to appear: smiling, happily dashing in and out of meeting rooms, running towards a breakfast with other industry peers, taking calls with journalists and having their assistants organise meetings and trips over the next few weeks.

By mid-day, Bill drank two more coffees. His work kept piling up: spontaneous emails with requests that were deemed urgent, although no deadline or reason for the urgency were given, put more pressure on him. Eventually, the launch break came at 1:30 pm, ninety minutes delayed. Bill was happy to have a moment of respire. He went into the kitchen to eat the takeaway he ordered between sending out meeting invitations, using an app on his smartphone.

The day went by fast. Bill completed fifty slides of charts and talking points, colouring them in the right way and implementing all the feedback from his manager, Janna, who, on that day, was in a strange mood and changed her mind more often than usually, resulting in extra work which Bill didn’t anticipate. As a result, he had to stay forty-five minutes over hours, getting home too late to cook and too tired to exercise or read.

Bill’s home was a rented room in zone four, located in South London. To get there, he had to take the subway and a bus, traveling about an hour and fifteen minutes. This meant a daily commute timeframe of minimum two hours and thirty minutes, if all transport ran on time: a rarity in London.

Despite these aspects, at the end of that long day, Bill was feeling quite pleased with himself: after all, he worked hard and added real value to the company’s path forward. He felt like he played a small but important part into something bigger. What that something was exactly, Bill couldn’t figure out. However, he was too tired for philosophical nonsense: he needed to keep his mind focused on practical things.

Our god, the drugs

The next morning, the same thing happened: Bill was earlier and worked hard all day, updating and colouring seventy slides full of charts, bullet points and witty anecdotes from market commentators. This time, he managed to leave on time. Then Wednesday came and went by. So did Thursday and Friday. Bill produced a total of four hundred slides that week, helping the company spreading its message to its clients: other investors.

All of a sudden, Bill found himself at the end of the month. After almost two thousand slides, many Power Point presentations, some important meetings that added further unexpected work and quite a few more late nights, the pay day finally arrived.

Close to half of his salary went to his rent. About ten percent was paid to various subscription services, mostly for entertainment purposes. Another thirty percent was put aside for food, pension and travel costs. From what it was left, about twenty percent of the initial sum of £2,000 after taxes, was used on moral boosting items.

Bill bought two Ralph Lauren shirts and a pair of Gant chinos. He loved the look of preppy, American East Coast style – it motivated him to do his job as best as he could: maybe one day he would live in that world of beautiful and wealthy people who smiled happily, appearing without too much to worry about. Bill believed that his effort will eventually pay off and from somewhere, a chance to make his real money will come. He lived under the impression that the company, and the broader society, was indeed a meritocracy: competitively fierce, but the best would be acknowledged and rewarded handsomely. And what greater reward was there than monetary gain?

With a large smile, but an empty heart, Bill left Oxford Street and took the clothes home to unpack them. Carefully, he removed the plastic and felt the cotton. He then looked at the label and grinned with satisfaction, almost as if his vision was closer.

Bill opened the closed and placed the three items bought next to another fifteen Ralph Lauren shirts and ten pairs of chinos from other preppy looking brands. His wardrobe was full of expensive, branded clothes, all emulating the current image of success.

Each time he wore them, Bill felt closer to that world which was advertised to him for so long: first, as child, when he was told that he could be whatever he wanted to be; then, as a young adult, throughout high school and his undergraduate years at the university, when notions of becoming a valuable an productive member of a company or society were fed to him alongside meritocratic slogans that encouraged Bill to work long hours and hope for the best; and finally, during his employment years, when promises of better payment that beat inflation were made in the same sentence as phrases such as “over hours” and “going the extra mile”.

Bill was mesmerised by all the great possibilities that more hard work, which he automatically equated with being a valuable human being, could bring to him: maybe, one day he could also have the promised life style of those finance people that Bill saw in movies and read books about: the important and dandy ultra-rich.

Indeed, he took the employment offer at his current company as a sign that things were functioning as he was thought: after hundreds of applications and many interviews, someone finally offered him a chance. The company’s human resources department saw in Bill something of value. That Bill had potential, and that he could always do more, was reaffirmed by his manager at every quarterly performance meeting, pushing Bill to believe that he was on the right path: professional evolution was happening, and the financial rewards couldn’t be that far. 

A few more months passed, and Bill continued to make his presentations, send emails and schedule meetings. He was even invited to a few of these meetings with traders and other employees who were closer to the movement of money than he was. Bill got a renewed taste for success after these discussions: the craziness of financial markets, the speed with which the information circulated, the large sums that moved across borders, all was so grandiose and so close to be part of.

He could visualise himself one of these high earning employees, making north of a quarter of a million pounds a year, maybe more with a hefty performance bonus: almost as much as in the good old days of the financial industry, the American 80s and 90s.

Bill also joined in a couple of meetings with external economists and consultants who advised the portfolio managers of relevant economic, political and regulatory changes that could impact their capital allocation decisions. His manager wanted him to “deepen his knowledge”, as part of his company’s professional development plans.

During these high profile meetings, Bill learnt that his company’s CEO was working together with other successful business people and the UK government to pass important reforms to the national labour market in order to “make it more competitive and reduce companies’ costs”. This was going to be achieved by opening the labour pool internationally. Bill cheered at this prospect, which was presented as hitting two birds with one stone: not only was the UK going to become more business-friendly, but the country would also strengthen its ties with the international community through economic interdependence. He felt proud of working for such a great company.

Bill continued to buy each month his precious shirts and he even saved up to buy a second-hand Rolex. With each item, he felt closer to his dreams.

Two more months have passed. It was a beautiful afternoon of Summer and Bill went out with some of his colleagues to a garden pub in Chelsea. As he was waiting for his cold beer at the bar, he met the eyes of a beautiful young woman who smiled back at him. Bill took his drink, smiled back and went to his friends. Later that night, he was talking with the young lady alone.

‘So what do you do?’ she asked.

Bill paused for a moment and then, with a satisfied grin, replied: ‘I work in finance.’

‘Yes?’

‘Yes. I am a product specialist.’

She seemed impressed. ‘What does a product specialist do?’ she asked curiously.

Bill took a sip of beer and then explained: ‘A product specialist creates documents for the sales team to present to investors. Mostly Power Point presentations.’

‘Oh, so you must know quite a bit of finance and economics to put in there the right information.’ The lady’s observation made Bill a bit uncomfortable as his eyes suddenly moved away from her, in an attempt to escape.

‘Well, not really,’ he confessed. ‘You don’t have to know anything. All the data and discussion points are given to you by analysts. I just take them and put them in Power Point, making sure they are the right colour and font size.’ Bill looked at her from behind the glass which he downed.

The young lady was a bit perplexed. She didn’t know how to react exactly. Bill continued: ‘It is a specialised position. It saves the investment team time. The role is fundamental for the business.’

The young lady nodded.

‘Plus,’ Bill went on, ‘it’s how most people start in this industry. Very few get a position close to the money. I still work in asset management. It’s just a matter of time before an opportunity presents itself.’

‘How long have you been in this role for?’ the young woman asked with a mocking smile.

‘About five years and a half.’

‘So you’ve been doing Power Point presentations for that long?’

‘Not just Power Point presentations. You deal with all sorts of stuff. I answer emails, attend meetings sometimes…’ Bill tried to add more meaning to his job.

‘I see. Well, if you like to copy and paste stuff into Power Point, that is what matters.’ The young woman said these words on a disappointing tone. ‘I have to go. Thank you for the drink.’ She disappeared into the night crowd at that garden pub.

Bill went home that night a bit disappointed that things didn’t work out with the lady. However, he wasn’t really bothered about her comments regarding his role. Indeed, he meditated over what she said and realise that, even after half a decade in the industry, he didn’t have the skills, or the qualifications needed to get closer to his vision. However, he pushed these thoughts aside, confidently hoping that an opportunity must reveal itself at some point.

At home, Bill opened the wardrobe and looked at all his beautiful clothes. He took the Ralph Lauren shirt which he was wearing that night and put it on a chair to wash it tomorrow. For a moment, Bill looked at the shirt with confusion on his face: the item supposed to represent wealth and success, but it didn’t have any such effect on the young lady who seemed more preoccupied by what his skills and knowledge were.

The next Monday, Bill went back to the office where he continued to copy and paste charts and bullet points on Power Point slides. After all this time, he got really good at it: his presentations were spot on. No mistakes, no further edits, Bill’s products were as close to perfection as anyone could expect. Still, his salary remained more or less the same: it went up with 5%, to beat the less than 2% inflation, as his manager explained. Bill was satisfied: at least his money didn’t lose any purchasing power.

One day, towards the end of Summer, Bill overheard a conversation between two of his colleagues from other departments who were likely much better paid then him. They were speaking of “moving on to better opportunities”. That sparked a strange desire in Bill’s heart: something told him to test what he learnt so far and apply for positions that were closer to the management of money and which were better remunerated.

Once home, Bill started looking for jobs. After a few hours of searching, well into the night, he realised that none of his skills as product specialist met any higher paying jobs in other departments. In fact, Bill’s experience wasn’t transferable to roles with a similar, or lower, pay check in the investment or trading teams.

A strange feeling of disappointment overwhelmed Bill. Then, out of nowhere, panic spread throughout his mind. Bill realised that he spent nearly 60% of the last ten years in a job that was potentially a dead end.

That night, Bill could not sleep. Thankfully, the weekend followed, and Bill recovered some sleep in the early morning. However, he spent the entire weekend looking for other roles, both within the asset management industry and in other industries. He reached the same conclusion: his skill set – of copy and pasting into Power Point and answering emails – was not that valuable.

Tired and deeply saddened by the new reality, Bill wanted to go for a walk. It was Sunday, close to dusk. He opened his wardrobe where he saw all his Ralph Lauren shirts, half-zipped sweaters and colourful chinos. Bill looked at them with disappointment in his eyes, almost as if he betrayed them or, worse, as if he was inapt to achieve the vision the items represented. Slowly, he got dressed and went for a long walk to clear his mind.

When he came back, Bill felt better. The fresh air helped alleviate some of the pain caused by the new reality. He went back to work the following week, continuing to have hope that better times will come. However, know he wasn’t hoping to achieve the great financial success that he once did, but only to remain within the industry and be seen as valuable by others.

This was the case for a few more years. All of a sudden, a decade has passed, and Bill was still working as a product specialist. He wasn’t doing only Power Point presentations, however. Now, Bill was responsible for creating PDF documents, such as brochures and other marketing materials for financial products. That gave Bill a morale boost, thinking that finally he had something extra to add on his CV.

Moreover, he kept buying items that emulated luxury and success. It was impossible for him to reconfigure his dreams. Everywhere around him, on TVs, in magazines and on the news, the same values of meritocratic hard work were advertised by even more people. Surely, these experts knew what they were talking about, Bill believed and continued to outsource the responsibility for his life to those in positions of authority – those “above him”.

Death is not that bad

Good times don’t last, however. Just as Bill’s eleventh year was ending, he was called into his manager’s office. A large spacious room with large windows overseeing the City and an elegant table and set of chairs.

‘Sit down, please,’ the manager said. Bill sat on one of the comfortable chairs. They talked for about two hours, and, at the end of the meeting, Bill got out with what can be describe as an expression of total shock on his face: he was laid off because “the company is restructuring some of its departments and decided to cut unnecessary costs”.

After all these years of value adding work, Bill was deemed an unnecessary cost that had to be cut. Suddenly, he saw himself out of work, without any skills to sell his experience. He wasn’t a junior either, which meant that his age was now a liability as other companies didn’t want to pay him higher salary than they did someone who only entered the industry. After all, how hard was to copy and paste and send documents via the email.

Bill went home quite sad that day. However, he did not despair: after all, he had worked in the prestigious and important asset management industry for more than half a decade – this had to count for something. Bill started immediately to look for roles.

A week passed and Bill only applied to five jobs, all in other fields and at substantially lower salaries. These positions were more administrative, akin to assistant positions, but were the only ones where his skills were transferable to. A sense of dread suddenly engulfed Bill: the realisation that he might never reach the promised land of financial success and lavish lifestyle hit him like a hammer.

He began drinking. At first, to alleviate the anxiety: no more than a few glasses in the evening.

Three months passed and Bill eventually secured a position that was tangentially similar to his previous role: he was in charge of a few spreadsheets to fill them in with some data and to send Power Point presentations to those in the company that needed them. His new employer was a business in the tourism industry which was paying Bill almost half the wages he earned in the asset management sector.

Over this period, Bill continued to drink, but in increasing quantities. By the time he secured the new role, Bill was capable of consuming a bit over two bottles of wine in an afternoon.

More time has passed, and Bill could no longer afford to buy anything that reminded him of his vision. Sadness came, then depression settled in. One day, Bill met with one of his co-workers from the asset management company. He asked his ex-colleague how things were.

Nothing much had changed, explained his previous co-worker, except that they hired a new person to replace Bill. He was shocked: how could this be when the company needed to cut costs?

‘Yes, the new person, whose name is Bill too, by the way, costs the firm like 15% less than you did. Plus he is much younger, so, you know, there is a lot of hunger to learn and work hard for lower pay.’

After the conversation, Bill went home and began drinking heavily. After a night long of consuming hard alcohol he wrote something on a piece of paper and then hung himself with one of his Ralph Lauren shirts.

A few days later his body was discovered. The police saw what was written on that small piece of paper:

“I realised that I lived for an illusion, that the world is not as it is being presented to me, and to so many others. Meritocracy exists in a few people, but it is not wide spread. There are many dead end jobs which destroy your abilities and your future. I was a coward to trust a company, these experts and society with my own life. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in an office moving numbers and bullet points from one document to another, but I have no resources to get myself out of this mess. Good bye.”

Bill’s death wasn’t reported in any newspaper: he was only a small cog in a bigger, more important, machine. Nobody cared about Bill at his current company and, at his previous workplace, some people gasped when they heard the news, but more out of being polite than of understanding, even a bit, the desolation that precedes suicide.

Everything went on as before.