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Wall Street Millennials Are a Strung-out, Rattled Mess: Jonathan Alpert

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In spite of the severe impact the financial crisis had, a slew of eager, bonus-hungry millennials are now working in the industry in hopes of forging successful careers. How are they doing?

Alas, many are a strung-out, rattled mess, Jonathan Alpert, known as “The Wall Street Therapist,” told ThinkAdvisor in an interview. The practitioner counts several young traders, analysts, bankers and financial advisors among his clients.

In an effort to cope with job stress and self-imposed pressure, these Type A’s are working murderous hours while relying on prescription medication and — primarily among the men — street drugs, such as cocaine and crystal meth, to help them focus and reach peak job performance.

In their quest to de-stress, male millennials are also compulsively paying for sex at local massage parlors.

All this follows a pattern of questionable, if not unhealthy, coping behaviors set by the previous generation of Wall Streeters, says Alpert, author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days” (Center Street/Hachette 2012).  

Millennials, and others in financial services, typically seek out Alpert when their anxieties reach intolerable levels and they’re plagued with psychosomatic symptoms, such as migraine headaches, digestive problems or insomnia. To optimize job performance and attain a better work-life balance, the therapist shows them healthy alternatives to relying on drugs or alcohol and other bad behaviors.

His approach is a relatively short goal-and-results-oriented program versus a long series of sessions.

In the interview, Alpert, a licensed professional counselor and executive coach with an advanced degree in psychology, discusses how his millennial Wall Street clients, most of whom are employed at the big banks, are dealing with post-meltdown challenges. He also offers comment on how they’re reacting to Donald Trump’s presidency. Here are highlights from our conversation:

What symptoms do your financial services millennial clients complain of when they seek your help?

Stress-related headaches, migraines, backaches, stomachaches, sleep disorders, sexual performance disorders. Some are only 22 years old and working 12 hours a day.

What’s driving them?

Even though people on Wall Street have found that bonuses aren’t what they used to be, [millennials] still hold out high expectations and put in those long hours to prove that they’re worthy. The younger ones got into the industry with such high hopes.

What are they doing to try to get relief from anxiety?

There’s a lot of abuse and dependence on medication to help them focus. They can go to their physician and easily get things like Vyvanse, very popular for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. A lot of people find that useful. And Ritalin, of course. But it’s not healthy to rely on medications like those.

How about street drugs?

They also use those. I see this more with the men than the women. Cocaine remains popular. It fits their personality: Type A and thrill-seeking. Cocaine, being a massive stimulant, [jibes with] that. They also use crystal meth, which is a methamphetamine, a stimulant that helps them get their work done. They almost justify drug use as a way to perform and stay on top of their work. It’s become a little more socially acceptable to dabble in those things as long as they’re holding it together and keeping their jobs.

What about marijuana?

Marijuana is popular, and of course, alcohol. Marijuana is becoming increasingly more popular and accepted as a way to relax.

Is insomnia one of their problems?

Yes. Sleep issues are big because of these men and women’s unhealthy lifestyles. A lot of them are highly anxious and not able to settle down at night, or they wake up early because they’re anxious about their day. Sleep issues can have a profound impact on a person’s physical health and ability to focus.

How do you help with that?

I try to pinpoint the cause. Is it, for example, having a lot of caffeine or alcohol late in the day? Or an inability to relax close to bedtime? Or is it too bright in the bedroom? Then I’ll help them try to change things.

Are millennial males frequenting massage parlors for sex, as was some of the older generation of Wall Streeters post-crisis?

That still seems widespread. Again, it’s consistent with their thrill-seeking mindset, and it’s also a way for them to deal with stress.

Do millennials understand that they should not expect traditional big bonuses anytime soon?

On one level they do, but they impose a lot of pressure on themselves anyway. These are overachievers. They still want to try to put in the absolute best effort they can, and there’s a lot of pressure at work to keep up with their colleagues and please their managers.

What usually prompts them to see you?

High stress and anxiety. Some come in to improve their game to have more of an edge that will help them at work. Or they’ll see me because they’re having trouble in their relationships or trouble in the bedroom. Usually it’s work-stress related.

How do you help them?

I coach them with ways to optimize their performance rather than relying heavily on drugs for that; and I give them cognitive therapy for anxiety, and stress- and relationship-management.

Do they ever see you because they’ve been asked to by their partners?

Yes. If [a man] is caught cheating, or if it’s a porn issue and the spouse finds out about it, the [husband] might come in for help, obviously with pressure or encouragement from the wife.

Do these Wall Streeters ever seek your services because of adverse effects from, for example, overuse of cocaine?

On occasion. If it’s affecting their relationships or their work performance.

Many millennials entered the industry not long after the financial crisis. Why do they want to work in such a challenging arena?

They’re hopeful that things will turn around. And they want to make a lot of money. When you compare the financial industry to others, when you’re right out of college you’re probably doing better [economically] than most.

Are any of them disillusioned or surprised at what their jobs turned out to be?

Some who have been in the industry for a few years are unhappy and realize it’s not for them. So I do a lot of career coaching to help them find their passion.

Are any worried that there’s a new final crisis brewing?

I don’t see that as much with Wall Street folks as I do with others.

How are these millennials reacting to President Donald Trump?

They’re concerned and greatly impacted. Millennials generally are worried about the reputation of the U.S.

Even though the American Psychiatric Association forbids licensed mental health providers from diagnosing and opining on public figures unless they’ve examined them, some have come forward with diagnoses of Mr. Trump, either in the positive and negative. What do you think?

I would never attempt to diagnose someone remotely. You just don’t know until you sit with them.  A lot of armchair therapists are saying that Trump is X, Y and Z. But although the president may exhibit signs of grandiosity and other criteria, unless there’s a huge impact on his ability to function, it’s hard to diagnose.

What’s in the future for millennials’ coping on Wall Street?

The future is what they make of it. I try to teach them how to keep their expectations in check and lead a healthy lifestyle. But there obviously will still be people who gravitate toward enhancements and drugs when faced with enormous stress because they don’t cope with it well.

Is any psychological help coming from their employers?

Some banks are a little more aware of the importance of employee mental health and recognize the impact that an unhealthy employee can have on production and productivity. So I think they’re now somewhat more friendly toward providing [mental health] services and just being more supportive.

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