In 1998, two years into my City career, I gathered a group of my young colleagues and clients in a smoky Shoreditch boozer to celebrate my 26th birthday. There were about ten of us and after a good few pints of ‘wife beater’ the discussion turned to our long-term career plans. There was not one among us who wasn’t adamant that they’d ‘only do this City nonsense for about ten years max’ and then move on to something ‘more fulfilling’. It goes without saying that all of those comedians are still working in the City and I’m the only dumb schmuck who actually ‘retired’.
During that momentous Thursday- night booze-up, we argued long into the night about how much cash was required before we could waltz off into the sunset with a bottle of Mescal in one hand and a blonde in the other. I suppose the fact we were debating this issue suggested our jobs weren’t entirely fulfilling but then none of us had any illusions that our daily toil was motivated by anything other than the wish to accumulate as much cash as we could as quickly as possible. We even referred to work periods in the Square Mile as if they were prison sentences… someone who’d got out after a decade had done a ‘ten-year stretch’ while those still in the game at 50 were called ‘lifers’.
I, and many of those in my circle, were frustrated artists, academics and scientists who felt that they had sold their souls to the City merely because the pin-striped demons there were offering us the best price. We knew full well that life was short and that slaving away at tedious spread sheets or talking horse manure to obnoxious clients was not how we’d choose to spend our too few years on this planet; but we struck a bargain with Mammon – ‘you can have some of our youth but only so that in a decade or so we can be blissfully free’. We recognised that few people enjoy many years when they have both cash and the time to spend it.
When you’re a student you’ve got all the time in the world but no wonga and as soon as you start your career the situation reverses. We were determined to have the best of both worlds… we were going to find a glitch in the Matrix and cheat the system. We’d be able to gallivant around the planet in our mid-30s when we were still young and fit enough to really enjoy it.
That night, my colleagues and I tried to cement a precise figure that would give a reasonable life of few major extravagances but no financial worries until we’d shuffled off this mortal coil. Although there were differences of opinion the average net asset value (that is, gross assets minus all liabilities such as mortgages, etc) we all agreed upon was £2.5m.
We figured that you could buy a decent house outright in London for £700k and a small gaff in the country for £300k. We then assumed that you could make an average annual post-tax return of 5% on the remaining £1.5m, giving you £75k per annum, through smart investments, day-trading and dodgy tips from our ex-colleagues in the City (though, frankly, those have probably lost me more than they’ve made me over the years). Combine this with perhaps £25k of annual income from bits and bobs you and your partner made as you tripped the light fantastic and you have a yearly post-tax ‘salary’ of £100k without even dipping into your capital. Of course, you couldn’t buy Ferraris, get divorced too often, send your kids off to fag at Eton or develop a serious charlie habit with that income – but you could travel endlessly, drink fine wines, eat at restaurants regularly and never feel truly constrained by cash.
In February 2008, aged 35, my net assets reached this mythical figure and I walked. Many of the lads who’d been present at the knees-up a decade before came to my retirement party and the conversation inevitably turned to why none of them had bitten the bullet, nor seemed likely to do so at any time in the near future. Nearly all of them, especially those lucky mofos who’d joined hedge funds when decent returns were still easy to come by, had far exceeded the original £2.5m but they had all ‘re-evaluated’ the target. The consensus figure that was being bandied around was now £10m.
As I walked home alone from my party I felt like a lemming who’d taken the plunge only to see all his so-called mates think better of it. Why had the buggers forsaken me and what the hell had happened over the previous decade that had made my colleagues quadruple their target?
Well, put simply, they’d either got greedy or they’d got trapped. Some had acquired a real taste for the high life and were quite simply no longer satisfied with ‘pretty damn good’ stuff. They wanted a Ferrari, not a Porsche. They wanted a £1.5m Docklands penthouse apartment when they'd previously been happy with their Hoxton flat. They wanted to eat out at Nobu whenever the feeling took them and wouldn’t dream of turning right when they boarded an aeroplane. Hell, these guys had bought into the City lifestyle to such an extent that some of them even seemed to enjoy their jobs.
The other contingent was easier to spot. They had an ashen complexion and a furrowed brow. Some had a look in their tired eyes that suggested the sky might fall on them at any moment – and all of them were wearing wedding rings. These guys had children who they had promised their high-maintenance wives wouldn’t be subjected to the teenage crack dealers that apparently populated the local comprehensive. They had a mortgage on their Kensington home similar is size to the approximate GDP of a central African republic, and they were being bullied into buying a villa in Tuscany. They had long given up on any hope of leaving the City any time soon because it was quite simply no longer an option. They had spent their hard-earned dosh on building a gilded cage and then had locked themselves in it, painfully aware that the key would only be handed to them when they hit a wheezing, fat and red-faced 50 years of age. The psychological change that had occurred when their job had morphed from a get-rich-scheme into a ball-and-chain with no end in sight had permanently etched itself on to their anxious faces.
But it wasn’t just the desire or need to make money that had condemned my fellow City boys to at least another decade of 5.30am starts, 13-hour days and regular weekends at the office. Like prisoners who have become institutionalised, they were scared of life outside the City and had a strange delight in the hardships that came with the job. The hideous commute every evening gave them something to complain about. The long days in the office gave them a perfect excuse to avoid their nagging wife and tiresome brats. Their routine provided them with a degree of security and the ever-present urge to beat Tarquin and Rupert over at Goldmans drove them on to achieve further ‘success’. Moreover, as they washed down another lump of foie gras with another bottle of Dom Perignon at another Michelin-starred restaurant they could convince themselves that they were living a glamorous life; that they had arrived; that they were someone. Their status in their eyes – and those of their peers – had become completely tied up with their career and to lose it had become almost unthinkable.
But even more daunting than the loss of the trappings that went with a City career was taking a leap into the unknown. Most City boys have few qualifications outside the very specific financial role they perform. Christ, my history degree meant I knew a fair amount about Chairman Mao’s sexual peccadilloes and my vocation meant that I knew more about the UK water sector than 99.9% of the population but I doubted whether either of those bits of knowledge would open many doors after I’d left the Square Mile. Unless there is an obvious alternative the safest and easiest option is to stay doing what you’re doing, especially when you earn shitloads doing it.
It took me perhaps five years longer than I had initially intended to leave the City and even then I could only do it because I knew my book Cityboy was going to be published and that a career as a writer/journalist was probably there for the taking. My decision was made all the easier by the looming financial crisis and because I was fairly certain that I was about to lose my job anyway as a result of being outed as the writer of the anonymous column ‘Cityboy’ that featured weekly in the now defunct thelondonpaper. Most of my mates and both my parents told me I was a total dingbat for giving up a job that was getting easier by the year and seemed to pay me half a million for taking sozzled clients to sleazy strip joints.
Well, three years have elapsed since I left the City and, so far, I’m pleased to report that at no point have I had even the slightest regret. Sure, I sometimes miss the camaraderie on the trading floor, the boozy client lunches at Coq D’Argent and the joy of successfully persuading a client to make a major trade. There have also been times when I’ve missed the routine that an office career gives you and I now sometimes lack the reason to get up every morning that a City job grants you … even if that reason is usually your knowledge that you’ll be about £1,500 better off come six o’clock. But a life spent travelling, surfing, writing and the odd bit of charity-ing has proven significantly more fulfilling than the grey drudgery I used to endure. I feel like I’m really living now and that the time I spent in the City was merely a preparation for the freedom and fun that I now enjoy. While the return I’ve achieved so far on my capital has been negative – thanks to weak markets, and obviously not because I’m a complete tool at investing – it has still been without doubt the best decision I’ve ever made.
I don’t wish to persuade you to give up your City career and sit around smoking dope on Goan beaches. I would just say one thing: leaving the City is not as scary as you might think. There’s a big wide world out there and almost seven billion people to enjoy it with. If you’ve saved a few quid and have a half-decent imagination then you’ll find something to do with your time that might just be a tad more fulfilling than spending 12 hours a day pushing around bits of paper and kissing your boss’s arse.
As the cliché says: no one died wishing they’d spent more time in the office.
Geraint Anderson’s new novel ‘Just Business’ is out now. Visit cityboy.biz for more info. How much money do you think you need to retire? Post your comments below.
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