Learning similarity

Considering the trajectories of wealth managers, it is at first difficult to make a general statement about their social backgrounds. To shed light on wealth managers’ apparent social heterogeneity, I distinguish three different generations. Born in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, the first generation is made up of people who began working as wealth managers before the creation of the first degrees and who have been a part of wealth management’s development. Some benefitted from career opportunities offered within banks. Nine of my interviewees entered banking at a very young age without any diplomas and, following internal promotions, now hold powerful positions in wealth management departments. Alongside these internally-trained wealth managers, who neither belong to the labour class nor share the social characteristics of their clients, is a set of wealth managers who are socially close to their clients. Most of them are highly educated and come from the Parisian bourgeoisie. The second generation is made up of wealth managers who were the first to experience regulated ways of entering the profession, following the creation of wealth management degrees in the 1980s. They have an intermediary position between the two types of trajectories characterising the first generation: they do not belong to the highly educated Parisian bourgeoisie, but neither are they self-taught and benefited by internal promotions. With the significant development of wealth management in the 1990s and 2000s, many of them now hold important positions in Parisian banks or have started their own “family office’4 business, often after a career in private banking. Finally, the youngest wealth managers are part of a large generation of wealth management graduates. They are less likely to have careers as exciting as their predecessors. A survey conducted by S. Mignot-Gerard et al. (2017) on cohorts of students getting master’s degrees in wealth management from a Parisian university shows that most of the students belong to the middle class and are not socially over-selected, especially in comparison to students taking trading courses. The authors also point out the increased female participation in these degrees. Today, wealth management doesn’t seem to be an activity designed for individuals who look like their wealthy clients.

Regardless of wealth managers’ social backgrounds, they have learned to manipulate various status symbols in front of clients. E. Goffman (1951) refers to people whose job it is to become competent in the manipulation of symbols of class status as “curator groups”. According to this definition, we could say that the apparent similarity between clients and wealth managers is less based on sharing the same class position than on the fact that wealth managers take pains to resemble their clients. Owen Price, who works in a department dedicated to the largest fortunes of a big bank, explains that he always tries to “separate” his role as a wealth manager from his life outside the bank: “I am a private banker when I arrive here, but then, when I leave, 1 am not a private banker, I am just a bank employee, I am an employee”.

He goes on: “I put on my private banker’s suit and then return to my ordinary role in society”. He explains that he considers “role mixing” to be “very dangerous”. To resemble their clients, wealth managers may engage in activities that their clients supposedly like. Scott Rivera explains how one of his classmates, employed in an old-style Parisian private bank, learned leisure activities associated with the bourgeoisie, such as hunting and golf. Some wealth management firms remind their employees of the importance of this adjustment, consisting in acting as //’they belong to the same world as their client. Gestion de Fortune (n° 213, 2011) provides a few lines from a long document UBS distributed to employees engaging with “wealthy clients”. This document “is not limited to instructions for clothing and footwear, it also affects accessories and includes a host of recommendations on personal care”. It includes directions on buttoning shirts and advice on the kind of suit to wear and how to tie a tie or a neck scarf properly. More broadly, wealth managers recount how they often organise events for clients, at which many prestigious symbols can be manipulated; dinners, cocktails and breakfasts have become routine events in wealth management departments. Elvis Lewis, who works in a private bank that historically specialises in international high net worth clients, told me he had recently organised “a reception with clients, which was really nice. Without being too showy”. According to him, far from being anecdotal, these kinds of activities “are part of the job”. Similarly, the old-style and selective bank NSM brings its customers together every year. In an interview for Gestion de Fortune (2011, n° 224), the director of a big insurance company recounts, “We must help the client not only to own more, but also to be more”. The many events to which customers are invited are supposed to help with this. These events also erase signs of the commercial relationship: clients and wealth managers act as if they are part of the same small world. Wealth managers can thus be characterised as a curator group because a part of their work consists of manipulating prestigious symbols that are supposed to help clients “be more”. This curator work also pervades activities at the heart of the business - money management in particular - through the promotion of “good” behavior with money, which has moral grounds.

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