Natasha Voase

The decline and fall of banking’s barrow boys

Credit: Getty images

Before the ‘Big Bang’, which led to the deregulation of financial markets in London in the 1980s, the city was dominated by two types of person: the often Oxbridge-educated spreadsheet warriors who ran merchant banks; and the ‘barrow boys’, students of the school of life who worked as traders. While the former are still thriving in London, the latter are now something of a rare breed. It’s a pity.

What the barrow boys lacked in formal education, they made up for in exuberance. Often the children of market traders who put their quick maths to use on the trading floors of the City, the barrow boys came to epitomise the excess of the 1980s. Yet many former barrow boys look back at that decade – a time when the city of London was undergoing radical change – with fondness: they remember rubbing shoulders with public school boys. These were people with radically-different backgrounds brought together with a common purpose to their own: to make loads of money. As a result, while Thatcher’s deregulation has been blamed for all manners of ill, the 80s were, in fact, a period of high upwards social mobility. Crucially, it was an era before degree requirements and professional exams locked out the barrow boys. Nowadays, the advent of increasingly stringent academic requirements means the City has become a place which favours insiders. 

It is hardly surprising that students are doing everything they can to get their foot in the door

Though diversity has been on the tip of everyone’s tongues for many years, few are prepared to question the need for a degree in the workplace. Even students themselves are convinced that a degree is the answer; the more than 1.4 million British students currently in higher education shows that all too clearly. However, the debt burden and opportunity cost of doing a degree is off-putting to some, meaning that if a job requires a degree, the pool of applicants has already been narrowed down.

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