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The Great M&A Desillusion: Why M&A Is Not As Attractive As It Used To Be


“Aurelian, I feel trapped…”

That’s what I heard from an old friend of mine, who’s been working in M&A for nearly 6 years. 

Great situation. Senior Associate at an elite investment banking boutique in London. Working on billion-dollar deals in the tech space. Very cool apartment in Knightsbridge. His parents, friends, and girlfriend are all unambiguously proud of him. 

Yet, somehow, he feels empty inside… He feels like he’s trapped in a cage that he puts himself into. At university, he worked hard to get the best possible grades, beefed up his financial modeling skills and business acumen, networked like a savage to multiply his reach and number of job opportunities. 

But now that he has achieved his objective – becoming a respected investment banker at a highly reputable investment bank – he doesn’t genuinely enjoy his job, he feels mentally & physically drained all the time, and he feels like he can’t leave his career, not after everything he’s done to build it…  

I’ve seen this kind of existential crisis many times among smart, highly ambitious financiers. Especially among M&A people. 

The question is: Why? Why are so many bankers silently suffering from metaphysical doubt? Is there anything that changed in the nature of the M&A job that leads people to feel empty inside? Or has there been a shift in mindset within younger generations that makes them ill-suited to the extremely laborious demands of the M&A workplace

In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions, based on my discussions with banking professionals and analysis of the current market. If you’re considering a career in M&A, this article is a must-read.

The Perceived Value of M&A Has Been Artificially Inflated By A Positive Feedback Loop Driven By Social Proof

Before we try to understand the cause of many M&A bankers mal-être, we need to explain why M&A is so popular in the first place. My belief is that the popularity of M&A, and hence its perceived value among young undergraduates, is largely driven by social proof. 

To simplify to the extreme, candidates are so eager to work in M&A, specifically because so many people are eager to work in M&A. If it sounds far-fetched to you, hear me out. 

In my estimation, at least 80% of students first became interested in M&A because they heard it was the most “prestigious” path in finance. Their initial interest is therefore not triggered by objective investigation, but by academic peer pressure. 

By the time they start learning more about the industry, they’ve already internalised the idea that M&A is better than everything else. When they do their own research to see if M&A could be a good fit for them, they tend to retain only the positives (high salary, strong exit opps, social standing), and disregard the negatives (zero work life balance, mental and physical exhaustion, many menial administrative tasks with low intellectual stimulation). 

And the more they hear or read about M&A, the more grandiose their perception of the job becomes, due to the insidious force of the confirmation bias. So they start applying for M&A roles. If they’re a bit lucky (and extremely well prepared), they may get one. 

Few years later, no matter how much they hate their job, they keep advising younger generations to work in M&A. After all, they didn’t make all these efforts and sacrifices to devalue their hard-earned position!

This only reinforces the “M&A is sacrosanct” narrative. This in turn attracts more and more applicants to this industry, creating massive social proof that artificially inflates the perceived value of the job.

Et cetera. Et cetera.

TLDR: “heard M&A was the best” (social pressure creates initial interest) → research phase affected by confirmation bias → candidate joins the M&A industry (if lucky) → tells everybody M&A is amazing (effort justification bias) → more people are drawn to M&A (reinforces social proof, bringing even more people in)

Due to this self-sustaining feedback loop where the positive is amplified and the negative is muted, the perceived value of M&A as a career choice continues to be sky-high. 

Truth be told: there are indeed a few people complaining about the work conditions in M&A. When a group of GS analysts released a PPT presentation denouncing 105-hour work weeks and horrible working conditions, it did make some noise. But usually this noise doesn’t last long, and people continue to apply en masse to M&A, like they didn’t hear anything.

The Highly Inflated Appeal Of M&A Creates Unrealistic Expectations That Are Unlikely To Be Met

When they finally land their dream M&A roles, new recruits often have unrealistic expectations of how much they will actually like the job. Initially, they get the predictable dopamine rush that comes with social validation, great salary and perks, and the pride of accomplishing a very ambitious goal. 

But once they get used to all of this (usually after a few months), they often start to realize that what they do on a daily basis is not as fulfilling as they initially expected… The grueling hours, repetitive menial tasks, ridiculously tight deadlines, and constant pressure from hierarchy is what they experience every single day. 

The benefits of M&A that initially attracted them in the first place (social prestige, great compensation, strong exit opps) become mental abstractions that don’t affect their daily lives in any significant way. The only thing they can feel is the hardship of the job at full blast. 

And that’s why so many young M&A professionals are stretched internally. The harsh reality of the job rarely matches their glorified expectations. They enter the space for external rewards (money, prestige, opportunities), assuming that these external rewards would automatically be transmuted into internal rewards – a sense of well-being, inner peace, deep personal satisfaction. Unfortunately, it’s often not the case. 

By the time they reach their late twenties/early thirties, they are now completely used to the financial and societal benefits that come with the job. They make a great living, and enjoy an affluent lifestyle. In that context, even if they hate their job, they feel like they can’t escape. That they will lose everything if they quit. That all their hard work would be in vain if they leave M&A. They feel trapped in a golden cage, just like my friend who suffered from an existential crisis.

M&A Is Not The Only Way, Possibilities Are Limitless

If you think this situation can’t happen to you, think twice. These people are extremely similar to you, they all started to apply for M&A summer internships with eyes full of stars, dreaming about M&A day and night. Few years later, many of them feel trapped and spiritually lost. Which is why before you consider a career in M&A, take time to seriously consider other career options. 

If you don’t know what to do with your career, be aware that there are plenty of other jobs in finance that are far more interesting than M&A for YOU, and just as rewarding financially. 

Growth equity, sovereign advisory, equity research, leveraged finance, prop trading – the possibilities are endless. 

If you’re really curious, try to win an internship in M&A for a few months, let yourself feel the experience in all its beauty and ugliness, and imagine yourself living like this for 5, 10, 20 years. While hours and work conditions do improve as you rise in seniority, the intensity and pressure remain the same. You’ll age faster and will most likely feel drained quite frequently. 

And if you didn’t like to receive hellfire upon you from your superiors in the early years of your career, there’s no reason to think that you will enjoy unleashing hell upon young recruits once you get more senior…

The moral of the story is: just do your own research, and don’t blindly follow the herd unless you have objective reasons to think that M&A is the best possible path for you.

In most cases, it won’t be…

Note: for some people, M&A is a perfectly suitable career path for them that will bring them a lot of personal satisfaction, aside from financial and societal benefits. In many aspects, M&A is a very interesting job that can be a genuine source of fulfillment for individuals who enjoy the non-stop grind, unpredictable workflow, and ultra-competitive environment that come with the job. I’m only writing this article to send a warning to all those candidates who religiously believe that M&A is the best possible career choice there is, without really thinking about the long-term psychological and spiritual consequences of this choice. 

If despite this warning, you want to get a job in M&A, maximize your chances of success by getting access to the insider networking strategies I’ve personally used to land offers at Goldman Sachs, Lazard, and other tier-one investment banks. Learn more on this page


A word about the author

Aurelian Tran is the founder of Alpha Lane and an ex-Goldman Sachs analyst who has spent 4+ years working in the investment banking industry.

He founded Alpha Lane to help students and young professionals achieve their highest professional ambitions, by securing offers at top-tier financial institutions.