Book Review: The Pin Striped Prison, by Lisa Pryor


Today’s Book Review is The Pinstriped Prison: How overachievers get trapped in corporate jobs they hate, by Lisa Pryor.

Lisa Pryor is a columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald who got 100% in her HSC (school leaving exams). She started a law degree, but ended up a (less well paid) journalist, and this book is the story of what became of her peers – high scoring high school students who ended up as lawyers and investment bankers, because the law firms and Investment Bankers have set up a superb strategy for capturing graduates like her.

This book came out of a newspaper column, and it does show. The arguments are strongest around the core – which is an essay about corporate malaise within the very well paid jobs in Sydney’s corporations and law firms – particularly amongst the twenty somethings, Lisa Pryor’s contemporaries.

Pryor describes the culture and narrow choices that occur in reality from school, to university, to the first years of university for Sydney’s upper middle class bright children. Along the way, she talks about the snobbishness of public (particularly selective) vs private schools, including this paragraph about the tutoring at Sydney’s selective public schools, which says something I’ve been thinking for a while:

To families with children at elite private schools, all this tutoring is considered somewhat distasteful. ‘Asians’, they whisper and point discreetly. Filling up the selective schools with their hardworking ways, cheating with tutoring! Don’t these Asians have any respect for the fact that the only student who is supposed to have an advantage in the race for gifted and talented classes and selective schools is the white child whose parents speak fluent English, work in professional jobs and live in houses crammed with books? Private schools like to teach their children to be workaholics in other ways. Well-rounded ways. By rising at six in the morning for swimming squad, spending the lunch hour rehearsing with the madrigal group, taking speech and drama classes after school.

She talks about the strong pressure that teenagers feel not to “waste” their marks when choosing university courses by just choosing something they would like to do at university, rather than something they can get into, citing someone who is often berated by friends and family for choosing to be a teacher when she could have studied law.

The backbone of the book is the analysis of the recruiting methods of the  big law firms, consulting firms and investment bankers (and to a lesser extent, the accounting firms). To persuade the top university students to join their firms, their recruitment strategy sounds similar to the strategy used to win Olympic bids. Interviews take place at luxury hotels. Job offers are accompanied by ipods or Champagne. Introductory courses to the firm take place in glamorous locations (and for global firms, that can be pretty glamorous). Firms promise “cutting edge work”, which is “dynamic and fast paced”. Law firms sponsor the annual revues at universities, to give them an in with the most outgoing students.  Rhodes scholars get special attention from the management consulting firms while at Oxford.

The final part of the book deals with what it is like being at one of these big firms:

The life that big firms promise is not the life they deliver.  Some time during their twenties, when study is finished and work begins in earnest, a person can realise life is not quite what they planned or were promised in the brochures.

The hours worked by new recruits may be high flying but the work is not. Even the areas which are optimistically described as ‘sexy’ rarely are.

Life at these big firms seems quite stifling after a while – Pryor describes the money trap that it takes a fair bit of money to maintain yourself so that you are taken seriously in a big firm. Good clothes, living in an acceptable area of the city, getting takeaway all the time because you’re too tired to cook, hiring a cleaner (ditto) and keeping up with your peers – things like weekends away, dinners out, and drinking after work. So taking a pay cut and doing something slightly worthier (like the activism you did at university to embellish your cv) seems impossible, because your spending habits are so extravagant (although that peer group would be a lot easier to keep up with).

Pryor is most concerned here that our most talented students are being lured into careers that they didn’t really want in the first place – and that aren’t actually the best place for them to use their talents. Although the market is supposed to be the best allocator of resources, the human reactions of people facing the big decisions about their careers are swayed by the short term incentives that are on offer by the firms with the most money to splash around.  Of course, that isn’t just the fault of the law firms and the merchant bankers. The students are reacting as they always have – to external markers of success. They’ve moved from marks, to the prestigiousness of their employer, to the “glamour” of the area of the firm that they end up in.

Pryor’s solutions to all of this seem a combination of unrealistic and inadequate to me. They include removing the single mark used for university admissions, targeting scholarships better to students who actually need them, and not facilitating the recruitment by the firms with money on university campuses. And she wants university graduates to be braver about following less traditional paths.

I haven’t lived in quite the same circles as described in this book – it is mostly about law firms and investment banks, rather than traditional corporations or accounting firms. But much of the culture was familiar to me, having worked in a big accounting firm, and with many lawyers and investment bankers. The depressing thing about the book is that is largely a tale of woe. There are no great answers, just stories of people realising that a 12 hour day in a corporate environment isn’t the fun it’s made out to be by those recruiting. That does seem to be a case of some degree of market failure, to me – the kind of market failure that results from people valuing current consumption over investment – but I’m not sure it makes for a wonderful book. It’s definitely worth reading for university students, as they think about what they want to do with their lives, but it’s hard to imagine that a university student would be willing to read it. The various blog whinges referred to in the book are probably more useful as cautionary tales.

  5 comments for “Book Review: The Pin Striped Prison, by Lisa Pryor

  1. December 28, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Thx for the review – good cautionary tale for my kids. Me? Never fancied corporate life!

  2. December 28, 2009 at 1:35 pm

    My eldest daughter is talking about studying law. I’m not discouraging her, because a law degree is excellent training in analytic thinking, but I have been encouraging her to think about doing an Arts degree as well, and saying that there’s no need to make cast-iron commitments yet (she’s 11).

    PS: I’m enjoying reading your posts again, Penguin UnE.

  3. December 29, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Why is this topic worth a whole book? — that some very smart people are paid well to do a job they end up disliking? Most people dislike their jobs to some degree.

    Is Pryor implying the students are bribed? Or only that they were offered the best capitalism has to offer, and that isn’t enough?

    • December 29, 2009 at 12:36 pm

      Jennifer, I think you’re right that this book is about a fairly small group of people – since it is mostly about NSW, rather than Australia, it’s probably 1,000 to 2,000 people a year.

      I think Pryor is lamenting that capitalism tricks even the smartest people into doing things they don’t want, long term – but their lives are still pretty good – it’s not that much of a tragedy.

  4. JenniferV
    December 29, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    I remember when an extract of the book was in Good Weekend… I thought “If they hate their jobs so much, why don’t they leave? – after all, they have plenty of options.” Well, bottom line, they don’t hate it THAT much – the benefits still outweigh the costs, for most of them. And the ones for whom it doesn’t, do leave and end up in more satisfying better-suited jobs elsewhere. But there’s not much of a book in that.

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