‘Industry’ Has a Message for Wall Street Bosses: Beware the Junior Bankers

Many frightening forces converge in the finance drama “Industry”: the screaming bosses, the bad market bets and the unrelenting pressures. But perhaps the scariest of all, at least to their superiors, are the 20-something striprs ready to unseat their elders.

Generational tensions run high between the old guards and the young hungries in the second season of the HBO show starting Monday. The series about junior bankers at the fictional London company Pierpoint & Co. funnels this unease into the character of Eric Tao, played by Ken Leung. In the waters of the trading floor, the 50-year-old managing director of cross product sales is both shark and shark bait.

“Youth terrifies him,” one up-and-comer says, “unless he can control it.”

What makes the show even more sobering is knowing that its characters and storylines are pulled from real life, with creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay incorporating the headlines, their own short finance careers and interviews with finance executives into the scripts. The initial inspiration for Eric came from a person once in their banking orbit—a finance executive they said is still unaware of the connection to the show.

The world is emerging from Covid in the show. At Pierpoint, bosses don’t have patience for underlings who want to keep working remotely. The drama revolves around meme stocks, the real-world trades that gained a huge following on social media. Eric’s white-tablecloth business breakfasts and clubby investor weekends don’t fit in a disruptive landscape shaped by brash newcomers, including a billionaire who profits off the pandemic.

The new season raises a question: If experience isn’t always useful and the value of seniority is no longer a given, then what is the point of an Eric?

Actor Ken Leung, who plays senior banker Eric Tao, said friends who work in finance say his character gives them PTSD.


Photo:

Simon Ridgway/HBO

“It’s a very young person’s game,” said Mr. Down, 33, formerly of Rothschild & Co.

, repeating what industry insiders told him about their experiences in finance. “It’s a place where youth and drive and that first flash of ambition is really rewarded.”

The show finds Eric fighting for his job against three rivals, all of whom he hired. That includes his protégé at the next desk, Harper Stern, played by Myha’la Herrold.

The writers looked for generational tensions and found them around subjects like wealth. A line cut from an early script had Harper breaking what Mr. Down calls the cardinal rule of the finance job interview: Don’t say you want to make money. Harper states it plainly. It’s what some in finance call a “secure-the-bag” mentality, or a directness about the pursuit of wealth and success.

“The really big hedge fund managers we spoke to said that millennial recruits were skittish about saying, ‘I want to make money,’ it was considered sort of gaudy, a bit nasty to have that mentality,” said Mr. Down, referring to conversations he and the team had with executives while researching the show. “The Gen Z recruits now have absolutely no qualms about saying they want to be successful. They say, ‘I want to get money.’”

The finance world has moved over the decades toward greater diversity and inclusion, and the show’s casting reflects that. But the series also argues that at its core the industry will never change.

“It isn’t illogical to think that in a structure so proud of its hierarchy, there wouldn’t be the most Darwinian relationship to power possible,” said Mr. Kay, 34, formerly of Morgan Stanley.

Of course they’re going to go to their most basic animal instincts: ‘How do I get power? Who’s keeping it from me? How do I keep it myself?”

As the story resumes, Eric’s charges are making money, but he is not. As their boss, Eric argues that the team’s successes are also his. But he’s told that he’s only as good as his last deal.

“In the show he talks about, ‘Think about everything I’ve accomplished,’ and his boss is like, ‘None of that matters—what matters is what you did this week,'” said Mr. Leung, 52. “So he has to look for new muscles to exercise. It’s a ‘finding himself again’ season.”

At one point, Eric is “promoted” to a corner office that he compares to a coffin.

“It tells you something about how youth-obsessed the culture is that we’re talking about a 50-year-old man like he is a dinosaur,” said Jami O’Brien, 48, a writer and executive producer of the series.

Eric is both the voice of the establishment and, as an Asian man in a historically white world, an outsider. He swaggers with a baseball bat at his desk but fights for his team’s raises. A creature of the trading floor, he cuts his toenails into a wastepaper basket like he’s in his own bathroom.

“A lot of my friends who are in finance say he gives them PTSD,” said Mr. Leung. “And then there are other people who are like, ‘I would have died to have a boss like you.'”

Before college, Mr. Leung worked briefly as a Wall Street temp feeding financial documents into microfiche machines. He was struck by the noise and heat behind the cold exteriors of the financial district’s buildings.

One key resource for the actor: his son’s elementary school carpool. A parent who works in finance held morning meetings with his team by phone while driving the car. With permission, Mr. Leung listened from the passenger seat. “It just organically gave me a sense of the texture of this world,” he said.

Mr. Leung, a native New Yorker of Chinese descent, played Miles Straume, a volatile medium on the ABC television drama “Lost.” His film credits include roles in Brett Ratner’s “Rush Hour,” Spike Lee’s “Sucker Free City” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “Old.”

The actor shows Eric grappling with his priorities in the return-to-office world.

“He was motivated by winning and being good at his job,” said Ms. O’Brien. “The pandemic has made him question, ‘Was that a good enough reason?’ He’s having a little bit of an existential crisis at the old, old age of 50.”

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