Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Take the Money and Run?

Choices, choices: what do today's college graduates see as more attractive, a lucrative job on Wall Street or the chance to serve those less fortunate? Check out this New York Times article:

Big Paycheck or Service? Students Are Put to Test

A prominent education professor at Harvard has begun leading “reflection” seminars at three highly selective colleges, which he hopes will push undergraduates to think more deeply about the connection between their educations and aspirations.

The professor, Howard Gardner, hopes the seminars will encourage more students to consider public service and other careers beyond the consulting and financial jobs that he says are almost the automatic next step for so many graduates of top colleges.

“Is this what a Harvard education is for?” asked Professor Gardner, who is teaching the seminars at Harvard, Amherst and Colby with colleagues. “Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?”

Although others have expressed similar concerns in recent years, his views have gained support on the Harvard campus with students, faculty and even the new president, Drew Gilpin Faust, who made the topic the cornerstone of her address to seniors during commencement week. Dr. Faust noted that in the past year, whenever she has met with students, their first question has always been the same: “Why are so many of us going to Wall Street?”

I graduated from an Ivy League school and I know that a large percentage of my classmates are now working at these Wall Street jobs, or in corporate law firms or consulting companies. But most of the people I kept in touch with or hear about are working in the non-profit sector, or government, or journalism or teaching or the arts. I can't think of a single person who didn't burn out on that fast track big money lifestyle really fast.
It's been almost 20 years since I graduated, and I wonder if things have changed at my school. From what you hear, today's college students are a socially conscious bunch. You'd think college students of my age would have been more influenced by the "greed is good" 80's, and I know many were: one guy I met freshman year quite bluntly told me that his goal was to work on Wall Street and make a ton of money, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. But I guess I just didn't stay friends with him and his ilk. And perhaps what has changed in the 20 years since is that people think they need even higher levels of wealth just to stay ahead. And as the article points out, kids who go to Ivy League schools are by nature (and necessity) very competitive. The prestige of lower-paying jobs is not as evident: and when you're done competing in the classroom or with the other artistic or athletic talents that count in college, money is the obvious prize that's left to win.


Anonymous said...

Maybe if we lived in a wonderful socialist country where college was paid for by the gov. But we don't...and most people graduate with student loans. It's all well and good to encourage people to take lower pay for social good, but when you graduate at the starting line with thousands of dollars of debt already, reality hits.

I sugest he take this up with the voters and congresspeople where it might actually do some good.

Laura said...

I went to an Ivy League school and sought a career in consulting. I wanted this before I knew it paid well, and was actually disappointed when I found out that it was considered a lucrative career. I wanted to do consulting because I thought it sounded interesting and fun, and knew that having a big salary would just attract lots of people who weren't that interested in it but just wanted to get rich.

Fortunately, I beat those people out for the job, and am loving my career :) But don't assume that just because someone is in banking or consulting it's because they sold out - maybe that's what they were genuinely interested in doing.

delilah said...

I started out with a finance job, but felt like a glorified data entry clerk and left to work for a policy think tank non-profit. Besides a foray into the corporate law field, I prefer the non-profit work to the high octane offices of corporate law and finance. However, there are certain aspects (management skills) that would be great to transfer from corporate to non-profit.

I definitely took a pay cut under the auspicious of "i'm young, i can handle being poor" That said, I'm not so young anymore but have thankfully found that non-profits can pay, and do pay, for experienced professionals. It isn't finance money, but it isn't poverty inducing either.

Full disclosure, I went to a jesuit university that emphasized serviam: Men and Women for Others.

Deanna said...

I worked in the insurance industry throughout my twenties and early thirties. Yes, the money was very good, but I was treated like a slave that was dispensable at any time. I finally left and went to work at an independent school (non-profit) and I love it!

It sounds corny, but it's nice to feel like I am making a small, postive difference in the world. My school emphasizes honor and service, as well as academics. Many of our graduates do matriculate to Ivy League schools, and I hope they carry this attitude with them.

When I think back on my twenties, all I can remember are things that happened to me at work - because that was my entire life at the time. I feel more "rich" now that I can balance work and my personal life. The money isn't as good, and never will be, but I do not mind giving up some creature comforts and being more frugal in order to feel more fulfilled!

Anonymous said...

It's not the schools fault, it's society's. The schools can't do anything about our society's obsession with money and the idea that money equals success.

Gordon Gecko wasn't hated, he became a cult hero.

Anonymous said...

I started out as a teacher, until I realized I could not live a decent life on $30K/yr in Chicago. So I went into banking and now IT. Have done a lot better, and actually have felt more intellectually challenged in corporate than I did in education, but less stressed because if I screw up, young kids aren't impacted. I work more hours, but the pay is way better, and allows me to enjoy my personal life. Thankfully, I've been able to maintain a reasonable work/life balance for corporate.

Anonymous said...

I'm an Ivy grad, who has worked on the Street for about 20 years. Recently, at a college reunion, someone remarked to me (after learning my vocation), "Wow, I know a lot of classmates who went to the Street right after graduation, but I don't know many who are still in it."

At first, I took this remark negatively, as meaning "Gee, what's wrong with YOU that you haven't made enough of a killing to retire yet?" Then, later, I realized that what he actually meant was more along the lines of "Gee, most folks wash out after a few years, its unusual to find somebody who stuck it out."

I suppose I really, really enjoy what I do. Sure, it has its downsides, especially in terms of personal life. But, the fact is that when I get that emergency call on a Sunday about a deal that has to executed on Monday, I am thrilled. I would much rather be in the flow of major events, than be on the sidelines. You have to have that kind of motivation to stick it out.

A lot of kids coming out of college are just thinking about the money - so the field attracts the interest of many people who are not necessarily well-suited to it. They are not really aware of the pound of flesh they will have to sacrifice. The pressure, the hours, the stress, etc. will generally weed out anyone who is not insanely committed. If this stuff does not get your adrenaline going, it will be impossible to pretend to like it 24/7.

And so it is, that many people start these careers, not many stick it out once they realize what they've gotten themselves into. And that is sort of a good thing, after all, how many bankers, traders, consultants, etc. does society really need anyhow.

Grace. said...

I went to graduate school at Columbia. Of my class, I was the only one to opt out of the corporate culture and go to work in a non-profit. Attending my 30year reunion was an eye-opener. Many of my classmates had retired. Many were working in entirely different fields. Hardly any could say, as I do often, that they loved their jobs and that they genuinely felt like they were making lives for others better. I envied them their money and their lifestyle. But to work for 30 years and get no job satisfaction? I don't think so.