Wednesday, June 20, 2012

David Brooks Ponders How Young People See their Future Careers

David Brooks was puzzled by a discussion he had with elite college students about potential futures:
The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There’s crass but affluent investment banking. There’s the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.
The ministry? That calling is, I think, limited to people who actually believe in the teachings of some particular church. Although most Americans believe in God only a small minority knows or cares about the details of theology, and every poll I have seen shows large majorities espousing heretical beliefs.

The military? The American military is certainly impressive in some ways, but to serve as an officer you have to wear a uniform, cut your hair to regulation, salute idiots who happen to rank above you, and obey orders even when you think they are immoral and stupid, all of which is absolute anathema to the average American 20-year-old. It was about as plausible for me as becoming a Jesuit.

There is no such career as "government service." The government hires people with particular skills to do particular things, and the good jobs in the government, from park ranger at the Grand Canyon to economist in the Treasury, are really hard to get. Plus, when most Americans think of working for the government they think of bureaucrats drowning in reams of procedural paperwork -- which, to be fair, is what many people in the government actually do. Government service has also been blackened by Brooks' Republican friends, who can't stop ranting about what a bunch of overpaid, lazy, corrupt obstacles to progress government employees are. Who, after listening to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, could possibly think that working for the government is a good idea?

The academy? So many smart young people are already taking this route that there are not nearly enough jobs to go around.

As for the zillion other sectors he mentions, sure, but how do you get jobs in any of them? We are back to the problem I write about all the time, the disconnect between what people do in school and the jobs they will eventually hold. How do people end up in their jobs? For a few sectors, the career path is well laid out: study this, do that, get a job. Medicine, for example. Pharmacy. Or the academic world. Investment banks, as Brooks points out, have well established programs that take in smart college graduates and train them, and this is one reason people do it. For most people, though, the route from college to career is mysterious and winding and involves a lot of luck. I am one of the many people I know who blindly lucked into the first job in what became my career.

Unless Brooks has some practical advice about how to actually get a job in one of those zillion sectors, he should leave people alone.

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