June 25, 2008

Elitism, Public Service and Entitlement.

So, I've been thinking about two recent articles on the subject of Ivy League students and career choices - a recent New York Times article entitled, "Lure of Big Paycheck or Service? Students are Put to the Test" and a piece by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar: "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education."

Kaya over at Afropologe wrote a provocative post about the issues raised (and not raised) in the two articles. Check it out.

11 comments:

emily2 said...

already commented at afropologe, but i thought i'd comment here as well. as an old fart, i just want to add that the first job you take out of college isn't necessarily what ends up being your career. a lot of people start out in banking and consulting just to attain a modicum of financial security and to pay off their loans (read: fiscal prudence - absolutely nothing wrong with that). then they can pursue what they really love, like film making, writing or working at an alternative energy startup. sometimes, recent college grads are a little short sighted (i certainly used to be) and think that going into i-banking/consulting means a lot more than what it is, either as something totally horrible/soul-sucking/nasty corporate blah blah blah or something totally prestigious, depending on where you're coming from. eventually, people chill out and realize that it's a means to an end. nothing much to say there.

maudite entendante said...

Thank you, Em2. Frankly, I found Kaya's post more classist than the attitudes of the students I've known (both at Harvard and at my current university) who've gone into consulting. Yeah, it's nice to go straight into a job that pays you crap and doesn't cover your health insurance ... but if you're in debt, required by your job to live in a high-rent area, or in need of health insurance, taking a job on principle is a luxury.

You know what the nice thing about consulting is? A reasonable salary for your location (that may even allow you to save money for later), comprehensive health-care benefits from day 1, and a limited time commitment. And em2 is right - very few people stay in beyond that time commitment (usually 2.5 years); if they do, it's usually to take advantage of their firm's offer to pay for all or part of their graduate education.

So which sounds more effective for someone who, say, wants to go into public-interest law? Come out of college with student loans, immediately take out more student loans, go to law school, pay for all your health care costs for the next three years out of pocket because your parents' insurance (if they had it) no longer covers you, and emerge from law school three years later with exponentially increased debt, take a big-city non-profit job which will *maybe* cover your rent and basic living expenses, and change the world before you declare bankruptcy at 30? Or come out of college, work for a consulting company that allows you to do political and non-profit consulting work to develop your skillset, learn how organizations are run, make a decent wage that allows you to pay your debts and save money for the lean years ahead, have your health care covered, come out of the firm after 2.5 years, go to law school on the firm's dime, go back in order to fulfill the obligation that came with the tuition agreement, use your degree to consult specifically on issues you're passionate and knowledgeable about, and three years later, go find yourself a job with a non-profit, knowing you have relevant work experience that will make you more hireable and useful, and savings that will make you more able to withstand the economic hardships that are often endemic to the non-profit sector?

And how entitled is it, exactly, not to have to weigh options like these before you make your choice? Sure, if you have something else to live off of, and some other way of guaranteeing that you get hired by the organization you want to work for, maybe you should consider skipping the consulting phase ... but, please, don't pretend that being able to make this choice makes you at all morally superior.

icarus said...

OK, here's the thing:

I think Harvard is one of the only places in the world where some people seem to think the only two options in life are i-banking or abject poverty.

Come ON, people. There are SO many options out there. So many career opportunities (and you have access to a vast majority them, coming from an elite college). If you choose i-banking, fine, but please don't tell me it's the only way to make sure you can live comfortably/pay off your debt/get decent healthcare, etc - and if you believe that, then your definition of "comfortably" is probably a lot different than mine.

I also don't buy the "I grew up poor, so I'm somehow entitled to do i-banking" story. If you want to do it, fine, but please don't pretend that 1. it's the only way you can survive in the world and 2. the fact that you grew up low-income means that you are somehow exempt from having to think about issues of social responsibility - if anything, you should be thinking about them MORE.

That's just my opinion, take it for what you want, but as a low-income Harvard grad who is going to pursue public-interest legal work, I am tired of people trying to dissuade my peers from pursuing this kind of path (and for those who are interested, loan forgiveness programs are getting better every year ;-) ).

I have NO desire to be poor - I've lived in a low-income situation, and it's difficult and often painful. I do NOT have the desire or the expectation that I will be able to satisfy every material desire I may have right away. Yes, I may have to scrip on fancy clothing, shopping sprees or eating out all the time. Yes, I may not be able to buy a house or new car before I'm 30. But I will be damn sure to have good health insurance, enough money to eat, feed, clothe and house myself, put away for savings, and hopefully have a bit left over to help the people and organizations around me.

If that's not the path you choose, that's fine. Totally fine with me. But I do think people have a skewed perspective to think that you need to make six figures to live comfortably.

maudite entendante said...

I think people also have a skewed perspective that consultants *make* six figures straight out of college.

emily2 said...

If you choose i-banking, fine, but please don't tell me it's the only way to make sure you can live comfortably/pay off your debt/get decent healthcare, etc - and if you believe that, then your definition of "comfortably" is probably a lot different than mine.

of course not. but it's one of the fastest ways! :) (feel free to replace i-banking with anything else with a fat salary. i-banking was just the first thing that came to mind.)

That's just my opinion, take it for what you want, but as a low-income Harvard grad who is going to pursue public-interest legal work, I am tired of people trying to dissuade my peers from pursuing this kind of path (and for those who are interested, loan forgiveness programs are getting better every year

okay, but i get a sense from some of the more progressive blogs out there that -- how do i put it -- almost makes people feel guilty or bad about going into i-banking or corporate law. i don't think it's intentional, but it's definitely an undercurrent and it exists, and it just kind of sticks in my craw and makes me pissy. :(

kaya said...

my two cents:

emily2, you're obviously right that people don't like, go into i-banking and just stay there, i guess i tried and failed to make the point that part of the going into i-banking is not just the fast money, which is obviously a draw, but also just that its set up as the easy "next step," so if you're not sure what you want to do yet, or not ready to try it, you can just buy yourself more time and make a shitload of money along the way. which is not like "morally wrong," and i think people do it for a lot of reasons, but i think it also gets to the point jk rowling was making in her speech about being so scared of failure that you just continue doing the easy thing instead of the thing you want to be doing.

and m.e. "frankly," i find it pretty insulting that you would call the idea that no one HAS to go into consulting "classist." like seriously? you're trying to make the argument that harvard graduates who go into consulting to pay off their student loans are the big victims of capitalism here? cry me a fucking river. yeah, i get that we all want health insurance and to be able to afford rent, but it turns out there are positively billions of jobs that pay WAY less than consulting or i-banking, and still manage to cover rent and benefits. "taking a job on principle" is not a fucking luxury, having the options to even CHOOSE what job you take at all is a luxury, and its a luxury pretty much guaranteed to you if you graduate from an ivy league school. and yes, the little 'life plan' you laid out is one that can probably work for a lot of people, but its not the only way to live your life, and THAT is the whole point - that people feel like there is only one way to live, and that way is to put your financial security above all else, or more to the point, to live your life in a way that absolutely ensures you'll never feel the slightest amount of economic hardship, never have to live in a 'bad' neighborhood, and never have to do any of that other shit that, as the product of an elite institution, you now feel is beneath you. so please don't preach to me about elitism. if you actually are the product of abject poverty you seem to be making yourself out to be, i'd think you'd have enough respect not to characterize people who aren't guaranteeing themselves immediate financial stability as rich people out for a joyride, or people who just aren't "weighing their options." thats insulting.

kaya said...

ok so i immediately regret the hostile tone of that last post, but since i spent so much time typing it i don't really want to delete it. HOWEVER, to clarify more rationally, i think my point is that it makes me hostile and angry when people take terms like classism, racism, sexism, etc. and use them as weapons to defend classist, racist, and sexist ideas. to me, saying that a criticism of the incredible "comfort" expectations of most ivy league graduates is classist is a lot like saying affirmative action is racist. of course there's truth in what you're saying - no one who can avoid living without healthcare or in severe poverty can be blamed for not choosing to live in poverty - but that's sort of neither here nor there, because the issue we're discussing is not abject health care-less poverty vs extreme wealth. its extreme wealth vs moderation.

emily2 said...

i guess i tried and failed to make the point that part of the going into i-banking is not just the fast money, which is obviously a draw, but also just that its set up as the easy "next step," so if you're not sure what you want to do yet, or not ready to try it, you can just buy yourself more time and make a shitload of money along the way.

but why is that a problem? if you don't know what you want to do with your life, is getting a cushy job to bide your time any worse than your other options? j.k. rowlings's message seems to be targeted towards people who DO know what they want to do but are too scared to try. people who don't know what to do obviously don't fit into this equation, because they don't even know what they want to risk failing at! :)

anyway, even if someone knows what he or she wants to do, there is no shame in doing something to make yourself financially secure before you follow your (more risky) dreams. sometimes i feel that we live in a microwave culture where we must have things NOW NOW NOW. well, sometimes it's just impractical. sometimes, it might be more prudent to take the high paying job, so you can be less vulnerable later on when you dive into what you really want to do.

maudite entendante said...

Yes, I'm familiar with the practice of appropriating terms like classism to mean precisely the opposite ... and trust me, this ain't it.

It is classist to set a minimum standard of living (usually quite low, something like "some food and some form of permanent shelter") and argue that only people beneath that minimum have anything to complain about. Anyone who wants more than that - for any reason - should feel lucky they have what they have and not be so greedy or irresponsible as to think they should have more.

It is classist to assume a priori that, if someone is having trouble getting their needs met on their current income, it must be because they are spending frivolously or trying to live outside their means.

It is classist to make the leap from "ability to live within one's means" to moral superiority, especially if you continue from there to make the argument that if everyone just tried harder, they could be frugal and protestant-work-ethicky and superior, too. Thus, the ability to live within one's means always reflects moral worth because it is always earned through hard work and foresight.


And it is damned classist to imply that, because I don't fall in line with your assessment of how I should live my life - because I believe that I am the best judge of what I truly need (rather than someone who has never met me) - I am clearly too uppity to really be poor.

Thanks for the rephrase, but my original opinion stands.

highland said...

I can see that it would be incredibly easy to fall into the trap/opportunity to advance in finance and corporate law, even when you don't want to go there. I know of someone with incredible loans who worked at a big law firm after graduating from law school, and left to finish them off at a corporation. By that point it made sense to advance further in his field, for a higher corporate position would be more likely to obtain than a non-profit position at that same advancement. And then once raising a family is involved - it's harder to give up a job for one with a lower salary, no matter the ideals. Anyways, just pointing out that i-bankers and such become more qualified to go into finance than anything else, even if they have their own finances all taken care of, and that's something to consider too.

icarus said...

Addendum: The Times published a bunch of letters to the editor in response to their story. You can read them here.