At the University of Pennsylvania's annual career fair, held on Sept. 16, 2008, things seemed pretty normal; blue-chip companies like Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Barclays and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York had come to woo a bumper crop of undergraduates from the prestigious Wharton School. As business cards flashed, a tremor went through the crowd: Where was Lehman Brothers? The 158-year-old financial giant had gone belly up two days prior—leaving the U.S. financial markets in free-fall and its designated folding table in Penn's Benjamin Franklin Ballroom conspicuously empty.
Among the many questions generated by the collapsing economy is: What happens when students like David Brooks' "Organization Kid"—bright, driven, even a little ruthless—find themselves without an organization in which they can excel or to which they can conform? The troubles in corporate America have forced a realignment of expectations among America's best and brightest young minds, and the work they choose, or are forced into, in this low hour may prove to be, as President-elect Barack Obama is fond of saying, "the change we need."
The shocking news that the U.S. economy shed 533,000 jobs in November, the largest amount of job losses in 34 years, has done little to assuage the fears of students preparing to leave school in the midst of one of the most pronounced economic downturns in modern memory. Job losses are piling up in the public and private sectors for white-collar workers and those in the service, construction and manufacturing trades. Firms are cutting jobs as well as hours for surviving employees. And, on campus, the prospect of glamour positions at the big banks and consulting firms have all but disappeared, as companies merge, melt or institute across-the-board hiring freezes.
"It just seems like everyone is panicking," says Kate Bennet, a pre-med senior at Princeton University. Bennet says she has friends who have applied for more than 60 jobs, with graduation still five months away. "So many people were planning on doing investment banking and kind of don't know what to do now." Last fall, at job fairs across the Ivies, chaos reigned: Barclays hastily took over Lehman's recruiting efforts at Yale, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lehman, Bank of America and Goldman Sachs were all no-shows. At Penn, a "Career Link" handout encouraged students to project "a professional and positive attitude" and "be yourself!" But in the current climate, even the most savvy and prepared young job seekers could find themselves out of luck.
"Obviously we are encouraging our students to be more flexible," says Barbara Hewitt, senior associate director of career services at Wharton. Firms are not hiring the way they once did, but for students who have their heart set on a job in the world of finance, Hewitt suggests that they look at smaller cities or "affiliated industries" to find one. "The entry-level positions have been the first to go," says Rebecca Lee, a career counselor at Amherst College. "We're really coaching [students] on expanding their job search and broadening their thinking about what is possible for them."
Graduate school is now a popular option for the classes of 2009 and 2010. Aspiring doctors who had planned to defer medical-school admission are now applying immediately—not having the luxury of months or years of soul-searching nomadism. Bob Richard, a career counselor at MIT, says he expects graduate-school enrollment to go up. Law-school application numbers are already increasing at half a dozen other schools, and, says Hewitt, students who have put off a master's degree may "decide to do that sooner rather than later."
Teach For America, the marquee "public service" nonprofit employer (which refers to its competitive recruitment process as "admissions") has seen the volume of applications increase by 48 percent since the same point last year. "We have increased staff size in recruitment, focusing on recent graduates and young professionals," says Trevor Stutz, a TFA spokesman. It's the second most popular recruiter at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, according to Damian Lay, assistant director of its career center. It's the top employer at Amherst. What's more, 8 percent of Princeton seniors and 25 percent of the African-American seniors at Harvard have applied to TFA this year—the same students who might once have made prize hires at the biggest banks and consulting firms.
In some ways, the two-year, $750 billion campaign to elect Barack Obama has also changed employment dynamics for the nation's newest workers. Between the hordes of young policy staffers, the Obama for America organizing fellowships and dozens of "Camp Obama" workshops, thousands of recent graduates or soon-to-be graduates were able to get paid work experience on the campaign (nearly 200 trainees attended Camp Obama at Morris Brown College in Atlanta this August).
While only a fraction of the massive corps will actually staff the Obama administration, campaigning may have reinforced the value of civic involvement for those now entering the workforce. Sochie Nnaemeka, a Yale senior who took time away from school to work for Obama in Ohio, says being on the trail reinforced that "there was a lot of work that needed to be done in the communities we were working in, and that these communities could be really receptive to us young educated folk." Obama has said he hopes to tap into the enthusiasm that brought so many people to community organizing. He promised a domestic youth service program analogous to the Peace Corps—which could itself see an uptick in applications in these hard times, says Lay.
But, more significantly, this recession could mark an end to the corporatist mentality described in Nicholas Lemann's 1998 New Yorker essay, "The Kids in the Conference Room," which followed hyper-accomplished strivers into the high-powered world of management consulting. As Lemann wrote, "the phenomenon isn't so much the number of graduates who actually become consultants as the size of the psychic space that consulting occupies at Ivy League schools."
And those jobs remain coveted prizes: "When you're constantly surrounded by people who operate based on rankings, the choice to go into public service is definitely a brazen one," says Nnaemeka. "Many of our students are fairly name conscious," adds Hewitt, "and thought it would be safer to join the big bank, thinking for the next job down the road that would be a good name on their résumé." But suddenly, she says, "they're reconsidering that."
So this great recession may have a silver lining after all. The bad economy has "helped shape the perception that you can come out and work for a nonprofit or work more in the public sector and really see that as a career," says Stutz.
Obama recently announced a massive push for 2.5 million new jobs, more than twice what he had promised on the campaign trail. Most of them will not be a revival of the Lehman fantasia, but rather old-fashioned, blue-collar work—a return to construction, engineering and other skilled labor. The initiative is historic and bold—and could further nourish a new work ethic among young people: less bling-bling, and more brass tacks.
Dayo Olopade is the Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.