Friday, December 20, 2002

David Brooks is again talking about what today's elite college students are doing. Brooks sometimes gets a little too attached to some cute thesis or other, and ends up focusing too much on small pictures that reinforce his thesis rather than bigger ones that are more complicated, but in this article is pretty much on the ball. It has been discussed fairly thoroughly already, but some thoughts.

Brooks observes something that I have noticed, which is that smart, driven 20 year olds today are often amazingly well informed and knowledgeable compared to the way they were even a decade ago.

(These students) are thus remarkably eager to try new things, to thrust themselves into unlikely situations, to travel the world in search of new activities. At Dartmouth and Princeton, too, every other student you meet has just come back from some service adventure in remotest China or Brazil. During my conversations with them, I would sometimes realize with a start that they were two decades younger than me. With their worldliness, their sophisticated senses of humor, their ability to at least fake knowledge of a wide variety of fields, they socialize just like any group of fortysomethings

I am 33, and I have to agree. I find that while people in their early twenties today are not necessarily smarter or more original that people of my generation were, they seem much more knowledgeable and they seem to have have much broader interests. I think a lot of this is due to their having been exposed to the information revolution from a younger age and in a more savage way than were those of us who grew up earlier. The younger generation at 22 seem much more sophisticated than my generation were at the same age. I think we got there in the end: but it took longer.

And Brooks also has some comments that hit me personally, even if I am ten years older than the people he is talking about.

Because many bright college students don't have a clue about the incredible variety of career paths that await them. They don't have the vaguest notion as to how real people move from post to post.

Some students believe that they face a sharp fork in the road. They can either sell their souls for money and work 80 hours a week at an investment bank, or they can live in spiritually satisfied poverty as an urban nursery school teacher. In reality, of course, the choices between wallet and soul are rarely that stark.
In a weird way, the meritocratic system is both too professional and not career-oriented enough. It encourages prudential thinking, and a professional mindset in areas where serendipity and curiosity should rule, but it does not really give students, even the brilliant students at top schools, an accurate picture of the real world of work. These young people are tested and honed from birth, from when they get their Apgar score until graduation, when they get their honors degree. Then the system spits them out into the world when they are in their twenties, and suddenly there is nothing--just a few desperate years as they search for some satisfying spot in the universe.

This one does hit home. Once upon a time, I was a wildly over-driven university student. I was something of an academic star. I got the highest possible grade in every undergraduate exam I ever sat. I came first in my year in applied mathematics at Sydney University. Then I went to Cambridge and I did a Ph.D. And at the end of all this, I did in fact go for the 80 hours a week at an investment bank option.

In some ways, this sort of thing is hard to avoid. You get the academic honours, and the scholarships and stuff, and people kind of expect you to go into some high powered, highly paid job at the end of it. You have spent your youth striving hard in the meritocratic system, and you have jumped hurdle after hurdle. You have to work astonishingly hard to jump them, but if you keep doing so, then in some ways the system remains easy for you, because it is so structured. What you have to do next always appears clearly in front of you. You just keep jumping.

The 80 hour a week investment banking job is just one of these hurdles. You jump it, they pay you a lot of money, and you continue puting in lots and lots of hours. You feel obliged to either do this, or reject it completely and go for spiritually satisfying poverty as an urban nursery school teacher, or something like that. However going for something more complicated in the world of work is harder, as when you do this then suddenly the structure is gone, and quite frankly it's terrifying.

My investment banking career involved joining a large international firm in the equities division in Australia. For some reason over the years I had become obsessively interested in telecommunications, media, and other related industries. After a little while in the job, my bosses discovered this, and I spent most of my time writing strategic overviews of the telecommunications industry, from both a regulatory and technical point of view. In the tech and telco boom, this was great, and I had no end of fun. This was a relatively unusual job, as most analysts spend their time analysing individual companies. However, in the boom, our clients wanted to know about the technology and the overall growth of the industry, so this is what I spent my time on. I did some work I am very proud of, and in retrospect my record on picking which technologies were likely to be successful has turned out to be really good. In a bull market, this was great. However, the boom collapsed, and I found that in a downturn people become less interested in strategic issues, and firms are less willing to employ analysts who look at them. Plus telecommunications was the industry that collapsed more than any other, and I had the misfortune to be working for a firm that downsized more than any other. The gist of all this is that I found myself without the investment bank job any more.

So I now find myself in the middle of this complicated world. The structured career path has vanished. Because investment bankers are paid very well (and I was paid off quite well) I was and am in no immediate danger of starving, but life was and is complicated. I've been looking for a job, but not with the desperation I would have if I was going to be broke tomorrow. I still hope to find something as a telecommunications or media analyst of some sort: perhaps in a specialist consultancy or the strategic planning department of a telco or media company. There are certainly lots of other jobs I am capable of doing, but finding one that will satisfy me and that I can convince someone to give me is hard. In the mean time, I have come back to London (because I like the city) and I have written a book on digital television which I am presently shopping around various publishers. (Perhaps I should post a couple of sample chapters on this website). I have done lots of blogging.

And David Brooks is right. The meritocratic career path did not prepare me well to figure out what to do once I was spat out into the world. I haven't yet found my place in the universe. At some point I no doubt will, but for now life is hard.

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