Notebook

June 25, 2014 6:56 pm

Career advice from Marina Keegan

The recruiters’ messages are offers of status and identity, writes John McDermott

I am at a Harvard reunion and I have a Yale alumna on my mind. Marina Keegan died two years ago in a car accident at the age of 22. She left behind journalism that suggests a storied career abridged at the first chapter. At Yale, she wrote about the blessed burden felt by her peers – those young, smart and lucky enough to do anything and yet who feel dragooned into Doing Something – without being self-indulgent. Not too much, at least; she was 22. The Opposite of Loneliness, her collection of writings, is becoming a touchstone book for the touchscreen generation.

One of Keegan’s themes is the career choices made by her fellow students. Across the rich world careers are fragmenting: fewer people will have jobs for life and there is more piecemeal work. The Harvard event, for instance, is run by Task Rabbit, a start-up that matches tasks people want done (DIY, say, or organising a party) and people who are willing to do them for an hourly rate. Keegan’s peers, like these merry Harvardians, have inherited the idea that employment is a source of identity. But they have entered a labour market that makes this difficult, a situation unknowingly lampooned by Buzzfeed in articles such as “11 Struggles Only Ice Cream Shop Workers Understand”.

Keegan thought it was sad that one-quarter of her peers opted for jobs in finance or consultancy. This is a first-world problem but it is important nonetheless. Some of my best friends are management consultants and, as someone who ultimately chose journalism, I can hardly give advice on a sustainable career. But, to butcher a phrase of an earlier American writer, I have seen the finest minds of my generation destroyed by Microsoft Office.

Keegan felt the explanation for the Yalies’ choice went beyond pay at JPMorgan or McKinsey. She and her friends were “made to feel special and desired and important” by recruiters. I remember it well; when I was at Harvard I too was seduced. The recruiters’ messages aren’t so much promises of employment as offers of status and identity, a way of impressing friends, families and yourself, at least until you figure out your next step. I ended up halfheartedly applying for such jobs, with fully disastrous results. I didn’t want to do them and the companies certainly didn’t want me to do them.

The share of Harvard graduates going into finance or consultancy probably peaked in 2007, when they accounted for 47 per cent of the class who entered work upon graduation. At the alumni event there were more people telling me about the apps they were developing than offering investment advice. One intense gentleman explained that the “singularity” was not coming – yet. Roughly three times more Harvard Business School graduates of 2013 went into tech than into banking.

Tech may be the new default but Keegan’s writing, touchingly naive in parts, still burns. Google and Facebook have their own lustre that can daze top graduates. One-third of Harvard seniors still go into finance or consultancy. For those lucky enough to have a choice about their career, Keegan’s is a poignant call to exercise that privilege thoughtfully.

Disruptive Harvard

pfeatures, Roger Banx cartoon

Of the feeling at Yale, Keegan wrote: “It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together.” This is not the mood at Harvard. In the New Yorker, Jill Lepore, a historian, has savaged Clay Christensen, a professor at the business school. She accuses him of selling a theory of how companies rise and fall – “disruptive innovation” – that has a shaky empirical foundation.

I asked a few HBS alumni about the article. “Well, duh! That’s business school for you,” one said. A more refined observation came from a recent graduate: “We don’t learn laws of business. We learn stories.” Therein lies the truth. Prof Christensen is a good storyteller. His theories are cogent. But they are impossible to falsify. Claiming that business studies is a science is therefore epistemological lunacy.

Prof Christensen’s theories are not as robust as his followers believe. “Disruption” has become a lazy buzzword that has been echoed into meaninglessness. However, Prof Lepore is holding him to a standard that he does appear to seek. In London last year, Prof Christensen met Treasury officials. They found him interesting but they weren’t convinced; one said it was like being at a business school seminar. He did not mean it as a compliment.

john.mcdermott@ft.com

Twitter: @johnpmcdermott

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