The best and the brightest: What will change with the economic downturn?

Will the economic downturn stop the best and the brightest from flocking to investment banking, management consulting and corporate law? I hope so.

During my freshman and sophomore years at Yale, I’d sit with friends for hours in the dining hall, loving the debates about politics and literature and history. It was exactly what I’d hoped college would be like. Sometimes I’d look around the table and feel as if I were peering into the future: I could easily see my smart, hardworking, well-rounded classmates becoming history professors, investigative journalists, human rights activists, entrepreneurs, museum curators and diplomats.

And then senior year rolled around and a strange thing happened. Instead of talking about Milton and Kant and Jefferson and Elizabeth I, everyone started talking about Goldman and Lehman and McKinsey and Harvard Law. The best and brightest people I knew suddenly considered no other career paths than investment banking, management consulting and corporate law.

I see this happening just as often today. As I travel around to college campuses, I meet smart, articulate, worldly and personable students. And, inevitably, the best and the brightest always ask me how to get jobs in investment banking, consulting and law (“not necessarily to be a lawyer,” they often say, “but using a law degree to do something else.”).

For the students who are fascinated by finance, business strategy and legal study, then these paths are excellent choices. But, in my observation, intellectual interest is rarely the reason that students select these post-college career paths.

Many students admit that the money is too good to pass up. (According to a recent New York Times article, Goldman Sachs employees earned an average of $600,000 last year — an average that considers secretaries as well as executives.)

And the perks are undoubtedly glamorous. (While my parents moved me out of my dorm in their suburban SUV, the kids who landed jobs at the top consulting firms had professional movers come to pack up their books and souvenir beer mugs.)

There’s also the perceived prestige. (Prestige that companies pay a lot to cultivate: investment banks and consulting firms spend more money than any other employers to market themselves to students at the top colleges and universities — what Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust has called the “all but irresistible recruiting juggernaut.”)

And, perhaps most appealing to top-tier students, there’s the fact that these careers feel like a continuation of college — working hard late into the night, surrounded by really smart people. (Although the work involves spreadsheets, not Shakespeare.)

I really do get the appeal of these careers — I even considered law school myself — but I can’t help but wonder if there’s something awry when a large percentage of our best and brightest flock to Wall Street, consulting and corporate law. And, while I have sympathy for entry- and mid-level employees of Lehman Brothers, AIG, Heller Ehrman and other firms that are caught up in the financial crisis, a secret hope is growing in me:

I hope that the Wall Street debacle and the resulting economic downtown affects the way college students (all college students, not just in the Ivy League) think about their desired careers. I hope that students who genuinely love finance, strategic business consulting and law continue to pursue those careers because those careers will really make them happy.

And I hope that everyone else — the young grads who pursued careers in the most lucrative and prestigious industries because they were the most lucrative and prestigious (and “safe,” so we thought) — will start to think more broadly. I hope that they pursue careers in government, education, publishing, research, general management, psychology, urban planning, technology, social services and any other fields that engage them and use the best of their skills.

Why do I have such strong feelings about this? Now that I’m 12 years out of college, I have some data. Almost all of my brilliant friends who took their first jobs in investment banking, consulting and corporate law are now doing something else. They all gained great experience, sure, but what did they lose?

Here’s what these friends have told me: Money loses its shine when you’re unhappy going to work every day. Perks lose their luster when you’re stressed out. Law school grads end up in jobs as — surprise! — lawyers. And prestige doesn’t stand a chance against something infinitely more appealing: personal fulfillment.

Note: For career advice related to this topic, see “Seeking a Detour Around Wall Street.”

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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