I wonder how today’s banking crisis will affect the attitudes toward career risk of tomorrow’s graduates from elite colleges. Will more members of the class of 2009 gravitate toward jobs in public service or the arts, now that the “safe” Wall Street route has proven equally risky? (They’d be joining the 17.5 percent of my employed classmates who make me feel like a major sellout — the people who are building orphanages in India or fighting for women’s rights in Kenya.) Elite universities are already pushing their students into nonprofit jobs.
The prize-winning economist Esther Duflo and other commentators had similarly asked whether the financial crisis would lead to a reallocation of young talent across the economy.
More than two years later, our suspicions have been borne out: The number of recent college grads in public service jobs has skyrocketed in the last two years.
As I wrote in an article today, in 2009 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the federal government than in the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data from the American Community Survey of the Census Bureau. A smaller Labor Department survey showed that the share of educated young people in these jobs continued to rise last year.
Exactly why is unclear. Many political scientists I spoke with attributed the uptick to greater public-spiritedness among those who grew up in the 1990s or the 21st century, perhaps cultivated by the many community service hours required of them in high school. Others cited President Obama’s popularity among youth, his background as a community organizer and his promise to make public service “cool” again. A federal program also grants forgiveness of student loans for grads who work in public service for at least 10 years (although none of the recent grads I spoke with cited this as a reason for their career choice, perhaps because so few people know about the program).
While those factors may indeed be influential, the timing of this recent jump sure makes the recession look like the tipping point for professional do-gooding. No longer heavily recruited by financial and consulting firms, vocationally ambivalent college grads had to scrounge around for job opportunities that would not have otherwise occurred to them. And many found work within the public sector, which welcomed them with open arms.
Nonprofits in particular have seen their budgets cut just as demand for their services has risen, making cheap college grads especially attractive. The young woman I profiled in my article today, for example, noted that when she started at her current nonprofit, she was the youngest employee there by “10 or 15 years”; today, her employer has three recent college grads on staff.
Will these three workers — and other college grads who’ve landed in public service — stick with public service, or will they jump to higher-paying corporate gigs once the economy recovers? Many of the nonprofits I spoke with expressed concern that their newfound popularity may disappear when young people find their skills in demand again elsewhere.
Of course, where a worker starts out is a strong determinant of the trajectory of her career; see this study by Paul Oyer on M.B.A.’s who graduate in recessions, for example. And maybe exposure to the psychic rewards of public service will indeed recalibrate this cohort’s priorities for their careers. That’s certainly what the public sector is banking on.
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