Contemplating the Crash

Where does the grad go when the money goes?

As the economic meltdown worsens, hundreds of Harvard seniors find themselves in a jam as they scramble to secure postgraduate jobs. Last month, many of these worried souls—would-be financiers in any other job market—bravely trudged across the Charles to a college-wide career fair. And unlike in other years, these students weren’t just there for the free Nalgenes and stress balls (though many could use the latter). They were there because, as one bank after another collapses, serious questions loom about the prospect of employment. Some of them may even have to go work for (gasp) a non-financial company. (And I don’t just mean Google.)

Many fewer banks are recruiting on campus this year than in years past, and many fewer Harvard seniors have secured job offers from their summer internships. But in one sense, it is not so much that we have fallen into crisis as much as we are witnessing the end of a holiday. We’ve been living in a collective delusion. Since i-banking’s rise in the last several decades, many Harvard students and their peers at other competitive institutions have become accustomed to a post-college world paved in gold: You graduate, you secure your job at some bank or another, you work long hours and collect a six-figure income. The process is rigorous, but it is fairly out of the realm of the ordinary experience.

In becoming immersed in this culture, many a Harvard grad becomes concerned primarily with this pursuit of wealth, which is naturally associated with status. If there is such a surefire way to acquire money, and money is connected to power, this path is undeniably attractive. Classmates who pursue tracks in academia or otherwise are admired, but they are not considered glamorous. In fact, sometimes they may be considered fools—why toil away to live on paperbacks and ramen when you could move to Manhattan and amass a small fortune in a matter of a few years?

Strangely, it is this sort of thinking—that is, putting the pursuit of money ahead of almost everything—that is related to why we’re witnessing this current crisis. Though the blame certainly does not rest completely in their hands, it was the greed of many members of Wall Street that contributed to the destabilizing of the market. This veneration of dollars is not sustainable. And when a crash such as this one occurs, many are left feeling very empty. As one friend of mine observed, a strange sense of isolation has set in for her as she’s realized that she has spent her entire time at Harvard preparing for life as a banker—she has never thought of doing anything else. This is not like other professions. Writers and artists and even entrepreneurs expect to encounter struggle early on in careers. For many aspiring bankers, the existence of financial struggle defeats the point of entering the field.

Perhaps most of all, the financial crisis shakes up a lot of Harvard students because it reminds them they are not invincible. Relatively few Harvard families have been affected by the widespread home foreclosures that have struck the country in the past year. Harvard graduates tend to be among the last people to be affected by a domestic crisis, but the Wall Street shakeup puts them at a center of the storm.

Hard as it may be to see in these dreary times, this turn of events is not all bad for Harvard students. That the life of an investment banker has suddenly become slightly less glamorous is a good thing, because students will not acquire out-of-whack expectations from the start. It relieves them of the pressures to go into banking that so many students succumb to early on in college. Perhaps more of us will avoid the empty feeling that so many are feeling these days. This is a chance to take on realistic expectations about what one’s twenties are like in a normal lifetime–that is, the one without the expense accounts and black cars. We are capable of being led out of this culture of wealth, and we’ll be the better for it.

There is yet another way to see this as a glass-half-full situation. Beginning one’s career amidst turmoil nearly ensures that our work lives will only improve with time. Better to suffer economic instability at 22 than at 45—hence averting a midlife crisis or two!


Lucy M. Caldwell ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.