A More Uncertain Future

Aftermath of financial crisis still yields precarious prospects for young graduates

Each year, the Crimson releases the senior survey to collect and publish a picture of who-does-what after Harvard.

Today, it is estimated that just over 20 percent of graduating seniors will head into consulting or financial service sector jobs at the start of their post-college lives next year. Consulting stands as the most favored career path, drawing over 12 percent of graduates; finance will bring in just under 9 percent. Together, these may seem like big numbers for two relatively narrow career paths.

But consider the statistics from previous years. Ignoring, for a second, the previous year and the two years before it, take 2008: Around 37 percent went into finance or consulting, and 40 percent into “business.” But even that looks insignificant compared to the year before: In 2007, a full 47 percent of graduating seniors went into the two sectors that have become synonymous with a big-bucks Wall Street future. Does this point to a change of culture at Harvard and to the reduced influence of aggressive, for-profit companies’ recruiting tactics on campus?

Perhaps. As we have argued in the past, undergraduates risk going into sectors and jobs because they value safe post-college options that offer transferable skills and transition easily to other sectors. If finance—often used as a byword for working at investment banks—and management consulting have lost some of their luster, this may not all be a bad thing.

Spun a little differently, we could also say that the percentage of seniors entering what have traditionally been the best-paying entry-level positions in the United States’ job market has collapsed by more than half over the past five years. This may be due to a change in culture on campus. But even this change in students’ mentality is inescapably a product of the driving force behind the shifting employment landscape of Harvard graduates. This is the enduring legacy of the financial crisis—on campus, across the U.S., and around the world.

While we are all conscious of the deep, visible psychological effects felt around us and our families by the Great Recession, it is a point less often made that the Class of 2012 has had a rather unique experience with economic crisis. When today’s seniors were settling into their freshman dorms, safely ensconced in the Yard far from upperclassmen concerns like jobs and theses, they were also reading about the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. They listened to their parents and to their then-president, who with customary eloquence summed up the situation with the following: “This sucker could go down.” Fall 2008’s freshmen, then, could have been forgiven for being just a little anxious as to what the world might look like when one day in the distant future they too went on the job hunt. All around, predictions were dark. The end of capitalism was forecast. Democracy would soon be under threat in several countries. The way of life to which American 18-year-olds had all more or less become accustomed was under threat. Excessive debt, faulty mortgages, and runaway capitalism were—and still are, if you believe many in the media—ruining the American dream. If you believe Mitt Romney, on the other hand, then it is clear that under Barack Obama, the U.S. has remained in dire straits.

It is true, to a certain extent, that the U.S. has still not recovered from 2008-09. Official unemployment remains far above historic figures for the American economy, at over 8 percent. Other estimates, which count the full percentage of the working-age population out of work—as opposed to just those actively looking—place the true figure at above 11 percent, and as high as 17.5 percent at the height of the crisis. For young Americans, the picture is mixed. While college graduates have a far lower unemployment rate than the work force as a whole, the prospects for young people without an undergraduate degree are far worse and not completely rosy even for those possessing one.

Of course, it would be wrong to paint too dark a picture of Harvard graduates’ employment prospects. 2012’s senior survey reveals that 68 percent of graduating seniors already have jobs, down from pre-recession highs of 73 percent in 2007 but far better than at the height of the financial crisis. This figure is encouraging for today’s graduating seniors.

That students earning a degree from a college as prestigious as Harvard should be well-employed is hardly surprising. There should be little doubt that Harvard graduates are and will remain among the most employable young people in the country. Moreover, the last thing any well-educated young person—Harvard or otherwise—should do today is panic. The broader state of the U.S. economy is not quite as gloomy as the Republican Party would have us believe; gross domestic product growth of roughly 2 percent a year, while not stellar, hardly qualifies as a crisis.

The real problem, and one that does affect Harvard graduates as much as it does every person living in the U.S., is that long-term prospects for the United States’s role in a still-globalizing and fast-shifting world economy are more uncertain.

Now that we are all left with the memory of the worst recession since the Great Depression, it is hard not to worry that another crisis could be just around the corner. Similarly, will young Americans today enjoy the same standard of living and, to put it bluntly, ease that so many of our parents’ generation have? Will the future leaders of our generation of Americans also be the most powerful and influential leaders of the world?

Being poised to become influential in the United States may no longer carry quite the same global caché as it has in the past. The country in which Harvard is a leading institution, and from whose success Harvard has benefited so much, stands in a more uncertain global position—in large part because the financial crisis is considered to have accelerated the convergence in strength and size of developed and developing economies. Tomorrow’s trend-setters look more and more likely to come from China, India, and Africa than the United States.

Is this cause for panic? Clearly not. What it does mean, however, is that young people graduating from top American colleges can afford less than ever to look inward and define success as a good career at home.

A good many of us are already from international backgrounds. Just as students from abroad are eager to come and be educated in the United States, young Americans should have zero qualms or hesitance about moving abroad to pursue their careers and ambitions to the fullest; many of us may yet have to.

Universities like Harvard, in the meantime, by orientating their campuses and pools of talent more and more to the rest of the world, can play a vital role in preparing the United States and the global community for a future of increasingly shared power.

If that can happen, then young people and universities can help create a brighter and more symbiotic future, and something good may actually come out of the pain of the Great Recession. Though the future for the Class of 2012 is more uncertain than it has been for previous years and generations, uncertainty alone should never be cause for pessimism.

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