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Boycott Wall Street

By David A. Weinfeld

I suspect there are Harvard alumni on both sides of the “occupation” of Wall Street. I can imagine a considerable Crimson presence among the privileged protesters in downtown New York. Harvard graduates, however, are more likely to be among the occupied than the occupying, representing a shameless financial industry that sent the American economy crashing without accepting any responsibility or penalty for their role in the collapse.

While some extremists might call for the worst of the weasels to be water-boarded, I’d settle for seeing them ad-boarded myself. Unfortunately, the Harvard University administration no longer has authority over these people. Harvard students, however, can help fight the good fight. Not everyone has the means or demeanor for radical rebellion. But rather than join the occupation of Wall Street, I suggest that Harvard seniors simply give up pursuing an occupation on Wall Street.

The number of Harvard graduates heading to the financial sector remains disheartening. The Crimson surveys the post-graduation plans of Harvard’ senior class annually, yielding responses from 35 percent to 55 percent of the senior class. In 2007, the survey reported that a staggering 47 percent of workforce-bound seniors took jobs in finance or consulting. In 2008, the survey number dipped to 39 percent. In 2009, it fell to 20 percent, with 11.5 percent in finance. That’s progress, but it still means that one in 10 workforce-bound seniors are headed straight for soul-sucking corporate servitude.

I don’t know what the numbers were in my graduating class, but I do know that those who headed to Wall Street (or its satellite cesspools abroad) didn’t always like what they found. In the Harvard University Class of 2005 Fifth Anniversary Report, published last year, a number of alumni expressed their disillusionment with the corporate world.

One former Crimson columnist wrote a book while in college aimed at “encouraging more young women to enter politics and dedicate their lives to civic engagement.” Here’s what she had to say of her post-Harvard job:

“Since graduation I’ve been working at a multinational investment bank helping rich companies become richer. I’m not quite where I want to end up at this point, but I’ve been told that ‘putting in your time’ in the corporate world will pay off eventually. Let’s see how things look at the next Reunion.”

A second alum, who also went to work in finance, expressed similar reservations about her career choice. Though she claimed to “love” her work, she also admitted that she was “attempting to find a job that does not involve as many spreadsheets as my current position and will allow me to better serve others.” She is now employed in government.

Another classmate put things even more bluntly:

“Harvard teaches you to follow your dreams—and then the recruiters show up on campus and remind you that the one path to true enlightenment is management consulting.”

I know that three examples don’t an airtight case make. I’m sure there are plenty of Harvard graduates who are perfectly happy with their transition from final clubs to finance. But, with some exceptions, you don’t want to be hanging out with these people. And the quotations above should make seniors wary of working on Wall Street.

Of course, avoiding the Siren call of Morgan Stanley isn’t as easy as it sounds. The Office of Career Services has been cramming the corporate sector down Crimson throats for years. While Harvard has authority over OCS, we’re not going to see a ban on investment banks, a la the ROTC ban, anytime soon. The University knows where its bread is buttered.

But after graduating, students can choose where to get their butter (for most, the House dining hall is no longer an option). They can work for non-profits, for government, and think tanks. They can be engineers and entrepreneurs and educators and environmentalists and journalists and artists and activists. They can work in the private sector for companies that actually make products and create jobs. They can go to graduate school or professional school and become doctors and lawyers and professors and scientists and politicians. Some of them can even win Oscars or play in the NFL.

Many of these careers may not be as financially rewarding as investment banking. But I assure you, they will almost certainly make you less insipid than your profiteering peers. Harvard alumni are often maligned on “Main Street.” You might as well mitigate rather than cultivate that resentment.

Moreover, breaking ranks with the bankers will provide you with better banter. Derivatives make for dry cocktail conversations. If you thought the finance types were boring in college, just wait until you see them in their natural habitat.

So if your blood runs a cool Crimson rather than a revolutionary red, don’t worry. You don’t have to occupy Wall Street. Just boycott it during the job hunt. You’ll find your more colorful classmates have gone elsewhere.

David Weinfeld ’05, a former Crimson editorial columnist, is a doctoral candidate in American Jewish history at New York University.

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