Phi Beta Cons

Harvard Grads in the Mailroom

The New York Times has a column today about why, in the current economy, high-skilled grads are willing to take low-paying jobs. The article refers to industries with low starting salaries but a chance (however slim) of huge future rewards as “lottery industries.”

Hollywood is merely the most glamorous industry that puts new entrants — whether they’re in the mailroom, picking up dry cleaning for a studio head or waiting on tables between open-call auditions — through a lottery system. Even glamour-free industries offer economic-lottery systems. Young, ambitious accountants who toil away at a Big Four firm may have modest expectations of glory, but they’ll be millionaires if they make partner. The same goes at law firms, ad agencies and consulting firms. Startups explicitly use a lottery system, known as stock options, to entice young people to work for nothing. . . .

But part of the American post-World War II economic miracle was that most people didn’t have to choose between a high-stakes-lottery job or a lousy dead-end one. Steelworkers, midlevel corporate executives, shopkeepers and plumbers were all able to make a decent amount from the start of their careers with steady, but never spectacular, raises throughout.

I don’t agree with the premise that the economy of 60 years ago was some kind of blue-collar utopia. Nor would I idealize an incentive system that privileges the “steady” over the potentially “spectacular.” This seems like a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the American economy such a force to begin with. Economic reward has always been associated with economic risk. For example, entrepreneurs have always benefited from more of the former by taking on more of the latter.

If too many Harvard grads are in the mailroom, it might be because we have moved from an inventive, individualistic, entrepreneurial ethos to one that emphasizes credentialism and corporatism. Many college grads think that their degrees should qualify them for spectacular salaries right out of school. But with the exception of certain jobs in the financial industry, that’s not realistic, and it never has been. The greatest financial rewards in our economy are, and always have been, not for those who have been merely rubber-stamped by some university, but for those who have bet on themselves, created something new, dreamed big, risked it all, and worked incredibly hard.

And, yes, sometimes a little luck helps. But calling this a “lottery system” reveals a misunderstanding about where success really comes from. This kind of misunderstanding is at the root of why so many liberals are angry at those who have achieved success, and so willing to penalize success. It’s because they think it’s merely a matter of luck.

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