The Diminishing Returns of White Collar Job Titles

For as long as history can remember job titles in white collar industries have been linked to class and education. Finally, change is in the air.

The New York Times has one of the most though provoking articles I have read in a long time. According to the article, the traditional job titles young over achievers should lust for (and the path they should take to reach those positions) are in jeopardy. The desire for a conventionally high-status career is seeing a dramatic shift, largely fueled by opportunities being enabled by technology and the web.

I have witnessed this shift first-hand. After my undergraduate degree I began my career at a lofty Wall Street law firm working on the Merck Vioxx case. It was a great case and a great firm by any standard, and yet, I quickly I began to have questions. With only a B.A., I was doing the exact same (terrible and mind-numbing) work as most first year associates with law degrees. I quickly learned from more senior associates how the era of hard work leading to partnership had eroded. New partners now were either laterals brought in as rainmakers or they were cherry-picked for strategic purposes such as someone who had long been at the SEC or in-house counsel with a pharmaceutical client. I witnessed the absurdly high rate of depression and resentment among the attorneys at all levels and I quickly canceled the LSAT class I’d recently enrolled in. I was not going to be a lawyer despite having been pushed toward that trajectory for years.

Law is not the only industry going through such changes. I have friends who have passed on becoming doctors after hearing horror stories of impending law suits and balking at the time commitment and cost of tuition. Several of my friends are young investment bankers and heggies. They make huge money in a relative sense, but calculate their ‘per hour’ and you’d likely be shocked. Even they understand that it is not sustainable.

Times are changing. Lifestyle, strategy, and innovation matter more than ever.

Young people now have the tools to monetize their unique skills and passions, allowing them to take advantage of a new long tail of jobs. Young workers and students are being empowered through entrepreneurship, the internet and better acceptance by society toward the necessity for risk and innovation.  Having access to education, data, tools, and distribution is allowing us to find a new sense of independence. As this independence increases, our need (and thus desire) for older-guard “provider services” decreases. It turns out that despite what our grandparents and parents may want, being a doctor or lawyer isn’t what many of today’s young people would want if they knew they could make a decent living pursuing their passions.

From the article:

In a culture that prizes risk and outsize reward — where professional heroes are college dropouts with billion-dollar Web sites — some doctors and lawyers feel they have slipped a notch in social status, drifting toward the safe-and-staid realm of dentists and accountants. It’s not just because the professions have changed, but also because the standards of what makes a prestigious career have changed.

This decline, Mr. Florida argued, is rooted in a broader shift in definitions of success, essentially, a realignment of the pillars. Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago.

“There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,â€� he said. “Now they just want to be themselves. It’s almost as if they’re interviewing places to see if they fit them.â€�

“We’d all seen the visions, watching ‘L.A. Law,’ or ‘Ally McBeal,’â€� said Catherine Kersh, 32, a former litigator at a large firm in Los Angeles. “It did seem glamorous.â€�

Reality, she quickly learned, was different. Ms. Kersh recalled a two-week stretch in which she and a team of associates were holed up in a conference room with 50 boxes of documents. Every day, for 12 hours, they fastened Post-it notes to legal briefs.

“You look around at the other associates, trying to remind ourselves, why did we go to law school?� said Ms. Kersh

Many young associates, she added, spent their lunch hours making lavish purchases on NeimanMarcus.com, just to remind themselves that what they did counted for something.


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