This is the weekend edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing. When Dr. Auriel Fournier was an undergraduate ecology student, her mentors would tell her about research opportunities that she should absolutely, no question, take — it’s how they’d advanced in their careers, and it’s how she should advance, too.
Lately I've been talking to several people in their 20s who started their first working experience at a big (and sometimes even small) consulting firm during the pandemic, and left after a year or less.
The narratives are incredibly similar, they all leave for the same reasons:
- after a year, nobody knows them;
- and they feel like they don't know nobody in the company (note: the ones I talked to were undeniably extroverted people, so I bet they really tried hard in making new acquaintances at work);
- they didn't know how to show that they are good at something (note: they were all from top-level business schools);
- they were tricked into thinking that they were destined to do great work, only to be shown otherwise ("working 9-to-midnight to build slide decks about things I didn't know anything about");
- they feel a deep disconnect from their colleagues that considers this "normal" ("they don't have any interest outside work-as-grind").
On the other side of the fence, I'm constantly hearing executives and managers complaining about employee retention: this "leaving the job after a year", even in the case of first employments, even in the case of top-recruits from elite colleges, it's more than a trend.
As I told to the latest 20-something I spoke to, I do not want a future were we have "companies of young people" vs. "companies of old people" because we couldn't find a way to "play together", but everything that's happening right now kinda push in that direction.
It's especially concerning due to the fact that, depending on the country were you live — but it's a common trait of most western countries — the number of people in the 20-40 age range has been and will be shrinking over time, and that too doesn't work in favor of having multi-generational and diverse workplaces.
So I think when Fournier asks a room, who’s not here (because they weren’t able to take unpaid internships), it probably doesn’t make quite an impact. The US is an individualist segregated classist society (and in hard core denial about 2 of those 3 classifiers). What does equitable mean when people not being there - in their neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, friendships - because of class or race is absolutely the status quo. And usually attributed to lack of individual effort. Can’t take on unpaid opportunities - you don’t want it enough or don’t deserve it. Because in the US, work is the holy grail of effort and sacrifice. What greater complement is there than “you’re a hard worker”. You’ve written extensively about how great capitalism is at turning systematic failures into individual ones and there is nowhere it is truer than in the US. I wasn’t so impressed by a company that takes vacay and “admits” their mistakes. Either you’re worker owned and lobbying for real change or you’re a cosmetic upgrade of all the rest. The plight of MBA grads at Goldman Sachs doesn’t really tug my heartstrings. I’m more curious as to where most high school and or college are employed and what do those spaces look like. Tech and finance industries are for the elite and perks at google don’t trickle down in any meaningful way (just cosmetically with foos ball and a bowl of cheezits). I appreciate your research and questioning what so many of us take for the air we breathe.