Goldman Sachs, McKinsey & Co., and Citigroup have conspicuously invaded our inboxes.
It should be no surprise — finance and consulting firms spend millions of dollars every year courting ambitious college students toward a Faustian bargain: spend the 80,000 hours of your career working to perpetuate the inordinate wealth and power of the 0.1%, and in exchange, you too shall receive your own small slice of elite prestige and material luxury. Because this professional path is so well-traveled and because campus recruiting is so established and well-funded, many Swarthmore students don’t think twice before affixing their own golden handcuffs.
To be sure, we do a better job than some peer institutions. Compared to Amherst, for example, Swarthmore graduates five times the number of non-profit and government workers, twice the number of PhDs, and half the number of investment bankers. But 12% of graduates still go into finance and consulting, and Swarthmore should reconsider facilitating students’ careers in such dubious professions.
Swarthmore’s mission is to “help its students realize their full intellectual and personal potential combined with a deep sense of ethical and social concern.” While it may not be impossible to benefit the common good at Goldman Sachs, such cases would seem to require a fair amount of subversive behaviour by the employee (e.g. by donating almost all of your income). Even putting aside its long list of controversies over the years — which include contributing to the 2008 financial crisis by lying to investors about the quality of their mortgage-backed securities — Goldman Sachs’s very purpose, through investment banking and wealth management, is to further enrich its clients, i.e., the already wealthy.
It would be one thing if finance and consulting jobs were typically pursued by lower-income students to secure financial stability and even pay off loans before moving on with their career. However, research shows that jobs in finance are dominated by students who grew up wealthy.
Consulting firms are not much better. Environmental and non-profit consultancies may genuinely make the world a better place, but firms such as Bain and McKinsey are poor contenders. Like Goldman, these consulting firms do the bidding of the very wealthy, often through nefarious means. For instance, McKinsey was charged $600 million for its role in “turbocharging” opiate sales, which fueled the opioid pandemic. Bain and McKinsey also contributed significantly to the gutting of middle management at top corporations in the late 20th century, leading to a collapse of labor union membership. Banks and consulting firms do all this while embracing progressive–sounding language to obfuscate the consequences of their actions.
Many college graduates quickly leave consulting jobs within two years, sometimes with the goal of switching to a career in public service. But consultancies are suboptimal launching pads for non-corporate careers: for jobs in academia, government, or non-profits, students would be better off directly working on a given cause straight out of college.
Career Services does an excellent job highlighting the work of alumni in public service, as well as incredible organizations like the International Rescue Committee, yet more can be done. The non-profit 80,000 Hours — named after the amount of hours we have in our career — regularly updates a list of high-impact jobs that tackle the world’s most pressing problems, from climate change to global poverty to regulating emerging technologies like AI and synthetic biology. Dozens of internships for this summer are on offer, each of which has outstanding potential to reduce suffering and fight injustice around the world. Careers in public service are also more likely to make you happy: few in finance report high life satisfaction, while the jobs with greatest life satisfaction almost all involve helping others.
Students and administrators should work together to further publicize these jobs via speaker events and email threads. It may be more difficult since public service employers don’t have the same recruiting heft as big corporations, but the investment is well worth it. Swarthmore should seriously consider not hosting finance and consulting firms at career fairs at all, but if they do, job opportunities with greater potential to make the world a better place should be given greater prominence.
For now, students should be skeptical of emails about lucrative yet unimpactful careers.