We have heard for a while that this generation was more public-service oriented, but I had my doubts about how this attitude impacted action. I worried that it was like the research that showed that people prefer to buy products from good corporate citizens but when it comes time to make purchases they forget these values as soon as they begin pushing their shopping carts.
Alternating perceptions of a career
The shift the article described that caught my attention was the shift in the prestige of careers. Going to work on Wall Street or for a large consulting firm is no longer seen as being as sexy or as good of a way to impress your peers as it once was. Careers in public service, science and other professions directly related to addressing core global issues are the new “plastics” — where the best of the best focus their talents.
For those of us from middle class families, prestige is typically more important than money in selecting careers (assuming you get paid a living wage that can cover your debt from school). We all want to have our friends and family admire what we do for a living — especially in a society where your occupation defines so much of your identity.
This is a sea change that will impact everything from the nonprofit sector to universities, to the government, to consulting firms who will now have to change their game to attract the best and the brightest.
The career shift and pro bono
I suspect and hope that pro bono service programs will be a big part of what makes this transition work. If the top consulting firms can match the legal and architecture firms and make commitments that 1-3% of their billing hours are used for pro bono service to support public benefit organizations and causes, they are going to be in a much better position to secure and retain talent.
This will be a win for the firms and the nonprofits they serve. It will also be critical to building the capacity of nonprofits to absorb all the top talent who will be seeking full-time jobs in the public sector.
I counsel many of the top young professionals I meet to go learn their trade in the corporate community and then, once trained, to come to the nonprofit sector. I argue that the nonprofit sector doesn’t have the capacity to offer the kind of training and management support they could get at a company like McKinsey, and they will do more for society if they get that first and then make the shift.
The capacity of nonprofits to offer such training needs to improve to reflect the interests of this new generation and the scale of their desire to join the public sector. We need to focus much of our pro bono service efforts on building the training and management capacity of nonprofits so that they can be that ideal first job for newly minted professionals.
The nonprofit sector must become an employer of choice, not just as a fantasy of well-intentioned students, but in the reality of the professional experience that comes from working for a well-operated nonprofit in your first years out of school.