If you’re an undergraduate looking for a post-graduate life rife with intellectual stimulation, cosmopolitan thrill and upward mobility, you could do a lot worse than join a large management consulting firm.
All the analytical skills, social awareness and productive efficiency you’ve developed over the last four years seem perfectly suited for the fast-paced life of a consultant. You’ve studied everything under the sun — why restrict yourself to graduate study in a single narrow field? Your teamwork and leadership experience would put synchronized swimmers to shame, so why settle for anything less than engagement with young, dynamic teams working together to solve the world’s biggest problems?
Gone are the days of coveting technicians’ posts at Boeing. No longer do elite college graduates aspire to rise steadily through corporate ranks, accumulating a lifetime of experience within a single industry, rising to the top through dedication and perseverance over the course of decades. Corporate hierarchies are increasingly giving way to shallow organizations, ones in which the knowledge and experience of new hires is closer than ever to that of their superiors.
Those who have the requisite skills often choose to pursue interdisciplinary work, to shun specialization and to leave as many options open as possible. The Department of Labor reports that the average American now changes careers three to five times before retiring. Perhaps our attention span is shrinking; perhaps improved education is providing the workforce with more diverse opportunities; perhaps the rapid advance of technology is transforming job markets.
Whatever the reason, this demographic shift is an indisputably powerful force in the economy.
It is also indicative of a sea change in the loci of intellectual power. Lawyers still have an edge in politics, but President Obama has filled his cabinet with former consultants (five in total; three from McKinsey). In a flat world, those individuals who escape parochial careers in favor of international experience and connectivity understandably gravitate toward positions of global influence.
The profound strength of the American system of higher education consists in its liberal character. While preparation for medical school or engineering requires a rigorous disciplinary background, law school is equally accessible to students of physics, history and anthropology. At our elite schools especially, little stands in the way of the aspiring but unfocused undergraduate.
We are the beneficiaries of a remarkable privilege, the luxury of spending a quarter of our lives without committing in the long term to a field or trade. We have the opportunity to sample ideas from every intriguing discipline. Rather than developing rich knowledge within the area of our deepest passion, we flirt with one subject and then another, practicing “creative thinking skills” that will ostensibly serve us in whatever path we ultimately choose.
Until recently, it would have been ridiculous to suggest that one could improve a certain skill by exercising a plethora of others. But the aggregation and acquisition of knowledge is easier in the digital age than ever before, and it is increasingly the case that learning how is as important as learning what.
Is something lost in this transition? Of course high attrition rates create or exacerbate innumerable economic problems, and it is unclear whether these costs are balanced by the advantages of interdisciplinary thought and collaboration. But as a college student making a personal decision about occupational future (international economy aside), are there reasons to be concerned about the temptation to drift? And as a signatory of the American social contract, is the delegation of power to non-specialists cause for alarm?
The true Renaissance man is no longer fathomable in the exceedingly complex modern world, but it is easy enough to masquerade as one. The danger of the demographic transition is complacency — acceptance of the idea that definite knowledge is incidental. Nouvelle intelligence is untethered, free from the restrictions of experience or memory.
But effective policy cannot be made in a vacuum. Consultants bring a wide range of capabilities to bear on a certain genre of problems, but they cannot draw on the rich contextual knowledge necessary for the flashes of insight available to an expert. The student of chemistry may thoughtfully evaluate a work of art, but without deep knowledge and practice in the discipline, she cannot undertake the comparative historical and stylistic analysis that make the study of art valuable. The McKinsey director can identify inefficiencies in an organization, but he may not be the best candidate to reform the health-care system.
By all means, attend that case-interview workshop — but remember that critical thinking alone is not enough to resolve all problems.
Benjamin Miller is a senior in Morse College.