By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Harvard grads then and now: How America has changed

Shutterstock image: businesswoman looking at a career plan.

I recently received an email message with preliminary results, based on responses from only about a tenth of the class, for my Harvard College Class of 1970 reunion book.

The reunion book allows people to update their former classmates on what they've been up to. And reading people's occupations was a real eye-opener about cultural and economic changes since that time.

What was amazing was how few of my classmates had gone into the careers chosen by half of new Harvard grads these days -- investment banking (now known to students simply as "banking"), consulting and private equity/hedge funds. Of my classmates reporting, only two were in finance, broadly speaking -- one was in wealth management and one in venture capital for health care startups.

No one reported working in consulting, while three worked for government and another two worked for nonprofits. Additionally, one classmate reported that he was a former government political appointee while another admitted to being a politician.

The second most common career reported was the one I think was probably the dream job of many of my classmates back then: writer or journalist, reported by 11 classmates.

One wrote: "My new book, 'Becoming Belafonte: Black Artist, Public Radical,' exploring how the son of working-class Jamaican immigrants who grew up in Depression-era Harlem became a singer/actor, civil rights icon and internationalist who is still calling out injustice, will be published in September 2014." Another: "I've recently had a book published, entitled 'In the Light of Humane Nature: Human Values, Nature, the Green Economy, and Environmental Salvation.' You are all welcome to read it!"

This writing cohort was only slightly smaller than the number of people reporting that they were professors (12). The single largest group of professors was in medicine or public health.

The group of respondents was rounded out by six who were professionals of various sorts (doctors, lawyers, architects). Another 11 reported that they were retired, of whom two mentioned devoting their retirement to working for nonprofits.

We should interpret these numbers with caution, of course. They are based on only about a tenth of the class. Presumably, retired people have more time to write in, so they might be overrepresented. Writers might also be more likely to write in -- especially if they have a new book to promote! And to the extent that financial types underreported, despite the normal tendency of successful people to overreport on these kinds of reunion surveys, it might suggest that the culture of the class, so many years later, makes people ashamed to say they are in those occupations.

Yet although these numbers are only suggestive, they sure do suggest a lot. This distribution of occupations -- more in government and nonprofits than in finance/consulting -- is utterly different from what's found at elite universities today. This is obviously a problem for organizations in public service, and I think it is a problem for our country as well.

Posted on Jul 23, 2014 at 6:11 AM


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