I went back to my ten year college reunion this weekend. Princeton has reunions every year. The big reunions are every five years (the biggest being the 25th reunion) and as such, I decided to go down for the day since I was in New York City. Quite a crowd turned out. Despite it being her 25th, Michelle Obama was not one of them. It was more enjoyable than I would have predicted. Last time I went to reunions for my fifth, I did not have a particularly good time. I decided to go for the entire three day event. By the end of the second day I really was wondering what the heck I was doing there. This time, I decided only to go for the day (and none of the nighttime activities) and it ended up being the perfect amount of time to see the campus and a few of my friends I wanted to catch up with.
One of the things that sticks out to me though was a fact that was given at the end of the P-rade. As my classed marched down I heard two facts. One was that my class, the class of 2000, was setting attendance records for the 1st, 5th, and 10th reunions (all reunions I attended). But the more interesting fact was that the number one profession of my class was being a lawyer. To be exact, it was stated that 14% of my class had become lawyers.
Now, I went to an Ivy league school and you would expect a large percentage of my class to be in high paying jobs. Since law is a high paying job it does not surprise me that it is a profession many in my class pursued What surprised me was that it was number one. And as I thought about it I though what a sad commentary that actually is for our society.
Don't get me wrong. I think lawyers are necessary in our society. I also don't think all lawyers are scumbags like others might. But for me, law is an ancillary profession. It is best as a supporting function to the creation of value and wealth to our society. It is in the same class of profession as accountants and clerical work. These are jobs that are absolutely necessary but at the end of the day is overhead to the actual creation of wealth. This is in contrast to things like medicine, manufacturing, or the creation of intellectual property that actually drive the economy and create value in our lives.
So what does it say that the brightest mind in the country if not the world are pursuing careers that are not creating wealth to our society?
I think it says a couple of things. First, I think it says something about how the cost of obtaining a world-class education has skewed the choices we make. Most of my class graduated with quite a bit of debt. This problem is only getting worse has college becomes more and more expensive and having a college degree does not make you stand out anymore. It used to be, for my parent's generation, that having a college degree was not the norm. Now, all my friends have one and that in itself means you have to find other ways to differentiate. Most people are finding it necessary to get a post-graduate degree to really make themselves stand out and earn the money needed to pay back these college loans. This is a true fact. I am the ONLY one of my college friends that does not have a post-graduate degree. Think about that for a second. I'm the only one. I have lots of friends from college and they all decided to pursue even more education.
The second problem I see is that we are emphasizing the wrong things. As a country, we have created a society where one of the best paying jobs is being a lawyer. Now to be fair, this has been the case for quite a while. But I would argue that before it was more a function about the scarcity of the education required to practice law than it was about the voracious appetite to produce lawyers. But we are now pumping out lawyers at a very large rate. There must be an overwhelming demand for lawyers in order to keep salaries as high as they are. This is because we have created such a complex set of laws and a society that is so litigious that it is required for any large corporation to have an army of lawyers ready to protect and to sue.
So rather than create professionals ready to find the cure for cancer or to create the next great product we create an army of people ready to sue others. How on earth can we change this dynamic?