Change We Can Believe In?

If you were advising a twentysomething (or even a thirtysomething) who wanted to make a difference today, where would you send her: consulting, entrepreneurship, or government?

My favorite take on consulting is Marina Keegan’s 2011 essay “Even Artichokes Have Doubts, in which she tries to understand why, in the first decade of this century, about 25 percent of her fellow Yale graduates found work as consultants or bankers — especially when so few of them started college dreaming of either job.

Saturday afternoon at the Boston Book Festival, I heard Anand Giridharadas throw a big bucket of cold water on entrepreneurship in discussing his latest book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. I still need (and very much want) to read the book, but I basically agree with the position he outlined aloud: in the past four decades or so, we’ve relentlessly cut back on the provision of public goods and trained ourselves to celebrate private philanthropy instead — in spite of its obvious tendency to deliver inferior or ineffective goods in ways that only reinforce inequity. Why, then, are so many young people striving to create social ventures?

But what about government, really? If it’s true that, at least at the highest levels, government is in thrall to the kind of “philanthrocapitalism” Giridharadas deplores in and from the private sector, are young people who choose government more likely to make a difference than their peers who choose consulting, finance, or entrepreneurship?

I suspect that framing the question by sector, as I did at the top, is to abandon all hope. Rather, drawing on Henry Mintzberg’s work (cf. Managers, Not MBAs), I suspect the best answer is another question: not “Which sector does the most good?”, but rather “In which sector am I most prepared to take responsibility for the long term?”

I suspect it’s possible to learn something or help someone in almost any sector we choose. The important thing is to recognize and respect the limits of each, and to try to act responsibly — regardless of sector.