THE BLOG
03/08/2012 06:32 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2012

The 35.9 Percent

By Peter Zakin, Columnist

Recently, Ezra Klein of the Washington Post argued that schools like Princeton send so many students off to careers on Wall Street -- 35.9 percent of Princeton seniors employed at graduation, in fact -- because their students are poorly prepared to do much of anything else. Klein explains that finance's "low risk" nature -- not sure about that claim -- and high salaries are especially attractive to Ivy League students who excel at thinking critically but lack vocational skills.

In a way, though, the question itself reveals the prejudices of those who consider it. We would never ask, for example, why MIT sends so many students into careers in engineering since most agree that this is a good thing. So the very fact that the subject of Ivy League students entering finance arouses curiosity reveals some of the prejudices of the curious. Put simply, if we agreed that Wall Street were a great place to begin a career, the question wouldn't be worth thinking about.

As it stands, most see the disproportionate number of graduates going into finance not as an innocent trend, but as proof of something broken in the system. Truth be told, the system probably is broken. Klein thinks that if elite universities better equipped their students with concrete skills, their career plans might be less confused and they would be less susceptible to Wall Street's promise. He may be right. Personally, I think it may also be prudent for the University to do a better job at exposing undergraduates to a wider array of career opportunities.

Yet, taking a step back, it occurs to me that the interesting question here isn't why confused undergraduates drift unwittingly to the siren call of Wall Street, but why that fact irks us so much. Why is it that our community cares so much about the aimless humanist who got roped into an information session and a spiel about the "thrill of the deal?"

We seem mostly accepting of the finance geek whose summer internship inspired a real passion for markets. We have nothing negative to say about the quants. But those who fell into finance by default can inspire some modicum of disgust.

For a long time, I saw our affinity for Wall Street as a poisonous influence on campus culture. On this very page last year, I cried out against what I thought was a lack of support for entrepreneurship on campus. I assumed, just a bit too patronizingly for a kid with no real life experience, that the discovery of entrepreneurship as a viable career path would save at least a few souls from an ill-advised career in finance. I still believe that entrepreneurship is a great alternative to the finance route -- which is convenient given my own career goals -- and that plenty of potential entrepreneurs have entered careers on Wall Street because they didn't believe that anything else was possible. But even my support for a cause worth supporting on its own terms was ridden with some degree of disdain for my peers who flock to Wall Street like lemmings chasing a salary off a cliff.

I've realized that what bothers me and others on campus in this regard is the appearance that some of our peers have given up the romantic notion of working as an end in itself and not just a means. The rest of us, not completely irrationally, dismiss the possibility that a good number of the 35.9 percent might actually enjoy their careers on Wall Street. But far from pitying them out of concern for their futures -- futures we assure ourselves we'd hate to live -- their choices make us uneasy.

They cast doubt on our own life decisions. On some level, we resent the clarity of the Wall Street path. We resent its institutional prestige or its high compensation. We resent Wall Street's temptation and the straightforward way it suggests that we're poised to live our lives the wrong way.

I'm reminded of David Brooks' characterization of the millennial elites as Organization Kids, describing the Princeton students of 2001 as hard-working, backpack-carrying, trophy-winners. Much has changed over the past decade, but I think his description is still perceptible on campus: "All this ambition and aspiration is looking for new tests to ace, new clubs to be president of, new services to perform, but finding that none of these challenges is the ultimate challenge, and none of the rewards is the ultimate reward."

The Organization Kid is a striver, a climber of ladders, and he sounds suspiciously like those who move on to Wall Street with lemming-like automation. What I've come to realize, though, is that those of us who hold some amount of disdain for our lemming friends are really just wrestling with the Organization Kid within.

Peter Zakin is a philosophy major from New York, N.Y.

This column originally appeared in The Daily Princetonian.