In the United States today, nearly one in five college students chooses to study business administration. It is by far the most popular major with twice as many students pursuing a business degree as the next most popular area of study - social sciences and history.
That's good news for American businesses as more than 350,000 undergraduate and 190,000 graduate degrees are awarded in business each year (making the MBA also the country's most sought after master's degree). It would also seem to be good news for business school graduates who earn more over their lifetime than students in any other field except engineering.
18th Century economist Adam Smith would no doubt be proud to note how the "invisible hand of the economy" has again demonstrated that all things positive flow from rational self-interest and competitive market forces. Lots of jobs for business majors, large numbers of graduates and undergraduates pursuing education in that field, and excellent earning prospects for those who follow this path to success.
But recent reports from the Gallup organization should give pause to those ready to declare another victory for the free market system. When we add quality of life measures to the equation, things look far less rosy.
According to Gallup, U.S. college graduates who majored in business are the least likely of the four largest college major categories (business, social sciences, science/engineering, and arts and humanities) to claim they have a strong interest in their work. In a study conducted by Gallup and Purdue University with a sample of 30,000 graduates, only 37% of business majors expressed they felt "deeply interested in the work they do."
A separate study also produced by Gallup offers another troubling statistic. Business majors also fare worse than those in the other three major fields in the measure of "purpose-well being." This index, developed with Healthway Solutions, measures whether people are thriving in such important life dimensions as liking what they do each day, having supportive relationships and love in their lives, managing ones economic life to reduce stress and increase security, feeling good about where one lives, and having good health and the energy to get things done on a daily basis. Less than 50% feel they are doing well on these fronts.
And Gallup remember are also the folks that brought to our attention the fact that only 30% of workers are actively engaged in their work.
I guess the old adage that money (or a good paying job) can't buy happiness (or meaning) holds true. It seems to me an enormous waste of "human capital" that our institutions of higher education can turn out over 1 million business graduates every two years who stand less than 50/50 odds of experiencing well-being and a mere 2-in-5 chance of being deeply interested in their work - perhaps another example of how economics can explain everything in life except for those things that don't add up.
The fact that more than half of business majors become workers that are not highly engaged, nor deeply interested in their jobs, nor experiencing well-being should be cause for significant concern for business schools and the business community. Educated workers who cannot find an inspiring connection to their daily jobs clearly equate to an enormous loss of productivity and a terrible waste of human potential, but no response seems forthcoming. No business leader would stand for a 50% defect rate in their products and services, why would this situation be tolerated?
So, what to do?
For the past 15 years I have been teaching courses to business school students at Boston College to help them manage their careers, integrate their work and personal lives, and, dare I say, find and follow their "calling." Beyond anything else, these courses take my students on an exotic and sometimes exhaustive journey to a place that far too few students have had the opportunity to explore - inside themselves.
In my classes, students reflect on their life histories, their peak experiences, the values that drive them, the skills they've nurtured, and, put simply, what gets them out of bed in the morning. The series of self-assessment activities they engage in allows the students to develop and articulate more clearly who they are, what they stand for, and what excites them. This, in turn enables them to build a vision for their lives that is guided by this heightened and clearer sense of self.
I am consistently bolstered in my efforts by the very positive reaction I get from students as I lead them through their journey of self-discovery. Many say going through this process is life-changing. But I am also consistently dismayed by how few business schools offer their students the opportunity to pursue a similar undertaking.
The time and money invested in business education in the U.S. is enormous. It would seem wise to ensure that this investment is leading not simply to developing skills, but also to creating stimulating careers and an energized workforce. When we see numbers that suggest we are failing to do this for more than half of our business graduates, it's time to reassess our approach. The critical, self-evident question we are failing to address is, "Why aren't our business school graduates able to utilize their education to lead more healthy and purpose-driven lives?" As educators, we should strive to empower our future business leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in the global economy while also living fulfilling lives.
Brad Harrington is the Executive Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family and Research Professor on the Carroll School of Management. This entry is part of the National Work and Family Month Blogfest.