Her college mind heavy with the teachings of Aristotle and Goldman Sachs, Hilary Cohen knew she wanted to change the world. Yet she wrestled with a question that haunted many around her: How should the world be changed?
It was 2014, the spring of her senior year at Georgetown University. She had to decide what was next. Should she be a management consultant? Should she be a rabbi? Should she go straight to helping people by working at a nonprofit? Or should she first train in the tools of business? She had absorbed the ascendant message, all but unavoidable for the elite American college student, that those tools were essential to serving others. The best way to bring about meaningful reform was to apprentice in the bowels of the status quo.
I interviewed Cohen over more than a year for my new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. I was investigating how so many bright young Americans, who arrive on campus full of idealism this time each year, are seduced into the belief that the best way to make change is to work for corporate America. I see this seduction as half of a brilliant con: American elites rigged the economy to deprive millions of young people of opportunity; and then they deftly co-opted the idealism of the young people who might challenge that rigging by convincing them that making change requires learning at their knee.
For Cohen, the seduction took time. She arrived at Georgetown in the fall of 2010, full of freshman idealism. The phrase that best captured her aspiration was, she said, a common one in the halls of Georgetown: “to change the lives of millions of people.” It spoke of the widespread desire to work on social problems in an age not lacking in them. And it gave a hint of how that desire had been infected by the institutions and mores of market capitalism.
“This liberal subcaste would retain the left’s traditional goals of bettering the world and attending to underdogs, but it would increasingly pursue those aims in market-friendly ways”
Cohen explained that when she and her friends thought about improving the world for others, they did so with an ethos befitting the era in which they had come of age. It is an era in which capitalism has no ideological opponent of similar stature and influence, and in which it is hard to escape the market’s vocabulary, values, and assumptions, even when pondering a topic such as social change. Socialism clubs have given way to social enterprise clubs on American campuses. Students have also been influenced by the business world’s commandment, disseminated through advertisements and TED talks and books by so-called thought leaders, to do whatever you do “at scale,” which is where the “millions of people” thing came from. It is an era, moreover, that has relentlessly told young people that they can “do well by doing good.” Thus when Cohen and her friends sought to make a difference, their approaches were less about what they wanted to take down or challenge and more about the ventures they wanted to start up, she said. Many of them believed there was more power in building up what was good than in challenging what was bad.
Georgetown and the United States and the world at large have been taken over by an ascendant ideology of how best to change the world. That ideology is often called neoliberalism, and it is, in the framing of the anthropologist David Harvey, “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.” Where the theory goes, “deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision” tend to follow, Harvey writes.
The political philosopher Yascha Mounk captures the cultural consequences of this ideology when he says it has ushered in a new “age of responsibility,” in which “responsibility — which once meant the moral duty to help and support others — has come to suggest an obligation to be self-sufficient.” The founding parents of this revolution were political figures on the right such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who rose to power by besmirching the role of government.
The political right couldn’t pull off its revolution alone, however. That is where the need for a loyal opposition comes in. Thus neoliberals cultivated on the left half of the American political spectrum a tribe they could work with. This liberal subcaste would retain the left’s traditional goals of bettering the world and attending to underdogs, but it would increasingly pursue those aims in market-friendly ways. Bill Clinton would become the paterfamilias of this tribe, with his so-called Third Way between left and right, and his famous declaration, regarded as historic from the moment it was uttered in 1996, that “the era of big government is over.”
Clinton’s evolution from embracing Lyndon Johnson’s big-government activism in the 1960s to declaring the end of big government in the 1990s spoke of a turning in the culture whose effects were palpable in the Georgetown that Cohen discovered in the early 2010s. When she and her peers were stirred by a desire to change things, their own ideas and the resources available to them tended to steer them toward the market rather than government as the place where problems are best solved.
In the careerist culture that has overtaken many leading universities, productive summers that expose one to potential careers have become essential grooming for many ambitious students. Cohen pursued them. She began in 2010 with that internship on Capitol Hill. After the Hill, she interned at an educational technology company. Then, in the summer before senior year, as Black Lives Matter was getting underway, she followed many other aspiring do-gooders to a summer job as an analyst at Goldman Sachs.
It might seem an improbable choice for someone aspiring to help people. But it was not at all an unusual one in her circles. Cohen was hardly the first person to be impressed by an oft-heard view, espoused by firms like Goldman, that the skills they teach are vital preparation for change-making of any sort. Management consulting firms and Wall Street financial houses have persuaded many young people in recent years that they provide a superior version of what the liberal arts are said to offer: highly portable training for doing whatever you wish down the road. They also say, according to Cohen, “To be a leader in the world, you need this skill set.”
She didn’t capitulate to these notions all at once. She considered jobs in the nonprofit sector that had been advertised on campus or online. Somehow, though, they felt risky to her. Sure, she would be cutting to the chase of making a difference, but wouldn’t she be forgoing the skill-building and self-cultivation offered by the big private-sector firms? Some of the NGOs she looked at seemed to have no career plan for a young person, no promise of a trajectory of growing responsibilities and impact. A lot of these places hired only one or two graduates per year and expected them to find their way with little structure, whereas the big firms recruited entire cohorts of them for entry-level analyst positions, referring to them as “classes,” subtly playing into their nostalgia for dorm-room days.
She was still influenced by the Aristotle she had read for her philosophy major, and by his notion that money, like fame and glory, is not the end in itself that so many think it to be. But it was a means, and she had absorbed the belief all around her that one had to apprentice with money in order to make the world a better place.
Nonetheless, a summer at Goldman revealed it to be not for her. It was a little far toward the “doing well” end of the “doing well by doing good” continuum. A more moderate choice, she felt, was McKinsey & Company. She liked the idea of going to a boot camp for solving problems at scale, which is how the campus recruiters framed it. The overwhelming share of McKinsey clients are corporate, but the recruiters, knowing the mentality of young people like her, played up the social- and public-sector projects. Cohen said, only half joking, that it was possible to come away from the information session thinking that if hired, you would spend most of your time helping Haiti with post-earthquake development and advising the Vatican.
So when Cohen received her offer letter from McKinsey that year, it was possible to feel, as she did, that it was a dull and cynical choice; and it was possible to feel, as she also did, that it was an invitation into the new way of helping people.
A meeting of another program she belonged to, known as Capstone, illustrated that she was far from alone. The host of the ninth meeting of Cohen’s cohort, held in late March, circulated by email some readings to prime the discussion, one of which was a piece from The Georgetown Voice. The article asked a question that Cohen was asking herself in those days: “Why Are So Many Georgetown Graduates Taking Jobs in Banking and Consulting?”
The article reported the striking fact that more than 40 percent of Georgetown graduates from the class of 2012 who found full-time work had gone into consulting or financial services. The writer observed that the trend “can seem contradictory for a University that prides itself on Jesuit values.” It attributed the glut to the high salaries, the debt burden that many students take on, and a “culture that holds financial services and consulting jobs as prestigious.” Cohen and her friends discussed the article that day, which mirrored her own agonizing over what to do about McKinsey. She says she sought an extension of the deadline for accepting the offer five times before deciding to join.
She says she was “simultaneously dazzled and horrified” by what she found. She was hugely impressed by the talent around her. “I remember sitting in orientation, and you have all of these well-groomed, super-articulate, high-performing people, and you have real questions about, ‘Do I belong here? Am I really one of these people?’ — that kind of thing. I was dazzled by the stature or seeming appearance of my peers and colleagues.” She also soon came to be bothered by the overwork and by the reality that most of the projects were corporate humdrum, not world-saving. She had been pitched, as she saw it, on “the fact that you are going to have access to problems that typically people don’t have access to for decades, the ways in which you’re going to change the lives of your clients for the better.” But most of the projects she came across were just your usual corporate advisory tasks, cutting costs here, devising a market-entry strategy there. “A lot of it is just executing on stuff that’s a bit more mundane,” she said.
And if the work was duller than the recruiters had promised, her fellow consultants’ workaholism was out of step with that dullness. They worked as though they were solving the urgent problems they had been pitched on fixing but weren’t. They built Excel models over dinner, which shocked Cohen, who grew up in a family “where you would be severely reprimanded and castigated” for answering the phone at mealtime. In a five-minute car ride from the hotel to a client’s office, it was customary to get on the phone and seek to squeeze as much productivity as possible from that shard of an hour. “That’s the reality,” Cohen said. “It’s just a crazy culture.” Then, she added, “Slowly but surely, you too begin doing it.”
Cohen began to doubt her decision, and she found herself wondering if she should instead be doing what those who knew her best often pressed her to do — training as a rabbi. So powerful, though, was the logic of business as a path to service that she told herself it was a useful prologue even for spiritual work — and if “the rabbi thing doesn’t work out,” she said, her time at McKinsey would give her a “backup plan.” She added that it was probably better to be a rabbi known to have passed through McKinsey. “I think that we make sense of each other based on a very, very limited amount of information, and that certainly choices or brands or symbols signify certain things,” she said.
“She had been awed by the claim that people trained in business would gain some elusive way of thinking”
In taking the McKinsey job, Cohen joined MarketWorld. MarketWorld is an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government, and think tanks. It has its own thinkers, whom it calls thought leaders, its own language, and even its own territory — including a constantly shifting archipelago of conferences at which its values are reinforced and disseminated and translated into action. MarketWorld is a network and community, but it is also a culture and state of mind.
These elites believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of the systems that people share in common; that it should be supervised by the winners of capitalism and their allies, and not be antagonistic to their needs; and that the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo should play a leading role in the status quo’s reform.
In her first weeks at McKinsey, Cohen had yet to see MarketWorld for what it was, and despite her own discomfort with the work, she could tell herself what so many bright young people tell themselves these days and thereby get through the months and years: that they are entering the world of money in order to master the tools needed to help those it has forsaken. Cohen says she reassured herself: “Now that I’ve been trained to structure, break down, and solve business problems, I can apply those same skills to any issue or challenge I choose.”
Then she began to see through that idea. From the outside, she had been awed by the claim that people trained in business would gain some elusive way of thinking that was vital to helping people. Once inside, though, she realized that while this way of thinking was indeed useful for helping a tire company shave costs or a solar panel maker select a promising market for global expansion, it didn’t deserve its status as a cure-all across domains. Accountancy, medicine, education, espionage, and seafaring all have their own tools and modes of analysis, but none of those approaches was widely promoted as the solution to virtually everything else.
Working on client projects, she began to run a parallel exercise in her own mind, ignoring the McKinsey toolkit and just asking herself what she thought the right answer was. “Very rarely, if ever, did the step-by-step, perfectly linear process of ‘here’s how we’re going to conduct this exploration’ — very rarely did that actually surface the right answer,” she said. Often, that process — the thing for which McKinsey was famed — was “used primarily for communicating the answer, rather than generating it,” she said. The answers were derived through intelligence and common sense, and then the team would make them look more like trademark McKinsey answers: “We would backfill them into the template,” Cohen said.
Given what she felt to be the fallibility of the methods she was learning, she was amazed at the hunger for them outside the precincts of business. In our age, many domains lack confidence in their own methodologies and are often desperate to inject business thinking into their work. So successful is the belief in business as the universal access card for making progress, helping people, and changing the world that even the White House, with its pick of the nation’s talent, under Republicans and Democrats alike, grew dependent on the special talents of consultants and financiers in making decisions about how to run the nation.
Around this time, President Obama, who did his own post-collegiate teeth-cutting as a community organizer in Chicago, was approaching the end of his second term. In the modern custom, he would soon be creating a foundation and a library. He had resolved that the renewal of civic life would be among their priorities. He had often spoken of corporations and wealthy people having too much of a say in American life and of ordinary people having too little. Still, as this president turned his thoughts to making democracy more vital, he decided to seek advice from McKinsey, as so many change-makers now tended to do.
Cohen was asked to join the team, and she began to work on the question of what the president should do to reinvigorate citizenship. She said Obama’s turning to McKinsey consultants to analyze the problem was both “a silencer of my doubts and the conjurer of many doubts.” If a president whom she deeply admired thought McKinsey consultants should be thinking about these things, then maybe they should be. On the other hand, she suspected the president had been influenced by the same myths that had misled her. “Why wouldn’t he go to a group of community organizers to do this work?” she wondered. The project gave her “more pause than hope,” for it seemed to contribute to the business world’s growing influence over social change. She felt conflicted: That McKinsey had been given the work made her uneasy; at the same time, it was the most exciting work she could imagine doing.
Eventually, Cohen would leave McKinsey and join the Obama Foundation full-time. But while she remained on the consulting firm’s payroll, she and her colleagues were subject to the delicate balancing act of corporate social change. They were supposed to make democracy more vital and effective for ordinary people, but preferably without challenging their fellow winners too much. They were to grow the public’s trust in institutions without digging too far into why the people leading those institutions were mistrusted.
Part of what still drew Cohen to the rabbinate was the chance it offered to flee the compromises that arose from seeking to do well by doing good. “I would a million percent say I’d prefer to live outside of that market logic and world,” she said. (Eventually, she would leave the Obama Foundation as well, to pursue research at Stanford on the intersection of technology and ethics.) But she would be lying if she said she didn’t like the prestige and the lifestyle. And she clung to the dream of making change at scale. In her continuing attraction to religious training, she seemed to long for one faith to deliver her from another — from a market faith that she had not chosen so much as given in to.
This faith holds a great many decent, thinking people nowadays. Many of them are trapped in what they cannot fully see. Many of them believe that they are changing the world when they may instead — or also — be protecting a system that is at the root of the problems they wish to solve. Many of them quietly wonder whether there is another way, and what their place in it might be.