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More than McKinsey

More than McKinsey

A rising generation should consider anew the merits of public service.

Anthony M. Barr

Pete Buttigieg is the first millennial—the generation born between 1981 and 1996—to be appointed to a U.S. cabinet post. His Senate confirmation hearing was the very picture of civility; he was confirmed by an overwhelming majority. “Mayor Pete” is unquestionably smart, and his past experience as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is likely to be a big help to him at the Department of Transportation.

So much for the piety. Everyone knows this was a consolation prize: The Department of Transportation isn’t 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. True, there’s a certain dignity in Buttegieg’s accepting a lesser position with grace, though he’ll undoubtedly have another shot at the presidency in the future. In the meantime, a talented and enterprising millennial will lead crucial efforts to update public transit and support the greening of our infrastructure. All things considered, not a bad job.

But, generational consanguinity notwithstanding, I don’t like Mayor Pete. Not many of my friends like him, either. It’s not just the concerns about his integrity, fueled by his oscillations between “progressive” and “centrist” positions during the primary campaign to try to gain a competitive edge. It’s not just the concerns about his unwillingness to explain just what he worked on as a consultant for McKinsey. The deeper reality is that many of us dislike him because he embodies an aspiration that we failed to achieve.

I don’t just mean that fellow millennials have reason to be jealous of Buttegieg, though jealousy isn’t unreasonable. As Derek Thompson put it in The Atlantic, “Young educated liberals look at Buttigieg and see a nauseating caricature, not of the person they are, or even the person they wanted to be, but of the person they’ve felt pressured to emulate but never quite became—an outcome they regard with tortured ambivalence. Buttigieg is the guy they hated in college,” Thompson continues, “not only because he was obnoxiously successful, but also because his success sat uncomfortably, hauntingly close to the version of success they once felt prompted to achieve.”

In short, Mayor Pete is the millennial cohort’s perfect avatar.

Like Buttegieg, we were all taught to be overachievers. Our entire childhoods were micromanaged, with every free extracurricular hour organized to maximize our potential. By the time we were in high school, we understood that these activities were designed to give us a competitive edge on our college applications. In and after college, we snagged all the fellowships we could grab. Resumé-building is a way of life for us, built into every facet of our behavior, including the dating apps that merge our casual flings with network-building. Every new experience—travel, foreign language learning, volunteer work—becomes, consciously or unconsciously, commodified and used as currency in the personal narratives we incorporate into our applications for this fellowship and that job.

You can read about this pathology in a memoir like Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley (2021), a manifesto like Malcolm Harris’ Kids These Days (2017), or a social commentary like Anne Helen Petersen’s Can’t Even (2020). These books have a central theme: In an accelerated meritocracy like ours, you’re miserable if you fail and miserable if you succeed, just in different ways.

But if we’re raised to treat every experience as currency in the meritocratic rat race, doesn’t that devalue the kind of selfless ethos traditionally understood as the heart of public service? Can we trust that Mayor Pete aims at a common good more compelling to him than his own ambition? If I, as a fellow millennial, say I want to work in public service, isn’t that just a cover for self-interest?

One answer to this question came from Sir Steve Robson, former second permanent secretary of the British Treasury. On November 29, 2001, he testified before the government’s Committee on Public Administration about public-sector reform. The committee chairman, in his opening remarks, asked for consideration of the idea of a “public-service ethos.” Robson answered that the “public-sector ethos is a bit of a fantasy … rather like middle-aged men who fantasize that beautiful young women find them very attractive.”

British journalist Peter Osborne, in his 2007 book, The Triumph of the Political Class, gives us this story as an example of the “emasculation of the civil service” and the “corporate takeover of the British state.” He says the collapse of clear conceptual distinctions between the public and private realms, and the failure of the State to champion the idea of a public interest as opposed to personal and private interests, have led to the rise of an out-of-touch political class that is loyal to itself alone and exists only to perpetuate its own benefits.

This perspective accurately defines my generation, especially its brightest members. While the ambition to excel and receive honor—the ancient Greek thumos—is constant in human nature, millennials do not typically see public service as a path to achieving such honor. They are more likely to see it as the domain of second-raters, a place where you land if you aren’t talented enough to get to someplace better. In other words, being in public service is like ending up at the Department of Transportation after you didn’t win the presidency.

There is now a fairly standard career pattern for 21st-century liberal arts graduates interested in public affairs. It involves immediate recruitment to management consulting firms or short stints in media, finance, or staffing on Capitol Hill. Sometimes a perfunctory military enlistment pops up (especially if it’s in intelligence and can be done through the Reserves) or an assignment with the CIA (though almost never an overseas job in the Foreign Service). All of this leads eventually into cushy six-figure positions in settings that often run adjacent to public service (e.g., an executive position at a philanthropic foundation) but rarely lead to long-term work directly in the public sector.

The standard pathway is sexy and often astonishingly lucrative. For a generation addicted to continuous external validation, it provides the flattery that millennials desperately crave: You belong at this firm because you’re so very smart. You’re not like those losers working at [insert menial job here]; you’re part of the Creative Class. You’re one of the elite movers and shakers who get to act and watch the world react.

Public-sector work can’t compete with all that. Why do routine work for decades in some stilted bureaucracy, receiving paltry wages and experiencing even less grandeur, for the sake of an anonymous “public” who probably don’t understand the value of your work and wouldn’t thank you even if they did? What’s so special about public service that it could entice millennials to consider it a meaningful long-term career, something more than a stepping-stone to a better-paying private-sector job? If Robson is right that public-sector work represents nothing distinctively noble, why give it a second thought?

I want to think that Robson is wrong. So, here is an argument for public service as something both noble and ennobling.

Defining a “public-service ethos” that applies to all public roles in public organizations, from the bottom of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to the top of the State Department, can seem like a Wittgensteinian exercise in finding family resemblances through language games. Yet it is not enough to say, as Justice Potter Stewart did of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” The word cloud associated with “public-service ethos” would likely include words like duty, honor, responsibility, and accountability. It would also include character traits like trustworthiness, discretion, conscientiousness, prudence, and impartiality.

The public sector has no monopoly on these characteristics, of course; but we think of them as so essential to the sector that their absence signals a systemic failure of purpose. We may or may not trust a private-sector CEO on the basis of personal character. In contrast, we tend to trust public servants more quickly and easily when we know their roles, even when we don’t know their personal particulars.

Osborne contrasts the politician who is “elected, visible and temporary” with the public servant who is “anonymous, self-effacing and permanent.” This succinct comparison covers three important points. First, public servants know the spotlight will rarely shine on them; they can’t be in their line of work to seek fame. But they may well be seeking honor, which requires only validation from the people and communities in which public servants are embedded. Fame requires a certain scale in terms of how widely we are celebrated. If our ambition is fueled by a desire for widespread fame and the recognition achieved through fame, public service will never fully satisfy. But if the desire is for honor and the recognition that follows from affirmation, plenty of honor is available to ambitious young people willing to work hard within communities that can evaluate their skills and achievements and match their talents with problems to be solved.

Second, public servants know that the rhythms of institutional life run deeper and last longer than the shallow, short-lived election cycles on the “horse race” side of politics. If our ambition is to be celebrated as “the best of the best,” the satisfaction of our desire rests, perilously, on the condition that no one surpass us in distinction. But if our desire is for a legacy in the form of work producing concrete results that stand the test of time, public service provides a more attractive pathway.

Third, public servants know that the work to which they contribute and the institutions undergirding this work are more important than their own purely personal happiness and success. This doesn’t mean just that this work and those institutions carry great weight. It also recognizes that the institutions are themselves critically formative.

Tocqueville, for one, was of this view. He deemed lawyers the true aristocracy of a democratic republic because, through studying law, they gained “habits of order, a taste for formalities, and a kind of instinctive regard for the regular connection of ideas.” Tocqueville knew the defects that accompanied these virtues; he wrote that “without this admixture of lawyer-like sobriety with the democratic principle, I question whether democratic institutions could long be maintained.” That is, their education and craft shaped lawyers to see their role in upholding democratic institutions.

A craft with professional standards, mediated through enduring institutions, inscribes its character onto its practitioners and thereby promotes long-term maintenance and stability. If Tocqueville is right, we millennials impoverish ourselves by avoiding professional education that puts bounds on social-media-fed exhibitionism and provides discipline in thinking and living.

The problem with ideals is that they are almost never fully actualized, but that’s not a good reason to abandon them. Moreover, consider one last argument for why the ideal of public service might help heal a generation burned out on meritocracy: I think my peers are lonely. That’s the unspoken secret. Despite the wealth, glamor, and prestige offered by the flashy jobs, many of us are achingly unfulfilled. The “public-service ethos” isn’t a magic wand; but it actually offers a deeper, more sustaining, more humane path than the alternatives available to us.

The ethos of public service, transmitted through meaningful participation in abiding institutions, is good not only for the national interest but for public servants themselves. If the ethos is valid and within reach, it may be a path to a better, stabler, even happier life.

Maybe the Department of Transportation isn’t such a bad place to work after all.

Anthony M. Barr is a master of public policy candidate at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. He is currently a research intern at the Brookings Institution, where he is working on asset-based development. All views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Twitter account of Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Public Domain,

United States