I do not think that the main explanation for this is the increasing age requirements for America’s best jobs. Instead, I contend that this sorting is an efficient response to the standardization of entry-level jobs and bureaucratization of hierarchies . Most firms are not well-equipped to efficiently utilize the top tier of smart, talented but raw new employees. Sending them off to consulting firms is a rational response from the point of view of both the young employees as well as the companies.
(Since the number of startup founders and scientists is relatively small, the real cost of this talent allocation is to Fortune 500 companies. I will therefore focus on large companies. I will also just focus on consulting, though I believe the arguments apply equally to law, finance, and perhaps big tech.)
Most corporate entry-level programs do not offer much stratification between the smart, highly motivated individual and the more average performer. Fifty years ago a bright, ambitious new college graduate had no choice but to pay one’s dues by starting at the bottom like everyone else and then work one’s way to the top–albeit at a faster rate than today. Today that same graduate can select into the fast track via consulting.
Moreover, this is an equilibrium that–at least in the short- to medium-term–makes sense for all players. The ambitious young graduate receives a wage premium in exchange for higher productivity. The consulting firm gets to hire the smart people it needs to build its pyramid. And even the Fortune 500 company gets to gain from the intelligence of the new graduate when it hires the consulting firm; arguably this company is a loser on net compared to fifty years ago (when it received access to the talent but did not have to pay the consulting firm to act as a middleman), but the equilibrium is still tenable.
My own experience at GE and a top management consulting firm is a good example of this in action. I joined GE through one of its leadership development programs but found my peers to be less talented and hard-working than I had hoped. Unsurprisingly, I also found the roles to be uninspiring and poor uses of my time. After less than two years, I left to join a top consulting firm. I was challenged from day one and at times was not sure if I would make it. My bosses asked much more of me, but they also better resourced me. My productivity was an order of magnitude higher than at GE, and I was accordingly paid nearly twice as much.
For further evidence, consider that 90% of US companies have predefined pay bands based on experience. Given one’s experience level, it is difficult to make considerably more than one’s peers in the first few years (which is the purpose of pay bands). Contrast that with consulting: an average graduate with an engineering degree (the highest earning of all degrees) earns $69k but a new associate at McKinsey earns $105k. The disparity only widens for lower-earning degrees.
One counterargument is that the sorting done by consulting firms is based mostly on the prestige of one’s university education (whether undergraduate or graduate). Obviously all the smart people did not go to the Ivy League, and besides, don’t those schools screen for a narrow type of excellence anyways?
Yes, this is certainly true. However, I think it is also true that most people who can gain admission into one of these schools and pass the rigorous battery of consulting interviews are, by most reasonable measures, smart. Their willingness to self-select into consulting indicates their work ethic. It is far from a perfect screen, but it is a relatively effective one given how easy it is to utilize.
Thus, it is rational (at least in this narrow sense) for young people to self-select into consulting…
There is a bit more at the link.