Tyler Brûlé on Interns and the Endless Young'uns Debate

I admire Tyler Brûlé. He’s a talented entrepreneur, thinker and writer, all things I aspire to one day to become. His magazine, Monocle, on top of being a great publication, is probably the most interesting thing to happen to the business model of magazines in a long, long while.

His latest column in the FT, however, deserves a good fisking which I won’t provide; I will only try to comment on a few disturbing aspects.

The most glaring flaw of the column is that it too easily boils down to “Everyone knows Generation N is better than Generation N+1. These kids today with their clothes and their rock n roll!” Young people are arrogant! They think they know everything! Also, the Earth revolves around the Sun and Barack Obama answers difficult questions starting with “Uh, look…”

But the deepest flaw is that Brûlé doesn’t address the differences between his generation and mine. Since the Boomers, each generation has been more spoiled than the last. This has woeful consequences but I believe my generation’s sense of entitlement has a happy, if perhaps unintended, flip side.

It’s that we’re ambitious, and we happen to live in a world in which tools to do ambitious things abound. Kids in college dormrooms have started companies that have changed the world (for better or for worse is another debate). “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” – Muhammad Ali.

Brûlé describes as shocking examples of arrogance statements such as “I did an internship earlier and I was quite surprised that I was asked to help organise the library and file things”; “when I was at a creative agency earlier in the year I thought ‘let me have more input with the clients and do some writing’ but that didn’t happen, so that’s why I’m here” — I’m sorry, but these are legitimate reasons to quit internships, and legitimate things to say in interviews.

If you want to hire the best people — and I’m sure Brûlé knows there is no other key to success — you have to offer them the best. You have to let them be entrepreneurial. A friend of mine turned down an offer from Goldman Sachs because during his internship he was dressed down in public for showing up at work late one morning when he’d left the office at 7am that very morning. Sure, the macho i-bankers are going to say “Well, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Finance jobs are really demanding, but that’s why they pay us the big bucks. Them’s the breaks.” Sure. But the guy in question was the dream Goldman recruit. He’d been top of his class at every school he’d ever attended. He’d always wanted to work in finance. When I first met him, I didn’t know who he was or what he did, but I thought “Goldman guy.” A Goldman guy isn’t a Wall Street-type douchebag. He’s a nerdy, cautious, hyper-analytical guy, who owes more to Eric Schmidt than to Gordon Gekko, which explains why Goldman did so well out of the crisis while the guys at Bear were macho-ing their way to oblivion. This guy was the Goldman guy. And nevermind their quarterly results, but when Goldman repels guys like that, it’s the endgame for them, period. Goldman are the best on the Street only because they’re the smartest on the street, and it’s the same in every industry. In technology, it happened to IBM, then Microsoft, now possibly Google. If you don’t have a culture that attracts and retains the top talent, you’re a dead man walking. And, rightly or wrongly, my generation has grown more demanding.

Brûlé‘s other examples are more borderline: “I don’t really want to help sort out other people’s stuff as I’d like to come here to work on my projects”; “before I start I just need to tell you about my summer travel plans and when I’ll need to take time off”. If someone doesn’t want to be a team player, then yeah, they don’t belong in a good firm. But these statements are meaningless in and of themselves. They beg questions: “What kind of projects would you like to bring to us to work on? You do understand that we work as a team here, and though we’d love to see you experiment with your ideas you’ll also have to work with others on their projects — just as they’ll be happy to help you on yours.” “So you want to do some traveling? That’s good, I did that at your age, it’s the best time to do it. Where are you going? Is it part of some project? I’m fine with switching dates around but you do understand if you spend less time here you’ll have to make up for it in hard work?” What do you care if someone wants to leave early to take some RNR, as long as they’re going to make up for it while they’re there? I’d take 8 weeks of a productive intern over 10 weeks of a mediocre one any day.

Brûlé writes:

If you can juggle multiple phone lines, organise bicycles to be sent to photo shoots in Spain, get journalists rebooked on oversold flights out of Nairobi, charm visitors, keep the front of house looking spotless, help the accounts department track receipts from hotels in Seoul, write firm but diplomatic e-mails to employees enforcing house rules and also wield trays of beverages hot and cold and remember who ordered what in a packed conference room then there’s a very good chance you’ll graduate from our finishing school and take up a post elsewhere in the company.

That reminds me of the first half of The Karate Kid, where the old Sensei makes his pupil do menial housework, only to have him discover later that the moves he was learning were really karate moves. Except that the kung-fu movie approach to nurturing leaders doesn’t work in the real world. In the real world, organizations that enforce deference to superiors and elders fail, while those that encourage flat structures, audacity and internal disagreement win. Whoops.

There’s a difference between: “There are some thankless tasks that need to be done, and someone needs to do them, so I’m afraid you’ll be spending some of your time doing X but don’t worry because after that/the rest of the time you’ll be doing Y”, and “Listen boy, you don’t know nothin’ about the world so you’re going to do a ton of thankless stuff and, just maybe, after all that, we might give you something to do that’s not a total waste of your time.” The former is fine, but the latter is unacceptable. There’s a good amount of thankless, intern-type stuff in my work, but I do it, and I do it gladly, because whenever I suggest a strategy or an endeavor to my boss, his typical response is: “Hey, if you think you can do it, go for it.”

The worst part of it is that, with the Recession, our elders are taking advantage of my generation’s narrowing options. You think you’re so great with your Twitter and your Facebook, well now we’re going to make you regret your arrogance. With the crisis, plenty of people at my school are courting firms that used to be thought of as an embarrassment to work for — the Deloittes, the Accentures —, and their mellifluous recruiters make it hard to hide their glee as someone with two trading internships and a finance major on his resume explains that, really, his true calling is IT consulting. They push salaries down and squeeze them. “Oh, sure, you signed up for consulting in June, but it’s going to be auditing in September.” How loyal do you think these employees are going to be when the market picks up? Do you not see that you’re wasting an opportunity and shooting yourselves in the foot?

But look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe today’s kids, including myself, are just exploding with arrogance and know nothing about the world. But it’s also not impossible that this generation is right to want more. The problem with Brûlé‘s column is that he skips the debate entirely. He doesn’t even engage with why a company might want interns as something other than free labor, and why interns might want more. It’s little more than a well-writen exasperated rant.

I’d love to see someone as gifted as Tyler Brûlé address that debate. But watching him yell at the kids to get off his lawn is unsatisfying.