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January 05, 2008

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Alex Williams from the NY Times called me earlier this week to talk about a story he was working on about the decline of the traditional professions - law, medicine, management, and so on - not just in numbers but in status and the "cool factor" - as people migrate to newer or more entrepreneurial fields. This is something that has struck me for a long time.  His story for the Sunday Style section is out (on-line) today. Here's a snippet.  Or click here.

Make no mistake, law and medicine — the most elite of the traditional professions — have always been demanding. But they were also unquestionably prestigious. Sure, bankers made big money and professors held impressive degrees. But in the days when a successful career was built on a number of tacitly recognized pillars — outsize pay, long-term security, impressive schooling and authority over grave matters — doctors and lawyers were perched atop them all. Now, those pillars have started to wobble.

“The older professions are great, they’re wonderful,” said Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life” (Basic Books, 2003). “But they’ve lost their allure, their status. And it isn’t about money.” Or at least, it is not all about money. The pay is still good (sometimes very good), and the in-laws aren’t exactly complaining. Still, something is missing, say many doctors, lawyers and career experts: the old sense of purpose, of respect, of living at the center of American society and embodying its definition of “success.”

In a culture that prizes risk and outsize reward — where professional heroes are college dropouts with billion-dollar Web sites — some doctors and lawyers feel they have slipped a notch in social status, drifting toward the safe-and-staid realm of dentists and accountants. It’s not just because the professions have changed, but also because the standards of what makes a prestigious career have changed.

This decline, Mr. Florida argued, is rooted in a broader shift in definitions of success, essentially, a realignment of the pillars. Especially among young people, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, concepts alien to seemingly everyone but art students even a generation ago. “There used to be this idea of having a separate work self and home self,” he said. “Now they just want to be themselves. It’s almost as if they’re interviewing places to see if they fit them.” ... Students are focusing now on starring in their own creations, their own start-up businesses, said Trudy Steinfeld, the executive director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at  New York University.

My intuition tells me there's a really good book in this.


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Michael R. Bernstein

This is, in part, a recapitulation of the transformation wrought on second-tier professions, like Nursing and Teaching.

I'm not sure what's going to happen as far as Medicine is concerned (it's too dependent on outside factors like public health policy and the legality of deploying technological advancements such as telemedicine), but as far as Law is concerned, I predict a new breed of law-firm startups (so to speak) that take the Google approach to recruiting and retention.

Zoe B

I think we should pay attention to the 'loss of cool' for ALL service professions: the ones that pay well (medicine, etc.); those that pay poorly (social worker, home health aid,...); and those that don't pay at all (any variety of volunteer work). Last week I heard an NPR interview of Christopher Leinberger (promoting his brand-new book The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream - which I'll admit I haven't yet actually read) in which he said that today advocacy volunteerism is cool but service volunteerism is not. You can extend that principle all the way back up the income scale.

This is an ugly underside of the creative economy. You will work your tail off and sacrifice pay for a cause (and a task) that fits your personal needs and interests - that fulfills your individual selfhood, and/or that develops entrepreneurial skills and connections that will further your career. But the essence of service is that you put someone else's needs first. Service involves self-sacrifice, in the deepest sense of the term. You do X even if it bores or exhausts you, because someone else needs to have X done. Increasingly I find that people will be willing to do small, discrete amounts of service volunteer work. But if, appealing to their duty to others, you ask them for a larger commitment - they'll say no thanks. And they will do so with a sense of entitlement to say no.

This makes sense: creative types want freedom to follow their creative urges. Duty can dry up the juice and deaden the soul. We admire Picasso for his never-ending font of creativity, and aspire to his level of recognition and material success. Picasso also happened to be a selfish bastard who destroyed his wives and lovers (except for Francoise Gilot, the only one who left HIM). Picasso and his ilk have made it cool to be selfish for the sake of your muse. Damn, what a mountain of artwork he has given to eternity. Doesn't it justify everything!

I think we should monitor our attitudes toward service, if only for the sake of the apparent increasing polarization between creative and service classes. If we are to hope for social justice (and its anticipated [and self-serving] consequence, civic peace), we need to do more than provide a living wage and a career track. We need to respect the work that service workers do. We need to respect their personhood as they do it. When a person is serving your needs it is easy to blur the boundaries of your separate identities - to fail to notice (or care) that they have needs of their own. We feel a right to be rude to (or to sue) people who make errors, those who fail to perfectly intuit our needs, those who have limits on what they will do for us, those whose best efforts may be thwarted by factors (such as weather) that are beyond their control. If we have wiggle-room in our cash flow, we might assume that they do too, so if we are tardy in paying, no problem!

The dynamic of service vs creative work is separate from the (presumed) relative difference in income. Van Gogh is the patron saint of creative genius bereft of material reward. Physicians and lawyers today feel the stigma of service (the 'uncool' factor) even if they go skiing in Aspen at the height of the season.

The sad part of this is that while the white-hot creative idea may be a gift from the muses, service also is sacred. I recently heard (also on NPR) a story of a physician who delivered baby after baby of a poor clan who sometimes could afford to pay him only a glass of water. Years later he visited that same town and found himself surrounded by young people who adored him even though they had only met him once - on the day of their birth. If you decline to give service, you deny your soul the supreme happiness and rightness of a moment such as that. When Bob Dylan wrote "Gotta Serve Somebody", that's what he was talking about.

All human beings need to be creative. All of us need to be of service. But sacred things get abused all the time. The wine over which we say a blessing also can rot brain and body if you indulge too much. Lone creativity can become soul-killing loneliness. Too much service can neglect your own needs, as well as infantilize those you claim to serve.

Each one of us has to figure out how to do (and how to respect) both creation and service I believe that if you can manage all of that, THAT is the true cool.

Robert Matei

As a recent graduate of an elite school, I'd say this article is pretty much spot-on. I've picked where to go next based on exactly what you mention - creativity and excitement. I don't necessarily buy that a lawyer is any less creative than an entrepreneur, but it comes down to the idea that your day-to-day decisions can lead to an almost infinite upside. By comparison, traditional professions seem like jumping through hoops: if you don't mess up, you'll be at point X in 25 years. That's downright stale - I don't really care if I'll be living in a $2000 or $10000 apartment when I'm middle-aged. The novelty of a more expensive lifestyle fades more quickly than the breathless excitement of running your own show.

Ultimately, though, this is more a story about organizational structure than about specific professions. The same loss of glamour applies to big companies in every field - new hires at Microsoft don't get any more respect than interns at big law firms. And the guys running their own web startup spend just as much time on mundane details as the lawyers huddled over stacks of documents.

We just want to feel like we're partaking in the economy as free agents, not as cogs in somebody else's organization. The companies that make us feel that way are few and far between - a few finance and consulting firms, the proverbial Google - and they'll keep winning the talent race.

Zoe B

I don't think the size of the organization does it all. Small law firms still are a viable economic model, in at least some areas of law. My lawyer has a varied practice and works solo out of his house. A physician can chuck the HMOs, the PPOs, and other such checks on professional autonomy IF s/he elects not to accept health insurance. You can do that if you limit your patient pool to the rich, if you do pro-bono work, or if you keep costs down by skipping the huge administrative expense of all the insurance paperwork. It's viable for some fields of medicine (eg: family practice or psychiatry) if you can swing the cost of malpractice insurance. Does primary care get boring? Not if you are interested in your patients as individual people. Does working solo or in a small group make a physician or a lawyer more cool than those in a big group practice?

Elite physicians in tertiary care centers have plenty of opportunities for creativity. They still invent new operations, define new syndromes, and have cases that challenge their diagnostic powers. Our legislatures make new laws all the time, and lawyers and judges still show great creativity in applying them to specific cases. The opportunity for creativity does not make doctors and lawyers cool today, at least not to the degree of Dr. Christian Barnard when he did the first heart transplant in history in 1967. Or Clarence Darrow, even though he LOST the Scopes Trial.

We have thought of internet start-ups as cool in part because some folks have earned exciting amounts of money. But even with all our attempts to check physicians' autonomy and control medical costs, and with the immense cost of medical school, today's medical students still can realistically expect to have a much higher income than most Americans. With a high hourly rate of compensation, many physicians can choose to work less than full time for the sake of a more balanced life. Still, medicine suffers a loss of cool.

You could measure whether small group practice, opportunities for creativity, greater-than-average wealth and control over hours worked actually confer greater cool to some types of physicians or lawyers. But I don't think that the average person makes such fine-tuned distinctions. They just feel that medicine and law are not as cool as they used to be.

So, I go back to our collective feelings about service (see above).


Robert, if my instincts abount law interns are right, I have to disagree with your claim that "new hires at Microsoft don't get any more respect than interns at big law firms". Microsoft has always operated on a model of individual "owners" of product features, so while new hires tend to work on smaller, less crucial features, it's not a case of doing grunt work on someone else's project. (In fact, a few Microsoft product releases have been created almost entirely by interns, like Aegis Wing.)

I think the higher glamour factor for Google is based more on the type of projects. Microsoft is seen to be like the law firm that focuses mostly on follow-up work to a couple of big cases they won decades ago; Google is seen as the firm where you're likely to find yourself working on an eclectic variety of cases in exciting new areas.

hayden fisher

What an amazing stream of thoughts; I don't know that I'm equipped to offer much more to this high-end dialogue.

I heard the story about the glass of water over Christmas, whether or not it's true; it certainly illustrates the point perfectly. Wayne Dyer talks about the "I that is We" when explaining that service to others serves the self, too, and many people miss that.

I agree that there aren't enough people willing to plant the shade tree that they'll never sit under, whether that's a modern trend or not, I could only speculate.

Where do we draw the line between being creative and getting the job done. As a lawyer in a small firm and essentially working for myself, I write and re-write those rules every day. There are many mundane tasks I could and probably should be working-on for others right now; not because I want to, because I've been offered to be compensated to do them and accepted the offer. But I view activities such as this as personal research and development, and tangibly, perhaps I'll discover something about people that will allow me to connect with a jury down the road.

The wine analogy is good one. I heard a priest presiding over a wedding describe the need to balance bread moments and wine moments. We need daily bread to sustain us even if it tastes a little boring and does little more than fill our stomach. But go without too much daily bread and we die. We need wine moments to liven up our souls, change mindsets, and every now and then, enjoy some intoxication. But too much wine, especially in the place of the daily bread, and we become drunken alcoholics, and, likewise, perish. So, in that sense, life is a constant struggle to strike the right balance of bread and wine moments.

With that, I'll head to the office to serve some paying clients...

...and, teasingly, whoever said lawyers have lost their coolness and status must be sick and in need of seeing a doctor

Zoe B

One more thought: if you know (or know of) a physician or lawyer whom you personally feel is cool, what is it that makes them so? For the sake of argument, this has to be something to do with their profession. My lawyer goes deer hunting with an inlaid flintlock rifle that he made for himself, which is plenty cool out in the county where he lives, but that is not lawyering so it doesn't count.

Michael Wells

Yea Zoe! We talk about service workers and forget what service is. Serving others is the root of soul building, which I think has an ineffable tie to creativity. I write grants for nonprofits for a living, so my creative work is about helping people, but it's abstract. The volunteer hour or two I spend delivering Meals on Wheels, directly relating to people, is often the high point of my week.

For insight into other service occupations, there's a great book called Dancing With Rose about working in an Alzheimer's facility. Read about the dedication of the author's service class co-workers and see if you believe they deserve minimum wage.


I think this topic raises more the question of societal metamorphosis around individual identity, be that professional or personal, rather than the income definition of the cool aspect.


My question is whether cool is the correct venu within which to judge serious professions. The notion of cool itself is suspect, having been given extra gravity by our entertainment/celebrity culture. I am much more interested in the impact that a particular activity has upon society.

hayden fisher

There's definitely a book here...


This is a tremendously exciting time to be in health care, with plenty of growth for those skilled in wellness, beauty and longevity.

This is also a tremendously frustrating time to be a provider or patient if attempting to fit contemporary needs/protocols/structure into the old, irritated system.

A longtime student of the CC perspective, I started asking questions about healthcare and creativity several years ago("Benchmarking Chiropractors as members of the CC," www.jvsr.com/abstracts/index.asp?id=253).
I am still asking questions, and would love to see the topic of healthcare and creativity expanded.
After all, healthcare is really about culture, and Place can make all the difference.


Yep, most definitely a book. I hear this remains the No. 1 most e-mailed story at the NY Times ... Gotta start writing:-) ...

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