President Obama was supposed to kick off a new, Kennedyesque youth movement. Obama’s popularity with the under-30 voters who swept him into office in 2008 promised to make government service sexy again, but the enthusiasm hasn’t been sustained.
Young people don’t see change coming from a broken political system. Rather, they look to “green” businesses or Silicon Valley; Google, not government, is the place to effect the revolution. National Journal’s Ron Fournier recently wrote in the Atlantic about his visit to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In two days, he didn’t encounter a single student whose career goals included government service or elective office.
Crucially, the President’s critics say, Obama hasn’t projected himself as leader of the federal workforce, something critical for morale but also for making government work seem cool. Although in his opening months both the President and the First Lady visited an array of federal agencies as morale-boosting trips, those visits seem to have dried up amid the partisan rancor of the second term.
Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, says Obama—unlike his predecessor, George W. Bush—has never met collectively with the 7,000 members of the Senior Executive Service, representing the top government officials below the appointee level who set the tone for the 2.1 million career employees. “He’s lacked the recognition that his job is to actually run and manage the federal workforce,” says Stier, who served in the Clinton administration. (Obama’s letter to furloughed workers during the October shutdown assuring them they were nonetheless treasured may be too little, too late.)
Kennedy, by contrast, made history by being the first President to visit the IRS, a fact Mortimer Caplin is visibly proud of to this day. Priscilla McMillan remembers that Kennedy actually bore a mild contempt for the rank-and-file under him, but he never let it be known. “He would reach out to people within the bureaucracy,” she recalls.
Aaron (a pseudonym) is a thirtysomething with two Ivy League degrees who works at a top-tier agency on foreign aid. He feels his office is a place where his skills will never be rewarded, even if they’re recognized. “Managers are answering to bosses rather than cultivating talent, which is perhaps a function of short tenures in government at the political levels,” he says.
Other young government workers catalog similar complaints. They point to turf wars that prevent senior staffers from mentoring underlings because good ideas are often a zero-sum game: If someone else gets credit for smart thinking, you don’t. And no matter how many good ideas you have or implement, you probably won’t become the boss because that person’s position is an appointed one.
Aaron, who traveled to Iowa and Pennsylvania in 2008 to canvass for Obama, plans on giving notice in the next six months. He’s not sure where he’ll land, but the private sector is looking appealing.
Biggs isn’t surprised to hear that. He argues that the very nature of bureaucratic work is the biggest factor deterring future generations from considering a life of public service. “It’s not like it was in the Kennedy era when we had the Cold War and the Russians breathing down our necks,” Biggs says. “There were these huge, existential threats. We were putting a man on the moon. Now you take money from young people and give it to old people.”
He waves off the idea that current challenges, such as income inequality and climate change, will inspire the young: “It’s just not as exciting a time to be in government—resources are constrained. It’s why people are saying, ‘Ah, screw it. I’m going to just go make some money.’ ”
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Between the defection of bright, talented “millennials” like Aaron—those born from the early ’80s to the early ’00s—and hiring freezes, the federal workforce is going gray. Stier points out that only 8 percent are millennials, compared with 25 percent of the private sector’s workers. And there’s some question whether the millennials we’re getting are the ones we want.
In many European countries, where the private sector offers few good options, the best students aspire to careers in the public sector. In the US, it’s a boon to everyone that our technology and financial companies are attracting our top graduates. But government needs talented new workers, even if we have vibrant private companies.
Kennedy’s legacy isn’t completely dead; it may just be changing, according to Patrick Hidalgo. One of five children of Cuban exiles, Hidalgo has a public-policy degree from the Kennedy School at Harvard and an MBA from MIT. In 2007 he joined the Obama campaign, went on to become a political appointee at the State Department, and most recently was named deputy director of the White House Business Council.
“It was this once-in-a-generation thing that you have a leader who inspires you,” says Hidalgo, 34. Notably absent in our conversation are mentions of Muffingate or pay freezes.
Yet the economics of public service for highly educated white-collar workers can be difficult. The disparity in pay between the White House and the law and lobbying firms in town—never mind Silicon Valley or Wall Street—is growing faster than ever. In the Kennedy era, a top official’s salary and a private-sector executive’s were not so far apart; now the difference can be in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Law clerks leaving the Supreme Court today receive starting bonuses at law firms larger than the annual salary of the justices they helped.
Hidalgo admits that the economics of a public-sector salary are daunting for young people looking for upward mobility, or even for enough to pay their bills. His student-loan debt runs to six figures. “I don’t have the luxury of not worrying about a better economic future for me and my future family,” he says. Hidalgo’s story suggests that government work may soon be only for the financial elite who graduate without student debt or whose parents can help foot the bill of a career in public service.
Recently, Hidalgo left the White House to start two companies, one focused on emerging markets, the other on minority communities. He says it won’t be easy to make government work as appealing to the new generation of workers as the private sector is: “You just can’t make the government look like General Electric or Google.”
Hannah Seligson is the author of Mission: Adulthood: How the 20-Somethings of Today Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life.
This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.