I am not one of these people who stay chirpily focused on the silver lining when the clouds gather over my head. So I have been vaguely put off by all those peppy articles lauding the upside of the down economy.

You know the ones I mean. Your house may be in foreclosure but, hey, there’s less junk mail these days. You’ve lost your job but the shoe repair business is flourishing. You can’t eat out in a restaurant but you’ll have a healthier lifestyle cooking at home and taking long walks. Your 401(k) is in retreat but Match.com is flourishing and with it the possibility of romance, Dutch treat of course.

These bromides on the values of a disastrous economy are nearly as schmaltzy as the original 1920 Buddy DeSylva lyrics telling us to look for a silver lining: “Remember somewhere, the sun is shining.” Right.

Nevertheless, I find myself seeing just the teensiest edge of silver — OK, pewter — when I think about the effect of the Wall Street debacle on one group: the college students tagged, without irony, as the best and the brightest.

During the boom, an outsized number of students raised on liberal arts and wrapped in ivy ended up taking their degrees to Wall Street with the goal of becoming masters of the universe. In 2007, a survey of Harvard’s graduating class showed that 58 percent of men and 43 percent of women were going into finance and consulting.

This led to some academic soul-searching. Last year, educator Howard Gardner asked, “Are Ivy League schools simply becoming selecting mechanisms for Wall Street?” William Deresiewicz, then at Yale, wrote that elite students fear taking risks and that universities were “showing them the way” to Wall Street: “The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university.” Barack Obama, for that matter, told the Wesleyan commencement that this path “betrays a poverty of ambition.”

It turns out that students themselves were also wondering what they were doing. As Harvard President Drew Faust said in her June address to the class of 2008, they repeatedly asked her, “Why are so many of us going to Wall Street?” — even as they bought their Acela ticket from Boston to New York. The answers included a “juggernaut” of recruiters, the promise of bright lights and big city, competition, prestige — and did I mention money?

Faust urged the students to try to do what they loved. “If you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it. Life is long. There is always time for Plan B. But don’t begin with it.”

Now the economy may succeed where exhortations fail. The juggernaut of recruiters is not so juggerish these days. As one young friend told me, “It’s not as easy to sell out even if you wanted to.”

The security isn’t as attractive either. JPMorgan was once a winning lottery ticket; now it looks like a ticket on the Titanic. And the prestige? Did anyone see those masters of the universe facing Congress last week? Selling peanut butter is a more respectable gig.

We don’t know exactly how the meltdown will affect students at these elite schools. Many are going to scramble to pay loans. More are applying to graduate school. But we may see more exploring and choosing their own Plan A.

These students are a competitive cohort. But in this economy, keeping up with the Joneses in your dorm is not the same. When I checked back with Faust, she put it wryly, “You can pick which sector you wish to be unemployed in.” Poetry, anyone?

If freedom is just another word for no high-flying job left to lose, it opens room for risk-taking. And — dare I say it? — idealism.

I’ll leave the silver liner notes to Faust. “When I graduated from college,” she says, “I felt a much broader sense of the paths I might pursue and not so much pressure to make money. The students I encountered were feeling much more pressure and much less freedom. Perhaps that’s been alleviated.

“If it’s possible through whatever set of circumstances for students to follow their dreams and have ideals they pursue, if there’s a window where that pressure is removed, that’s going to be a wonderful experience for them.”

So the sort-of, kind-of, maybe silver lining could be a generation that isn’t lost, but rescued. And with that I will return to our usual programming. Look, look, there’s a huge cloud overhead.

Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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