What nepotism buys
In today’s NY Times, there were a bunch of letters in response to a story from last week about how many interns at City Hall have connections to the rich and powerful. I’m not shocked or even particularly surprised by the article. New York is a city where people use their pull to get kids into preschool, after all, and once upon a time my mom was able to use her mid-level city job to get my brother a summer job with the Buildings Department. But I was bemused by the letter from the former high school teacher of some of the young adults in the article, who defends the practice by noting what “excellent, hard-working and conscientious students” the kids were.
I don’t have any data on this (not sure how you’d go about trying to find it), but my sense is that it’s less and less common for nepotism to be a matter of getting stupid and lazy people into jobs. There are exceptions, of course, but I think business is really more competitive these days, such that it’s harder to hide your dumb nephew for very long. Nepotism is what lets one excellent, hard-working and conscientious student get ahead of all the excellent, hard-working and conscientious students who don’t have someone opening doors for them. (Or, as another letter-writer notes, can’t afford to take an unpaid internship.)
The other thing that’s changed, I think, is that it’s harder for blue collar workers and lower level managers to use nepotism. Kids used to be able to count on following their fathers into factory jobs, and that’s pretty much unheard of now. Earlier this month, the Times ran a long profile of a young man, a recent college graduate, who was looking for work, but had turned down one job because it wasn’t at the level he was hoping for. One of the points Uchitelle makes is that his father and grandfather both got their starts through connections:
They said it was connections more than perseverance that got them started — the father in 1976 when a friend who had just opened a factory hired him, and the grandfather in 1946 through an Army buddy whose father-in-law owned a brokerage firm in nearby Worcester and needed another stock broker.
What do you think? Am I being naive in thinking that there are fewer total incompetents getting jobs because of nepotism now? And is it any less pernicious if it’s used to decide between two competent people rather than to promote incompetence?