In 2006, Google bought YouTube for more than $1 billion, Apple was preparing to announce the first iPhone, and the American housing bubble began to deflate. Claire Stapleton, then a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, faced the same question over and over: What did she plan to do with that English degree? She flirted, noncommittally, with Teach for America.
Then, a Google recruiter came to campus and, Ms. Stapleton said, she "won 'American Idol.'" The company flew her out to Mountain View, Calif., which felt to her "like the promised land" — 15 cafeterias, beach volleyball courts, Zumba classes, haircuts and laundry on-site.