It’s tough being a young person without a career plan, particularly if you want more from your life’s work than just financial reward. Since I graduated in October I have been trying to find permanent employment, holding out for a role in the third sector which I hope I will find meaning in. I have, in other words, been following the conventional perspective that those with an ethical career in mind should get a job within a charity, NGO, political party, or some other ethical/non-profit organization. Like the many others in the same position, I have had little reason to question this approach, and have made my life choices accordingly. However, the idea that a traditional ‘ethical career’ is the best or only way of putting one’s working life to good use, may be deeply mistaken.
A standard banking job commands a salary several times higher than a senior position at most NGOs. Why does this matter? Because an ethically-minded banker who donates all they earn above, say, the average wage of an NGO worker, could do a whole lot of ethical good – potentially many times the effects of working for an NGO oneself. You could fund the provision of clean drinking water for many hundreds of people, or pay for the NGO to employ several workers, as hard working and committed as you would have been, in your place.
Part of the reason for this is that the third sector is badly lacking in funds, but not potential employees. Even if you are not working for a given ethical NGO, the hard truth is that such an organization will almost certainly have no difficulty in finding another person of comparable ability and moral fibre to do the job instead. And what’s more, the same ‘replaceability’ argument applies to your hypothetical job in finance. Taking on a role with an investment bank might feel wrong, given the havoc wrought by market speculators and complex financial instruments on the economy in recent years. But this objection loses much of its power when one considers that if you weren’t in a job, another banker, and probably a much less ethical one, would fill the space anyway.
So should the ethically-minded ‘sell out’ and become professional philanthropists – as long, of course, as they really do donate all their excess wealth to ethical NGOs? The charge most commonly directed towards philanthropy is that it doesn’t address the underlying systemic causes of inequality, such as free-market capitalism. Yet this depends on how the funds are invested. Money can be just as useful to political campaigns as it is to traditional charitable causes. Friedrich Engels was no fan of industrialism, but made his living and the vital funds needed for his political activities through his ownership of a factory. Money is even more important in politics these days, to buy media access, fund campaigns, organise events and so on, just to be competitive.
In principle there is no reason why personal donations cannot be targeted towards political injustice – even if they are obtained, unavoidably, through those very same unjust systems. This is not to suggest that to live an ethical life you need to earn a lot of money. Even putting aside questions about how such philanthropy might affect the solidarity and identities of progressive social movements, a great variety of skills and resources are needed in the colossal task of making the world a better place, and some of us are profoundly better suited to certain roles than others. The particular needs of the third sector are an important practical consideration for those that want to live ethically, but so too, of course, are individual characteristics.
The take-home message for young people looking to change the world for the better, then, is to keep an open mind about what works. The issue of high-salaried philanthropy needs to be considered, rather than simply dismissed because it seems unpalatable. But discussing the issue should also remind us of the wider point, that there is no rule book on how to produce results. With much of the world’s population suffering needlessly and social injustice rife, new approaches to ethical living ought to be judged on their merits rather than the conventions and social norms of today, which may turn out to be fleeting. Through all the pressure and uncertainty about career choices, young people must resist the temptation to simply take the lead from the previous generation of activists – the world needs your fresh ideas.
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