The majority of new grads say they would gladly take a pay cut if that meant they could do something that “made a difference,” according to a recent survey by Net Impact. The survey found that 72% of graduating seniors felt that making a “positive societal impact” was essential to their happiness, while 45% said they would take a 15% pay cut to work at an organization they believed was making such an impact, according to Good Education.
Of course similar secular vows of poverty have been embraced for generations by teachers, nurses, social workers and others in the “helping” and care industries. People do not go into these professions to get rich—that’s not possible on a teacher’s, nurse’s or social worker’s salary—but because they want to do something positive for society. Indeed, this altruism is exploited by managers, administrators, politicians and pundits who know the do-gooders will continue to line up for jobs, even when wages and working conditions are declining.
However, there is something particularly twisted and irrational when framed as a willingness to take a pay cut in exchange for the belief that one was “making a difference.”
Considering that material insecurity and social inequality are probably the social issues most immediately threatening to the majority of people’s health and wellbeing (second only to climate change in terms of the long-term threat to global peace and security), it seems bizarre that a comfortable and secure income for all, including recent graduates and those in the “helping” fields, would not be considered a pressing social issue.
Yet even for those who see this as a pressing social need, there are very few jobs out there with this focus and it is questionable whether they are actually doing anything to improve people’s material wellbeing. Most paid union positions, for example, are bureaucratic, while the real power of a union lies in its members and their willingness to take job actions, something union bureaucracies have been increasingly discouraging (see here, here and here). There are also numerous jobs in social work, advocacy and services for the poor and the homeless, but these mostly provide temporary relief and do little or nothing to actually end homelessness and poverty.
Another way to parse the “vow of poverty” statistic is that large numbers of recent college grads accept social inequity, poverty, hunger, homelessness and suffering as normal and unalterable aspects of life, so they might as well get paid to provide some assistance to those who are suffering. By accepting low pay for this work, however, they are also accepting the notion that jobs in the “helping” fields are worth less than those in tech, finance, law or business, thus helping to keep these professions undervalued. And by taking jobs that depend on the continuation of social inequity, rather than fighting to end the causes, they help perpetuate the same problems they seek to remedy, by making it easier for the rest of society to ignore the problems.
It is even questionable whether recent grads truly prefer the belief they are doing good in society over having a decent salary. Consider that the study found that 24% of ”Millennials” are dissatisfied with their current job, compared with 14% of Gen Xers and 18% of Boomers. While this might be due to innately different values between the generations, it is likely influenced by the fact Gen Xers, and especially Boomers are more likely to have job stability, higher income, better benefits, better chances to live a comfortable, middle class American Dream lifestyle compared with the Millenials, who are saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in college debt, a protracted recession, decimated union movement, and a job market dominated by low income service sector jobs.