This is “Finding Jobs to Want”, section 5.1 from the book Business Ethics (v. 1.0).
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A question posed on a web discussion board: What Is Your Nightmare Job? Here are some answers:
That last part about hot coins may be urban legend, but no matter what, there are jobs on the list that are going to make you cringe.
The Wall Street Journal has a similar list, but theirs includes both a top and bottom twenty—the best and worst jobs you can try to get or struggle to avoid.Sarah E. Needleman, “Doing the Math to Find the Good Jobs,” Wall Street Journal, January 6, 2009, accessed May 16, 2011, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123119236117055127.html. Here are a few from one group:
And a few from the other group:
Can you tell which jobs belong in the twenty best and which are among the twenty worst? You might have a fix on the answer, but probably there’s one or two on each list that don’t seem to fit. That’s because once you get away from the extremes—the horribly bad and enviously good jobs—it’s difficult to define exactly what counts as good work.
Let’s take a look at two jobs: child-care worker and actuary. It’s probably true that no one really likes changing diapers at the day care center, and certainly it’s smellier and dirtier than being an actuary, which is a statistical job. Actuaries take a calculator and reams of data and try to figure out how old people are likely to be when they die. This is important information for companies selling life insurance since they’ve got to make sure their clients live long enough—and pay long enough—to more than cover the lump sum that gets doled out at the end. Now there’s a fair amount of money at stake here, and that’s why good actuaries get paid big money. The money is one reason being an actuary gets ranked as one of the best jobs by the Wall Street Journal. So the actuary advantages are the money, it’s not stinky work, and also it’s worth noting that there’s not much stress since no one will know for sure whether your calculations are right or wrong for decades. Add it all up and you’ve got a potentially desirable job and career path, the kind you may want to put at the center of your working life.
Still, is it really better than a bottom-twenty job as a day care worker? If you do go the day care route, it’s true that you’ve got to wash your hands constantly, but the rest of the day, being with excited children, helping them take their first steps, recite the alphabet, and learn how to play with one another, that must be worth something; there must be a human, emotional reward in it. Undeniably, when you punch out from the day care center on Friday night you won’t have as much money to spend as your friend who’s charting future death rates, but it’s also true that when you come back on Monday you’ll be engaged with young lives instead of death. You’ll be human for the day instead of a calculator.
On the other hand, no one likes poop under the fingernails. It’s hard to get away from that.
Finally, what’s really curious about that first list taken from the Internet discussion board is that for almost all of them, there’s some lone voice speaking up in favor in the comments part of the web page. A toll booth operator, for example, wrote in to say that he likes his job because there’s no boss staring over his shoulder. And roads don’t go out of business, so he doesn’t have to worry too much about corporate downsizing or economic recessions. Nearly every job, it seems, looks OK to someone. Even in the worlds of lung gunners and urinalysis monitors, there are people who are decently happy with what they’re doing.
Normally we think of ethics as providing guidelines for how to treat other people—don’t steal, don’t lie. But ethics is also about how we treat ourselves and the responsibilities we have to ourselves. One of the deepest of the responsibilities is making thoughtful and independent decisions about what’s worth doing and what isn’t. Narrowing this to economic reality, the most tangible choice you’re going to have to make is where am I going to go to work when I wake up in the morning? This decision—choosing a job and a career path—is about value. Every time the alarm goes off, you affirm what definitely matters in your life and what’s really not so important.
These value judgments are rehearsed in comparing the so-called bottom-twenty job in the day care center with the so-called top-twenty job of an actuary. There are big advantages to being an actuary: money and relatively fixed hours (no parents get stuck in traffic and leave you with a screeching three-year-old until 8:00 p.m.). But day care also has advantages: you work in a life-affirming profession while reaping the human reward of helping children learn.
It’s true that on paper being an actuary probably looks better. But life doesn’t happen on paper. That’s why, every day, people make the decision to go work at the day care center, despite everything. Or to be a teacher at an inner-city junior high school. Or to be a lumberjack because the opportunity to work outdoors outweighs the sore muscles. The possibilities are nearly endless.
In the end, you’re the only one who can decide what to do when the alarm goes off, and you have an ethical responsibility to yourself to make the best decision you can.
To start thinking about jobs in terms of the values they respond to, these questions are pivotal. For me, how important is it that my work
The question about meaningful workWork holding significance apart from the nine-to-five life and distinct from paying the bills. is the hardest to cleanly answer. Even defining exactly what counts as “meaningful” isn’t easy. Definitely, it’s work that holds significance for you or the larger community apart from how much you’re paid, how big your office is, how long your vacations stretch. Still, it’s difficult to pin down exactly what counts as a meaningful job. Unlike money, which you can just add up, meaning is more like a color: hard to describe, changes a bit depending on the light, and people tend to have their own palettes of good and bad.
On her blog, Kendra Kinnison writes that she “believes her purpose in life is to use her ability to discover connections and present them in an innovative way to support the creation and building of healthy businesses and to inspire others to accept Jesus Christ and to discover and utilize their gifts.”About Kendra, accessed May 16, 2011, http://businessethicsworkshop.com/Chapter_5/Kinnison_bio.html.
She’s got it down. There’s nothing about salary or how many employees she has working underneath her. She does want to be in business; it’s not like her religion has led her off to be a missionary. But at the same time she wants to work on her terms and within her priorities. Probably, there are career slots where she wouldn’t fit too well (imagine her trying to help others and spread her faith while working at a used car dealership), but maybe starting up a local day care center would suit her ideals. True, the Wall Street Journal tells us that’s a bad job, but it doesn’t sound like it would be a bad one for her.
Look at the Greenpeace recruitment page: http://greenpeace.org/international/about/jobs. Their job openings read like anti-ads, like they’re trying to discourage your application. There are some uplifting parts about “challenging work,” but nothing about the potential for huge, year-end bonuses, or rapid advancement, or generous health insurance, or comfortable working conditions. In all those terms, working for Greenpeace sounds pretty bleak. Which is part of the reason it’s so clear that this is a job for people who want meaning in their professional lives, a purpose separate from their own comfort, and one involving the environment.
Not all meaningful work has to be based on faith or tied to internationally known advocacy organizations. Chances are there’s a woman not too far from where you live who’s in the music business at the grassroots level: she offers piano lessons. Knock on her door and ask why she does it year after year; she may say she believes in music, its beauty, and its contribution to what she considers a full life. Your college athletic director might say something similar about sports. Or go to the nearest farmer’s market—you won’t find a lot of money changing hands; it’s definitely not big business, but you’ll probably run into someone eager to discuss the virtues of organic food in terms that sound more like a crusade than a menu choice.
Actually, organic food is big business. Beyond seeds in the fields and the scattered crates of the farmers’ market, there’s a growing, and growingly profitable business in the massification of the organic. Anyone walking through the local Whole Foods will see a lot of the color green. What won’t be seen—but what’s definitely up above—is an impressive corporate structure with big-salary managers making million-dollar stocking decisions every day. As far as money goes, they’re doing well for themselves—like any multibillion-dollar corporation, Whole Foods pays its leading executives big money.Hannah Clark, “Whole Foods: Spinning CEO Pay,” accessed May 16, 2011, http://www.forbes.com/2006/04/20/john-mackey-pay_cx_hc_06ceo_0420wholefoods.html. But hunched over a desk and tapping on a keypad, hasn’t their work been bleached of the meaning and devotion that abides with the vegan wearing dirty overalls and trying to sell strawberries in an empty parking lot Saturday mornings? Maybe. Or maybe not. Meaningful work doesn’t require that the only jobs you’ll accept are low paying.
More jobs and kinds of work could be added here, but whatever you believe in, you should be able to find some employment that lets you approach it. As for how close you can get to truly meaningful work, that will probably depend to some extent on trade-offs, on how much you’re willing to give up in terms of leisure time, job security, and other comforts. Regardless, the real key is that meaningful work sets a specific purpose before everything else. With respect to lining up a career path, you don’t start with a list of jobs and then find one that suits your interests; it’s the opposite: you start with your deep interest and then find a job that lets you pursue it.
Finally, two cautionary points: While it’s true that people devoted to meaningful work frequently sacrifice money, leisure time, and job security, the logic doesn’t work the other way. Most of the time, low pay, short vacations, and a constant threat of unemployment don’t mean you’ve chosen a noble career; they just mean you’ve got a crappy job.
And on the other side, there are the holy grails out there. Probably, some higher-ups at Whole Foods got into the line of work because they find the promotion of organic food meaningful, and they ended up with enviable salaries as well (in other words, they’re in it for the organic cause more than the money, but they’re happy to get the money). In a different direction, Michael Jordan loved basketball and also ended up getting paid handsomely to play. The photographer Annie Leibovitz loves and is dedicated to photography, but she’s not making many sacrifices to do it: traveling to exotic places, living well, meeting interesting people. Former vice president Al Gore believes in saving the planet as much as any sweating deckhand on the Greenpeace boat; the difference is he wrote a book about it that sold millions of copies and made him millions of dollars.
Conclusion about meaningful work: dedicating your professional life to a cause or activity that you believe in doesn’t mean low wages and long hours. A lot of times it does, but that’s not the point.
Another question shaping job seeking is leisure timeTime separated from work and its concerns.. How important is it? In a sense, this is the mirror image of meaningful work. If you believe in something like promoting organic food, playing basketball, taking pictures, saving the planet, or even watching game shows on TV, it’s perfectly reasonable to find a job in some other field that provides the income you need in the fewest hours possible and then lets you get out and do what you really want with the rest of your time. More or less, what you say here is I’m just going to X out that part of my life where I’m working. In the extreme case, the attitude is, “I don’t care how bad it is, I just want to get through it.”
The Discovery Channel series The Deadliest Catch about crab fishing in the Arctic shows how cold, smelly, and ugly work can be; but a few months of it and you get a year’s worth of wages and the free time to spend it. One important concept here is instrumentalismTreating a job as valueless in itself, and as an instrument to do or attain something else., which means that work becomes an instrument—a tool allowing you to get or do something else.
The third question about jobs and values involves moneyAs a tool for evaluating jobs, adding the salary and monetary benefits to assign a desirability to specific jobs.. Like sacrificing hours of work to get leisure, punching the clock to accumulate cash makes your job an instrument. Money is also the easiest way to organize your professional life. You can count it; if one job pays more than another, it’s better.
But this easiness can also be a trap. For anyone just out of college and facing a hazy and unclear world where all the decisions seem so difficult, it’s easy to get tempted by the smoothest route: just check the possibilities out there and go for whatever pays the most. At least that way you know you’re not messing things up completely. So there’s something to be said for going that safe route, but this also needs to get underlined. From the perspective of your responsibilities to yourself, the better-paying job is only the better job if you’ve already made the decision to value career options in terms of how much they pay.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that decision. Of course the Hollywood movies and the Habitat for Humanity volunteers hanging around campus looking for recruits are all going to tell you that you’ve got to follow your heart, do meaningful work, contribute to society. And if you face them up and flat out say you’re just in it for the money, there are always going to be whispers about greed and accusations like being a sellout.
In defense of money, though, dedicating your career to getting it makes a lot of sense, and it can do a lot of good, too:
There’s more to this list, but when it comes to choosing a job with an eye on the salary factor, it’s important to spend some time with this question: Why is it, exactly, that money has value for me?
If you’re looking for powerAs part of a job, the ability to directly control or significantly influence others., you could do a lot worse than being a judge. True, you spend your days listening to lame excuses for shoplifting and the bogus assurances of repentance from drug dealers, but with the pound of a (little wooden) hammer, you get a police officer to rumble over and haul people off to jail. In court, even someone mouthing off is enough to slap them with contempt and assign them to a few hours of lockup.
The military, politics, policing: all these fields will appeal to anyone who sets the possession of power as one of the most valuable aspects of a job. Less directly, people in the news media can decide which issues center popular attention by mentioning them on the radio broadcast, the TV news show, or the current affairs blog. That’s serious influence, shaping what people are thinking and talking about in our shared world.
Obviously, bosses in most fields of work have power. Usually they like to say that they have “responsibilities,” but frequently part of holding the responsibility to carry out a project is having the ability to hire and fire the people participating. Advertising is also about power. It’s not as explicit as the ability to get someone hauled off to jail or sent to the unemployment line, but masters of the craft can get people to believe that they really need some electronic device that they didn’t even know existed thirty seconds ago. There’s power in schools, too. If you’re in this class as a distribution requirement, that means someone has decided for you what you’re supposed to know.
The bottom line is that power—and the various jobs that grant it—exists in many places, and some are more transparent holders of force than others. So one of the keys to understanding power as a career option is being sensitive to the different ways it works. Commanding a platoon of soldiers fits the bill, but so does sending out an army of TV commercials.
Even more than money, power is vilified as a career goal. If you tell your friends that all you care about is money, they might think you’re greedy, but they’ll probably keep in touch over the years, figuring you could invite them to your Hamptons beach house for a great weekend. If you tell everyone that all you care about is power, though, they’ll probably think you’re weird and drop you off their Facebook friends list.
The image we get from popular culture of a power-hungry careerist is a drooling madman with clenched fists, too much caffeine, and maybe a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince on the nightstand. And it’s not just the movies. Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor in the Stanford Graduate School of Business and expert in the psychology of power in the workplace believes: “Those in positions of power can be observed to act in a manner that is peculiar and that often has no connection to reality.”Psychology of Power, accessed May 16, 2011, http://businessethicsworkshop.com/Chapter_5/Power_in_business.html.
There must be something there, though. If power were really so bad, we wouldn’t have to worry about it since no one would want it. But people do want it; it’s just that hardly anyone wants to admit it.
In a sense, prestigeAs a job-related value, the admiration others feel for you because of the work you do. is the opposite of power. Almost everyone says they’d love a job granting prestige, but not many are willing to give up much for it. Going all the way back to the Wall Street Journal article, “historian” is on the top-twenty list of desirable jobs, and “philosopher” is there, too, on the longer, uncut version of the story. Salary isn’t the reason they’re included among the twenty best, and there’s not much direct power to those jobs either. (Despite what you think, professors don’t get any rush out of failing people. Only rarely, anyway.) There is job security if you’re a tenured university professor, but the main benefit of a prestigious job is the “wow” factor:
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a historian.”
After a few minutes in which everyone in the conversation acknowledges that this is very interesting, the talk switches back to more normal topics. Later on, people quietly wonder why anyone would choose to spend more or less his or her entire life in school. That doesn’t detract from the prestige of the career path, though.
Being a doctor is prestigious, and (even if we hate to admit it) being a lawyer is, too, although it’s also true that part of the prestige accrues from the fact that you know people who have these jobs probably have some money too.
The Paul Teutuls (father and son), along with Mikey Teutul, hold prestige jobs at Orange County Choppers, and they were prestigious even before the TV show.
One of the thorny parts of prestige as a career goal is the difficulty in finding jobs that straight-out specialize in that. Frequently, what makes this kind of job attractive isn’t purely prestige, usually there’s something else mixed in. Being a judge is prestigious, but partially because you know there’s some real power there. Being a struggling rock musician is pretty good in terms of prestige, but only if there’s some sober hope that one day you’ll convert into a legitimate star and not just end up with no money and damaged eardrums. On the other end of the musical spectrum, a jazz musician who tells people that’s what he does for a living can usually count on getting a few people to say “that’s cool” or “that’s so interesting,” but again, part of the reason is the mixing of the music with the sense that this person has found meaningful work, something they’d probably be doing for free if no one was paying.
Finally, the signature difference between prestige and meaningful work is that prestigious jobs by definition demand an audience. People dedicated to a meaningful cause like protecting the welfare of animals can labor in obscurity all their lives doing simple things that virtually no one notices, like running a kennel for out-of-town dog owners where the pets get treated with extraordinary levels of respect. But for this work to cross from meaningful into prestige, someone at some point has to look and say, “Wow.”
ComfortThe physical and the emotional ease of a job. on the job comes in all forms, spanning from the size of your desk, to how often you need to travel in cramped airplanes, to the clothes you need to wear while on the clock. The Wall Street Journal article grades jobs to some extent on comfort, though they call the category “Environment.” Here are some components of an (un)comfortable workday:
This is a good list of factors that move the needle on the comfort scale, but there’s something very important missing from it. On the comfort scale, Arctic fishermen aren’t going to score highly in terms of physical working conditions; they’re cold and wet and living in a cramped space. The food’s bad. On the other hand, it takes a certain type of person to sign up for a job like that—a very, very specific kind of person. And if you’re seriously thinking about it, there’s a decent chance you’re going to hit it off with—you’re going to feel comfortable with—the other people who are doing it. The boat, consequently, will be uncomfortable, but the company of people you’re with may be comforting.
Looking not just at the physical characteristics of the job but the other characters who’ll be there doing it with you is important for the obvious reason: you spend a lot of time at work. (“I spend more time with you guys than with my husband/wife” is a constant refrain in some offices.) So if your sense of humor works well with a bunch of people you happen to know, and it turns out that many of them are nurses, that tells you something about how you’re going to feel about seeing them bright and early every morning, Monday through Friday.
In his book Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without, Tom Rath organizes data from Gallup polls and studies to show that employees who have good friends in the office tend to stay longer in a job. It’s difficult to prove things about happiness, of course. It’s even hard to know exactly what happiness is, but it seems fair to suspect that there might be a connection between duration in a job and happiness with the job. And if there is, then feeling comfortable with the people you work with—laughing when they laugh, watching the same TV shows, whatever—should be a job consideration.
Pushing the importance of workmates in a different direction, in a blog post, a woman calling herself Penelope (she doesn’t give a last name) makes a point about flourishing at work: “You’ll learn the most on a job by having a great mentor looking after you.”“How to Pick the People You Work With,” Penelope Trunk (blog), May 6, 2009, accessed May 16, 2011, http://blog.penelopetrunk.com/2009/05/06/how-to-pick-the-people-you-work-with. If that’s true, then if you choose to work in a profession that’s full of the kind of people you respect, admire, understand, and get along with, you’re likely to do better for yourself than working with the kind of people you don’t take seriously (or who don’t take you seriously).
Fitting in, the point is, with the people at work isn’t just a fringe benefit; it’s a critical value to factor into the selection of one or another career line.
For the young, job securityThe degree to which a job guarantees continuity and stability of employment. seems like a distant virtue, a fuddy-duddy aspiration for the over-the-hill crowd. In fact, even for the not-so-young it’s fuddy-duddy. It’s also one of the most volatile of the values you can assign to your job search, one of the most prone to surges and retreats.
When you wake up at 3 a.m. and then can’t get back to sleep because there’s a recession and you know cutbacks are coming, all of a sudden holding a position that maybe isn’t too glamorous but is certainly necessary—like being a day care worker—doesn’t seem so bad.
The day you learn your family will be growing by one is another of those moments when security’s importance blows up. And the day your husband loses his job, that’ll be another security surge.
Then there’s age. It’s a delicate subject—for legal reasons no employer wants to go on record saying they won’t hire people older than fifty—but there comes a point when years become a disadvantage for job seekers, which explains why an entire subfield of the résumé-writing business has now sprung up to manage the problem. Jeanne Knight, a certified career coach and résumé expert, says, “What candidates can do to make themselves look younger in a résumé is only list ten to fifteen years of work experience. Also, drop graduation dates and make sure you list any seminars or workshops that focus on new technology.”Ric Romero, “‘Get the Job’ Pt. 4: De-Aging Resumes,” ABC7, September 3, 2008, accessed May 16, 2011, http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/7_on_your_side&id=6369394.
So you can figure that if older people are going that far to camouflage their overabundant experience, it must be hard to get hired after fifty. And if that’s true, you better have good job security at forty-nine.
Finally, the easiest way to define job security is just the confidence that you won’t be fired next week, but the discussion broadens very naturally. For example, demographic trends tell us that the American population is aging, so if you’re deciding between studying to be an athletic trainer or a nurse, you may well figure that over the next twenty years it’s probably going to be easier to find work in the nursing home than the gymnasium, and that holds regardless of how secure any single job may appear right now. Or again, computer technologies keep entering our lives faster and from more directions, and that’s a good clue about future job prospects.
In any case, if you’re reading this, it’s possible that you’re what marketers are calling a millennial, meaning someone born between 1980 and 1995, more or less. If you fit the category, the TV show 60 Minutes believes you think this: “We have options. We can keep hopping jobs. No longer is it bad to have four jobs on your résumé in a year. Whereas for our parents or even generation X, that was terrible. But that’s the new reality for us. And we’re going to keep adapting and switching and trying new things until we figure out what it is.”“The Millennials Are Coming,” 60 Minutes, CBS News.com, May 23, 2008, accessed May 16, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/11/08/60minutes/main3475200.shtml.
Probably, the value of job security arrives along with the realization that companies can say the same thing about employees. A lot of them do.
One factor can be chosen to weigh more heavily than everything else combined when sorting out the values for initiating a job search. The imbalance would go a long way toward efficiently filtering career possibilities. For many, however, the priorities won’t sort out so easily: it’ll be necessary to balance competing values, to trade one against another when considering specific jobs and career paths. Someone may, for example, value both money and comfort, but that doesn’t help answer the question about whether a job on an Alaskan crabbing ship is more or less attractive than a summer on the beach in the lifeguard stand. In the longer term, holding the two values won’t help to decide between the career of an undersea welder or an office worker.
How can individuals get a grip on what their own priorities are, and how much each weighs? In his essay “Strategic Planning—For the Good Life,” Robert Solomon offers a provocative question: “Looking back over your life from a rocking chair, what would you like to remember—and how would you like to be remembered?”Joanne B. Ciulla, Clancy Martin, and Robert Solomon, eds., “Strategic Planning—for the Good Life,” in Honest Work: A Business Ethics Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 106–7.
Of course, the idea isn’t to lock yourself into a life plan based on how things might look in the distant future. You have no way of knowing how things will be, and if you’re a millennial, we know you don’t like life plans anyway. Instead, the idea is to try to get a revealing angle on the question of what values in work really matter for you. The aim is to step away from everything and get a different perspective, a fresh look at the problem.
That’s important because real life, moving along fast as it does, can narrow your perspective, get you caught seeing things more or less the way everyone around you does. Faced with a career center job board filled with interview schedules of visiting corporate recruiters, isn’t it easiest just to sign up for the ones your friends are signing up for? If everyone in your sorority is talking about going to work at one agency or another, or if half the people you know are getting teaching degrees, the temptation’s there to just follow along.
When looking at things from extreme or unusual angles, those herding forces recede. At least for a bit you can make yourself turn away from what everyone else is doing, leaving you no choice but to arrange your own priorities for determining the kind of work you want to get involved with. Importantly, the idea isn’t to eliminate other people from consideration but to eliminate consideration that just imitates what other people are thinking. Here’s the beginning of a list of questions aiming to do that, aiming to shake up thinking about the career choice and force some sorting of the basic values determining which way the choice is going to go:
No one can decide for you what line of work to start down; it’s a decision only you can make and that you have to make for yourself. This doesn’t mean, however, that your life is the only one involved in the decision. Here’s a blog post: “I think people need to find the right job for them, the one that will make them happy. My parents are always telling me to get a successful and well paying job, however the job that I really want to do probably isn’t the best paying job, but it would make me happy if I fulfill my dream. I think people need to go out and do what they want and they will be successful in different ways.”Karen Sternheimer, “How Great Is Being a Sociologist?,” Everyday Sociology (blog), January 24, 2009, accessed May 16, 2011, http://nortonbooks.typepad.com/everydaysociology/2009/01/how-great-is-being-a-sociologist.html.
Sounds good, but is it right? If you’ve adopted egoism (morality = self-interest) as your ethical compass, then it is. Egoism makes the job search relatively easy; just find the one that will make you most happy.
On the other hand, if you think of yourself as more of a utilitarian—someone guided by the conviction that the morally recommendable act is the one bringing the greatest good to the greatest number—then it’s not clear whether this is the right way to go or not. On one side, it’s true that pursuing your dream of professional satisfaction is good, but your parents’ satisfaction—everyone’s satisfaction—has to be factored in too. It could be that your parents’ wishes—and the happiness they enjoy if you follow their advice—outweigh the happiness and welfare you take from a career they recommend against.
Staying with the parents, and taking their side, what kind of ethical arguments can they launch against your career choice? One of the strongest is going to be obligation in the sense of gratitude, in the sense that we have a duty to repay those who’ve given to us. Most of us sense this as the courtesy of returning favors. Sometimes we feel it in an inverted form as the desire to decline a gift that seems so great we won’t be able to pay it back. The case could be made that this sense of obligation and gratitude is a virtue, the result of a proper upbringing. Or it may be more like a duty, a sense of fairness inherent in the idea of ethics in the first place. Regardless, it’s too late to go back now for you and your parents. All you can do is add up everything they’ve done for you and everything you’ve done for them. It’s doubtful that there’s any kind of balance.
In Portuguese, the word commonly used to say “thank you” is obligado, meaning I’m obligated, and there aren’t many instances where the word is more apt than the parental relation with children. Faced with the obligation, these are possible responses:
Of course people are always free to pursue that last course, to say the obligation is there and I don’t care. But if you want to continue acting ethically, that shifts the burden onto you to build a structure for justifying walking away.
Moving from parents to others, what kind of ethical responsibilities do you hold to your spouse if you’re married and to children if they arrive? There’s nothing wrong with being, say, a starving actor working for that one break on the way to fame. But it’s a different thing entirely when you’re asking someone else to starve too so that you can go on trying to be the next Johnny Depp.
Do you owe anything to that math teacher who saw that you had exceptional ability with numbers and used her own time after class to patiently tutor you on the subject? She probably wouldn’t have bothered if she knew you were going to end up working at something that doesn’t involve math-related skills. She did bother, though, so does that create a responsibility—even if it’s only a small one—to use that ability in your professional life, to find a job that exploits your skill with numbers that she helped you acquire?
Finally, at the broadest level, what obligations do you have to the impersonal community around you, to all those people you barely know or have never met—the woman behind the counter at the gas station, the plant worker in Germany who helped assemble your car, some taxi driver in Thailand whose life will never touch yours in any way? Do you owe anything to them when thinking about your long, eight-hour days?
One way of dividing up the responsibility felt to yourself and to the others who share your world is career sequencingDefining zones of your life and evaluating each separately in terms of work priorities, aspirations, and values.—that is, defining zones of life and evaluating each separately in terms of work priorities and aspirations. Meaningful labor—signing up for a rugged, low-paying trip on the Greenpeace ship—may fit with your values right out of school. The trip allows a broad ethical vision of work, one seeking to incorporate the welfare of others at a good time for you, while your own needs are limited. Later on, lucrative work—signing up for a desk job administering a tourist cruise ship where the hours are fewer and the pay higher—might prove the better fit.
Making the move from meaningful work to a more salary-centered vision of the workplace may simply correspond to the realization that walking around in ripped jeans and a t-shirt doesn’t work with a receding hairline. Or it may be that the others you hope to benefit with your time have come closer to home: it’s not that you want to make the world a better place anymore so much as make the world better for your family.
The Tuck School of Business has published a report on sequencing in today’s world.Tuck Executive Education, Changing the Career Ladder: Paving Flexible Pathways for Today’s Talent (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth, 2011), accessed May 16, 2011, http://worklifefit.com/pdf/TuckSurveysummary.pdf. Among the findings: employees, led by women especially, are professionalizing the movement in and out of the workplace. Exiting the daily grind to have a child is no longer understood so universally as leaving work so much as a planned interruption to pursue personal goals. The difference between leaving and interrupting is that many women now step off the career track fully intending to return in the not-so-distant future and to resume the professional trajectory already established. It’s not putting on the brakes so much as taking a detour.
Men, the study finds, are following suit. Some are taking paternity leaves, more or less along the lines pioneered by women, but the study also finds workers interested in professional detouring for the following reasons:
In all three cases, space along the career’s way is being pried open for different values to enter and at least temporarily redefine the relation with work.
Why don’t people sequence? What keeps them in jobs they’d like to get away from, at least temporarily? Fear that they won’t be able to get their jobs back leads the list. The study also shows, though, that many employees in essence think that sequencing is wimpy, and it’ll mark them as unreliable and, therefore, unpromotable. That perception may not be right, though. The study is a snapshot of a changing situation, so it’s difficult to draw too many conclusions, but the authors do sense that that the direction of evolution is toward sequencing, not away. More and more higher-level managers are willing to accommodate employees who want to take detours; they’re willing to make space for them to come and go (as long as the coming and going isn’t constant).
To the extent that’s right, the ethical relation with job selection transforms. It’s no longer the formation of values for choosing a career track leading into the indefinite future; instead it’s a process. The ethical question about your work, “What’s the right kind of job for me?,” is now a lingering concern, and answering is a constant responsibility.
Some millennials are big on job hopping, on experimenting with work first and then deciding on a path instead of doing all the ethical considering up front. This is an attractive option.
There’s a risk here, though: it’s the trivialization of professional life. If you’re just going to take whatever job comes along and see how it works out, then why bother even thinking about it at all? In fact, why bother switching? If you’re not going to do the work beforehand to get a grip on the kind of employment, on the general direction of professional interest that supports the values you’ve decided to live by, then how are you going to know the right job when you find it? Why switch jobs, in other words, when you don’t know what you’re looking for?
This was one of Saint Augustine’s (AD 400) durable pieces of wisdom. It’s very simple: if you don’t know what you’re seeking before you start looking, then how are you going to know when you’ve found it? Trial and error, in other words, when you’re looking for the right kind of job (or the right romantic partner, or the right beer, or whatever) only works if you already know what’s going to count as an error and what counts as success.
Of course no one’s going to get everything down perfectly at the beginning. Ethically, there’s a kind of bind here paralleling the first job and experience catch (you can’t get your first job without experience, and you can’t get experience without your first job). Similarly, you can’t know exactly what kind of work fits your values and outlook until you’ve learned how things really are out there in the nine-to-five world, but that’s not a convincing reason to fall off the other extreme and just spin the wheel, take whatever comes your way, and switch jobs without thinking.