Want to Make the World a Better Place? Become a Banker

If you’ve ventured outdoors just about anywhere in Britain over the past few weeks, the chances are you’ve seen some familiar signs of the season. Hollow-eyed undergrads bulk-buying Red Bull. Cafés full of teenage girls clutching gel pens like talismans. Parks crowded with library refugees, huddled together among blankets and books. It’s that time of year again: the exams are here.

In the coming months, 350,000 UK graduates will take their first, intrepid steps into the job market. Compared with the past six years, things are looking up for the Class of 2014; many graduate jobs, killed off by the economic downturn, have been resuscitated, along with a record number of paid internships. Perhaps for the first time since the crash, bright young grads choosing a career path can afford to feel optimistic about their prospects.

But how to choose this path? For those primarily interested in money or prestige, this might be a comparatively easy question; a plethora of high-profile career-fair-botherers from the legal, accounting, financial and management consultancy sectors offer attractive packages for graduates. But for the growing number of young idealists that want to make the world a better place – or at least not to make it any worse – it’s a trickier one to answer.

The obvious solution, for many people, is to look for “ethical” businesses, charities and NGOs. Websites such as ethicaljobs.org and university resources from Oxford, Kent, Bristol and York (amongst others) help grads to seek work in less sullied sectors and roles. More intriguing, however, is the radical new philosophy of Earn-to-Give that is gaining traction on both sides of the pond.

Earn-to-Give is pioneered by William MacAskill, a DPhil student at Oxford University and founder of the ethical career organisation 80,000 Hours. Its premise is simple: the most effective way to enact positive change in the world is to facilitate the kind of projects and organisations that most improve people’s lives. For most people, this would mean using a website like GiveWell to select a charity with an impressive track record… and then giving that charity every penny they can spare.

By this logic, the most lucrative careers have the greatest ethical potential – if, of course, you are happy to give away a significant part of your income. From a utilitarian perspective, this is entirely sound: earning enough to fund schemes that tackle health and poverty issues can generate far more net happiness than the individual satisfaction derived from a conventionally ‘moral’ role.

In fact, as MacAskill has pointed out, even the traditionally noble job of doctor struggles to match the ethical potential of a financier adopting an Earn-to Give approach. MacAskill uses three core indicators to measure the ethical potential of any job: Effectiveness, Leverage and What Would Have Happened Otherwise. On all three counts, MacAskill finds, the Earn-to-Give financier is the clear winner. By donating 50% of his salary, he can save the lives of hundreds – even thousands – of people around the world, a feat unlikely to be achieved if he turned down the job to allow for a less altruistically-minded person to take the position and attendant salary. The doctor, on the other hand, may well perform a number of life-saving operations each week, but had a different doctor taken the job instead, the outcome would most likely be the same.

For the ethically inclined, choosing a career in a more morally dubious sector also has the potential to enact systemic change, safeguarding progress in the long run. The global financial crisis that unfolded in 2008 exposed a deeply perfidious culture in the financial and banking sectors; investors were tricked into trusting triple-A ratings issued by agencies paid for by the very organisations they were supposed to regulate, whilst financiers claimed to have eliminated risk, despite having simply lost track of it. Four years later, the Libor rigging scandal suggested that, despite the crash, international condemnation and the financial hardship of millions of people, deception and self-interest continue to permeate the industry. With the financial sector unlikely to change of its own accord, a form of ethical infiltration could, perhaps, mitigate its capacity for harm.

At present, only a tiny minority of people have joined the Earn-to-Give movement, but even this small step means that thousands of lives are saved or bettered ever year, all around the world. At the same time, governments and international institutions like the IMF spend huge amounts of time, money and energy trying to stimulate economies in developing countries, with the ultimate goal of lifting people out of poverty. Yet billions remain there.

Donating money directly to grassroots schemes, especially cash transfer schemes that simply give money to impoverished families, facilitates wealth redistribution whilst bypassing bureaucracy, inefficiencies and political manoeuvrings. This makes well-chosen charity donations a far more effective way of redressing inequality on a global scale. Moreover, should the popularity of the approach become widespread, this would create a rapid outflow of capital from rich countries to poor ones that goes right to the actual citizens. Not filtered through corrupt governments. Not withheld for political leverage. Not conditional on a country adapting political or economic structures to accommodate to richer nations’ trade, investment and military goals. This is wealth redistribution at its most pure.

For graduates who are not only interested in improving the lives of the world’s poorest people, but in weakening the influence of nefarious financial structures and political arrangements that help to keep them there, a career in banking could, ironically, be the best way to do it.

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