This article was written for Phoenix magazine, and is due to be published in the May edition.
Will Crouch is the president of high-impact ethical careers organisation 80,000 hours, and he also happens to be a doctoral student at Oxford. I interviewed him late last term following BBC coverage of his work to explore his unconventional approach to defining an ‘ethical career’.
Since last summer Will has given a number of thought-provoking and sometimes controversial talks at Oxford University Careers Service…
Lucy: 80,000 hours?
Will: We spend 80,000 hours working in our career, and it’s of crucial importance for many of us to try to work out how we can use them not just to make a difference, but the most difference.
L: What started you exploring careers with this ethical focus?
W: Originally I wanted to answer the question for myself. If I wanted to help other people as much as I could, what should I do? I worked out that I could give away about 50% of my expected earnings if I was to live on the value of a graduate stipend throughout my life. If I was to donate to the best causes I’d be able to save a life for about £300, and overall would be able to save about 3000 lives over the course of my life, which is pretty fantastic. I was then thinking hard about whether or not to stay in academia. I researched what career options I could pursue if I really want to help others as much as possible and gave a talk on my findings for the Careers Service. It was really well received, and I decided to launch 80,000 hours.
L: What does 80,000 hours advocate?
W: 80,000 hours encourages you to examine rationally how you could make the most difference in your career. For example, we explain why, by becoming a City banker and donating a proportion of your income, you can fund much more aid work than you could deliver as an aid worker yourself. As well as ‘professional philanthopy’, we advocate that people pursue careers in certain research fields, or careers where they can have a great deal of influence over others. There are many ways to make a huge difference, but the idea of ‘professional philanthropy’ is good to get people thinking.
80,000 hours also encourages people to examine the marginal benefit of career options. For example, if you don’t become an aid worker, it’s likely someone else with similar skills would take your place. Nearly exactly the same amount of good would be done. If you don’t become a philanthropic City worker, the person who’d take the job instead would probably not donate a large part of their salary, and would not save hundreds of lives. The difference you make is not just what you do, but the difference between that and what would have happened anyway.
L:The talks you’ve been giving have had some controversial titles such as ‘Can you do more good as a banker than as an aid worker?’ – have you had any negative feedback?
W: Certainly some people, especially people really involved with charity work and activism, often find the idea unpalatable. We’re very used to condemning bankers as unethical, and so saying that you can do huge amounts of good by going into the financial sector and donating a proportion of your income sounds a little bit to similar to endorsing the bankers for some people! A common objection that gets made is that in some sense you are supporting an unjust system by doing this, but what that neglects is that your money is flexible. If you want to focus your philanthropy on changing the system, you can do. Marx, for example, wouldn’t have been able to do his research if it hadn’t been for Engels taking a job at a capitalist firm and paying his printing and living costs.
L: How would a student bring up at an interview for a high-paying commercial firm that they intend to use their salary to fund anti-capitalist campaigns?!
If that’s what they’re intending, I recommend that they keep it quiet at interview! I think if they were intending to fund other causes, developing world health for example, it would be a great thing to showcase. Firstly, it has the potential for great PR for the firm. Secondly, it means that their motivations are aligned in exactly the way a recruiter might want – they really want to succeed. If lives are saved by your pay cheque you’re really going to want those bonuses!
How much money should a professional philanthropist give away?
W: I’ve personally pledged to give everything that I earn above £20,000, but if I was to go and work in the financial sector that would be a bad move. As a professional in that sector time and credibility are very valuable, so spending on city living would probably help me to maintain and advance my career. If I do that, I’m more likely to be able to donate more in the long run. A high level of personal expenditure in a high income career certainly doesn’t mean that you still wouldn’t be able to give a very substantial proportion of your earnings – like 50% – potentially saving thousands of lives.
L: Do students feel pressured to go into careers they’d rather not do?
W: Burning out or getting dissatisfied are big risks. I advise students work out the four or five careers they’d be interested in pursuing and how much good they could do in each of those. If they’re considering professional philanthropy that would be how much money they could make, but it’s also how much influence they could have. If they could convince another professional to donate towards cost-effective charities, or influence public or corporate aid giving, they could do their life’s work many times over.
L: What would you recommend other careers services do?
W: The following:
- Have an Ethical Careers section, as it’s a burgeoning interest for many students
- Make students aware of these ideas around how to do the most good in the world
- Contact 80,000 hours for information or advice for ethical careers webpages or resources
- Refer anyone who’s considering this to 80,000 hours for individual discussion and a support network
- Invite us to give lectures or workshops – to students or careers advisers
- Get in touch if you’d like to support the development of an 80,000 hours group on campus