Looking back at my “Why Swarthmore” essay and seeing the naïve idealism of my 17-year-old self is nostalgic, albeit a little cringeworthy.
Take this passage: “I want to be part of a community where everyone has a cause or an interest and is eager to learn about other people’s passions. While I know not everyone at Swarthmore is focused on changing the world, I don’t think there is a better college to find people with the skills and commitment to do so.”
A tiny bit cringeworthy, yes, but I don’t think I was the only one to write something like this. And I actually still agree with the sentiment of my essay, even if my views are now more nuanced. I think it is true that one of Swarthmore’s defining characteristics is its students’ commitment to improving the world. Students throw themselves into studying social problems in classes, linger at Sharples to discuss a point of moral or political contention, and devote their little free time to activist groups or other socially conscious extracurriculars.
Now, entering my senior year, the focus has shifted to starting our careers. Although our futures are now an annoyingly prevalent feature of conversation, rarely do students evaluate job prospects in terms of how they can work towards an improved world. This social conscience that was central to our Swarthmore experiences seems lost. What happened?
This article isn’t going to argue what particular career one should choose, but will argue that Swatties should greatly consider how their career choices will contribute to a better world. This argument is based on two core factors: the state of the world and the potential influence one’s career can have on it.
Some things are very, very wrong with the world. Although I would pick the present if I had to choose any time in history to live, I don’t think anyone’s conception of a just world would look like this one.
In States of Denial: Knowing About Atrocities and Suffering, Stanley Cohen writes that “denial may be neither a matter of telling the truth nor intentionally telling a lie. There seem to be states of mind, or even whole cultures, in which we know and don’t know at the same time.” There are injustices that we know about in our classes and in Facebook arguments, but seem not to know in our job search.
Globally, 1.5 million children under five die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases, 65 million people are currently displaced by conflict, and climate change threatens to transform the world as we know it. Just within the U.S., there are enormous racial disparities. One in five children live in households that are food-insecure, and a certain wildly unprepared white supremacist is coming perilously close to the presidency. Many Swatties have experienced significant injustices themselves.
The largest reason some people suffer more than others is the circumstances in which they happened to be born. And while people even in the most adverse circumstances do their best to get by and make things better, and many do manage to live happy lives, they have to overcome massive barriers created by a world stacked against them. Many people aren’t able to overcome these barriers, and it means smart girls are married off at age 14, never get proper treatment for a disability, or as adults suffer the daily indignity of having to ask their sons every time they need something read. We know all these things, but, as Cohen writes, we often don’t know them at the same time.
Our careers are the largest opportunity we have to lessen these injustices. For approximately 40 years we will spend at least 40 hours a week working. If we want to change the world, that’s a big chunk of time to give up.
Beyond the pure amount of time spent on one’s career, Swatties are uniquely prepared to use this time to create change. We have been fortunate enough to receive one of the world’s best educations. I’d like to think this experience will make us good parents and good community members, but above all, it prepares us to be good at our jobs. If we position ourselves in jobs that allow us to impact the world for good, these skills could improve people’s lives in ways that would not happen otherwise.
Calling on people to change the world can sound corny, but how can anyone look at the state of the world and not want to change it? There are naïve, self-indulgent, and paternalistic ways to try to change the world, but there are also ways to do it well. And it would take a romanticization of ordinary life or even a certain sense of nihilism to deny that a Swarthmore education makes one significantly more prepared to effectively improve the world.
I think everyone has times when they think about the world’s problems instead of pushing them out of their head. I tend to keep those moments to myself. That’s partially a product of my personality, but it’s also because I know no one is going to be able to say anything to change the fact that the world is full of injustice. But thinking about immensely prepared, creative, and driven people spending the bulk of 40 years working to change things makes me feel a little more hopeful.
So, back to the question I asked earlier: what happened? How did the passionate, socially-conscious Swatties I know come to decide on the biggest opportunity they will ever have to improve the world with little thought of the ethical implications? How did people who wanted to fight climate change and integrate feminism with economics and use art to demonstrate injustice decide to be consultants, bankers, and programmers for corporations they don’t believe in?
(For the record, I picked easy targets in that all those professions are highly paid and few people are particularly passionate about them. However, I think there is a much wider range of professions that Swatties gravitate to without thinking of the opportunity for social good that their career provides.)
As far as I can tell, enjoyment is not the dominant factor in career choices. If it were, I think we’d see a lot more people trying to become soccer coaches and musicians. Actually, I would guess many Swatties would find quite a bit more enjoyment and fulfillment in careers they chose based on their social consciences than the careers they’re choosing now.
I don’t think money is the main factor either. It’s a factor, but I think it influences decisions between similar jobs more than it alters one’s choice of career paths. I believe the biggest factor is subtler, and in some ways more dangerous. Rather than basing their decision on money, most Swatties don’t really make a decision at all.
In 2011, Marina Keegan explored why a quarter of Yale graduates go into consulting in her article “Even Artichokes Have Doubts.” Keegan wrote that “some of us (regardless of what we tell ourselves) are doing this because we’re not sure what else to do and it’s easy to apply and it will pay us decently and it will make us feel like we’re still successful.”
Similar to Keegan, my sense is that Swatties tend to choose a path of little resistance. Many Swatties genuinely do want to do something to improve the world, but they don’t really know how. Where does one apply to improve the world? Conventional careers have clearer career paths and Swatties are more likely to know people working in these fields. Career Services sends out far more emails about how to get into consulting than community organizing.
In their career search, Swatties don’t take a 180-degree turn away from their social conscience. But at some point, it starts to seem like everyone else is getting jobs or internships, and their parents start to bug them. They’re not really sure what they want to do with their life so they start to get a little less strict about the type of jobs they’re comfortable looking for. And their social conscience gradually slips out of the equation. Once they start down this path, if they start to feel guilty, they might half-heartedly think of a few ways it could contribute to society, but no one pushes them on the issue. Instead, everyone congratulates them for their job offer.
To be sure, no one’s career is defined by their first job, and some people who overlook the social impact of their first job later pursue careers that are very socially beneficial. But just as many Swatties’ social conscience gradually slips out of the equation as they choose their first job, who’s to say it won’t when they get offered a promotion?
I don’t know how the tradition of screening The Graduate started, but I would guess the resonance of Ben’s uncertainty and anxiety for his future played a large role. Yet as real as those fears feel, we will be fine. In the stress of the job search, it’s easy to feel like one is an inch away from being broke or a failure. And securing a job, whatever it is, pushes away that feeling. But this is a terrible reason to decide against a socially beneficial career.
There are legitimate reasons for giving less weight to social good in a career choice. Swatties might have family they need to support, serious mental health struggles, or, at least in the early stages of their career, massive loans that mean making money has to come first. However, the vast majority of Swatties do not face these constraints.
Most Swatties come from a position of unbelievable financial security. There isn’t comprehensive data on the financial backgrounds of Swatties, but you can draw a sketch from financial aid data.
The U.S. median household income is $56,500. Just 16% of Swarthmore students come from beneath this threshold. Furthermore, 53% of Swarthmore students receive financial aid, 47% do not. Since students not on financial aid don’t submit financial information, there is no way to know exactly where they fall on the income distribution.
However, I happen to be a useful data point. My family had a gross income of $179,000 last year, placing us in the 92nd percentile nationally. We don’t have any unusual financial circumstances, though by living in suburban mid-Michigan we may have slightly lower home equity than families of similar incomes in more expensive real estate markets. It should be clear that my family is extremely wealthy, but about half of Swarthmore students receive no aid while I got $24,639 this year. All financial aid information available suggests my aid award is not a fluke. Although financial aid isn’t based on income alone, it is based on a rough measure of wealth. Based on my data point, it’s fair to assume that about half of all Swatties come from at least the richest 10% of Americans. Given the amount of aid I receive, it could very well be 5%.
Just as Swarthmore students tend to come from the richest segments of one of the richest countries on the planet, they’re likely to end up there as well (it’s worth mentioning that $34,000 per person per year, or $136,000 for a household of four, is the threshold for the global one percent in terms of income). The median mid-career pay for a Swarthmore alumnus is $119,000. If this median alumnus forms a household with someone of an equal income, their household income would place them in the 96th percentile of the national income distribution.
And it’s not like pursuing a socially beneficial career means living in destitution. For some careers, like medicine, there’s almost no trade-off between social good and earnings. While elementary school teachers don’t have enormous financial security, their average salary is $43,500. If they marry someone with an identical income, they would find themselves in the 70th percentile of the income distribution. High-level staff in non-profit organizations, the type of positions Swatties will realistically end up in if they pursue that career path, tend to make more. Remember how my family is in the 92nd percentile of the income distribution? My mom gives free legal counsel to low-income elders while my dad is a sociology professor.
In non-monetary criteria as well, Swatties are extremely secure. A Swarthmore degree is a ticket into the American elite. It’s easy to forget that only 34% of Americans between 25 and 29 have a bachelor’s degree. We’re going to have a degree from one of the country’s top colleges. We are able to access careers shut to most people, and whatever career we go into we are likely to rise to the top.
Choosing a career based on social good also doesn’t destroy your chance of enjoying your job. Maybe you would decide against the exact job you’d enjoy most, but given the range of careers that contribute significantly to society, there’s no doubt you could find a job you enjoy going to each day. For some people, it might just mean working as a public defender instead of working for a major law firm.
A Swarthmore degree is an extraordinary safety net. Barring exceptional circumstances, Swatties will end up successful, financially secure, and able to find a job they enjoy. This isn’t to say there won’t be bumps in their socially beneficial career path. Especially early in their career, they might live less comfortably than they are used to. When they tell people what they do for a living they might not receive the sort of respect they expect. There are also fewer jobs in socially beneficial sectors, so it’s not inconceivable that they might have to move into their parents’ basement for a little as they keep applying for positions (though given the financial circumstances of most Swatties, it’s probably quite a nice basement). But if one takes a deep breath and a step back, it’s not hard to see that these are ultimately minor reasons to pass up one’s biggest opportunity to improve a world incredibly far from anyone’s conception of justice.
As I said, I’m not going to use this article to try to determine which careers qualify as socially beneficial and which don’t. As one tries to identify a career path it is important to consider what one believes to drive change, and this will be highly dependent on an individual’s values and politics. While it is important to push oneself to analyze these questions in an effort to identify how to effectively change the world through one’s career, there is nothing wrong with people coming to different conclusions.
I also don’t find it productive to seek out the single career that will be the most societally beneficial. Many different careers offer enormous opportunities to change the world for the better, and people will do more good if they are in a job they are good at and passionate about. The point isn’t just to complete a moral checklist by receiving a socially beneficial job, but instead to use one’s career to effectively create change.
Some people will settle on unconventional choices, and if they seriously prioritized the social impact of potential career paths before deciding, that is completely acceptable. Someone might come to the conclusion that helping people access hiking offers an exceptional opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives. On the other hand, they might decide that the best way to improve finance is from the inside, or that they just want to focus on money so that they can give to worthwhile causes (totally legitimate, but in 30 years they better still be remembering to give that money away).
Broadening the definition of jobs doing social good could lead one to the conclusion that since society relies on an enormous number of professions, a decent individual will inevitably benefit society in their career and thus one doesn’t really need to weigh it in their career choice. I reject this. I accept that society needs bankers, corporate lawyers, and consultants. But does it need 27% of Swarthmore’s graduating class going into financial services, consulting, and business?*
I don’t think many Swatties would argue that it does. I also think proponents of this line of argument are far more likely to use it as a half-hearted justification after they’ve chosen a career path than come to that decision from deliberate introspection about how to use their career for good. Above all, it’s difficult to deny that some jobs do more good than others, and by having exceptional people in those jobs the world will be better off for it.
As you make decisions about your career after Swarthmore, I think it’s worth remembering that I’m not asking you to be a saint. I am making the case that you should make your career’s ability to improve the world a central factor in deciding your path forward. As you make this choice, it’s important to take the time to genuinely remember the world’s problems. Climate change could cause suffering beyond anything we face today, and the largest reason you go to Swarthmore while others have a fraction of your opportunities is the lottery of birth. I’m sure there are far more injustices that strike you as unbearably unjust. Don’t just push them out of your head.
I commend those that are willing to make enormous sacrifices to change the world, and I would urge you to consider whether you should, but I don’t think there’s a direct correlation between one’s sacrifice and their contribution to improving the world. For the most part, making social good a central factor in your career choice will mean having a drawn-out job search instead of finishing in October, or really liking your job instead of loving it, or ending up in the 86th percentile of the U.S. income distribution instead of the 96th. Right now, whether by intention or oversight, many in a group made up of the world’s most financially secure, most educated, and most capable people are passing up their chance to improve the world for these marginal differences.
I didn’t write this article out of disdain for Swatties, far from it. The reason is much closer to profound admiration and respect. If I’m confident in anyone’s ability to help fix a spectacularly unjust world, it’s ours. But I wonder how many of us will let the chance slip away.
*Technology and engineering is listed as a separate category, rather than as a part of business
Featured Image courtesy of People Don’t Have to Be Anything Else Wiki.
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