Like many students about to be pitched into the world of work, I have been thinking — and worrying — about impact. I want to have one, basically, but am unsure how to make one, and know too that wanting one makes me something of a flamboyant cliché. The old recall the idealism of their youth with nostalgia — its molten eyes, its effervescence — yet while I can diagnose my “impact-thirst” as a product of my own naïveté, I remain parched. I want to have an impact even if that makes me unoriginal and smug. I want one really badly.
It’s not just me indulging in the navel-gazing. Having done my undergrad at Cambridge, one of the UK’s biggest feeders into the country’s finance sector, I’ve been struck by how many of my friends have spurned the “City” in favor of projects deemed to be “worthier.” There’s Eric, who interned at Credit Suisse before turning his job offer down so that he could learn how to code. There’s Peter, who decided not to apply to reams of consulting firms to work for a Cambridge summer school instead. There’s Joy, who’s working two jobs in London, trying to scrape a living in the world of journalism despite there being no jobs around. If she retrained as a lawyer or a broker, she’d be snapped up in no time by a big firm. But she won’t do it.
You don’t have to scratch your head for long to work out why young graduates are turning their backs on more obviously lucrative careers. We are products of the financial downturn. Every society has its goodies and baddies, and for better or worse, the UK’s Undesirable Number One is the figure of the greedy banker. You know the type, even if you’re American — he’s white, middle-aged and plump, he gets a fat bonus at the end of every hour and gambles away pensions on hookers and mojitos. He has several offshore bank accounts, a porn habit and a yacht. He works long hours, but only because he gets a kick out of frittering away the nation’s savings and because his wife left him for a bespectacled librarian.
Ever since the crash of 2008 — and possibly even before — media outlets worldwide have hounded bankers as the villains responsible for the “big mess.” Of course, a significant portion of the blame can and should be laid at their feet — but not all, definitely not all. While individual bankers should answer to the law, waging a campaign against the profession generally — as many newspapers have done — doesn’t feel right either and has seemingly put many young graduates off the profession. Stock broking might still be a money-spinner, but it’s no longer “cool”. Startups are cool, the UN is cool, NGOs are cool. Banks are not.
So finance is somewhat arbitrarily off the table for the impact-thirsty. Even if there are strong arguments to be made for going into banking to, as it were, reform them from the inside, that doesn’t sit well with my peers, nor if truth be told, with me. But that leaves the question even more open — what path can I take after university that will help others, the more the merrier? I’ve agonized about it at length — whilst squirming at the pomposity of my anxiety. Do I set aside my natural interest in, for instance, the fashion industry, in the name of a potentially wave-making career at the EU? Do I ignore the fact that I don’t enjoy hustling people for donations and join the ranks of a charity instead?
Increasingly, I’ve come to realize that what looks and sounds like terrifying choice really isn’t. Yes, some jobs do help alleviate suffering. You can work in development and contribute to a project that will actively save the lives of people living thousands of miles away. You can write an app that will assuage the difficulties of Kenya’s ballooning smartphone community. But in reality, you cannot know what you will end up doing or how many people you will help, inspire, change. Our future careers may be more mobile and flexible and varied than those of our parents, but, in consequence, they will be less predictable. Eventually, you will be offered a position in a place that will sound convenient and fun, and, with a bit of luck, “impactful,” and you will take that position. You will discover whether or not that job is indeed a force for good, and whether you like what you are being asked to do. It seems that the best we impact-thirsty can do is avoid sectors that work “against” the morals we uphold, however contingent those morals seem.