What should I do with my life? Balancing money and meaning

What should I do with my life? Balancing money and meaning

The reason I read a lot of books is that I like being introduced to new ideas. It boggles my mind just how much stuff there is to learn about. From astrophysics to dolphin physiology to how to bake the perfect brownie – there is so much you can be an expert in that choosing what to do with your life can feel overwhelming.  

I read book after book after book, I read articles and columns and blogs, I read twitter threads – I feel like I’m absorbing ideas and opinions all the time. It baffles me how many opinions there are out there and how, somehow, everyone believes they are right with overwhelming stubbornness. It makes me feel both emboldened to have and share my opinions but also reticent, because I know just how tone-deaf someone can look when they prattle on about something despite lacking the information or experience to comment thoughtfully.

Recently, I read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Homo Deus, followed directly by Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists. These three books have had my brain absolutely crammed with revelations and questions about, well, everything. But I can’t talk about everything in a single blog post. In this post, I want to talk about work.

All three of these books address the past, present and future of work, as we are in a time where increasing automation is going to be putting more and more jobs out of business. Bregman explained – as was a popular idea through much of the 20th century – that this increased production for less (human) effort should lead to fewer working hours. In fact, many of last century’s eminent economists and philosophers thought that humanity’s greatest struggle in the 21st century would be leisure. We would have so much free time that we literally wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves.

Instead, we took the other path. Rather than greater wealth for less effort leading to less work and more play, it has lead to the same amount of work to facilitate greater consumption. It has, according to Bregman, also led to a shortage of meaningful paid work. He believes that many of the roles that currently exist in corporations are, in a deep way, unnecessary. We have made them necessary by creating a society predicated on insane levels of consumption. But if we approached work, leisure and consumption differently, very few of these roles would need to exist.

He also offered the gut punch of explaining exactly how we’ve got the incentives all wrong. The fact that the highest paychecks go to jobs in finance, business and technology have resulted in intelligent people eschewing careers in research, healthcare and education for more lucrative positions in other industries.  

The reality is, right now, I am one of those people.

Before I finished university, I’d read enough think pieces and blog posts of frustrated, stressed-out new graduates to know that life after education wasn’t always straightforward. I have friends who didn’t go to university who continue to struggle to break into industries or roles they want, despite having been working for years. It didn’t look simple, or easy, or enjoyable.

So when a great job working as a writer for a bank came up (as I was working my first post-university job as a performance psychologist), I took it. I enjoyed parts of my psychology job a lot, but the pay was low and the hours long and unpredictable. To make matters worse, my boss was openly misogynistic, racist and classist, and enjoyed baiting me into stressful conversations about gender equality and discrimination for fun. While I enjoyed the work generally, I was already thinking about my next step after only a few weeks. After starting my new job in finance, it soon became clear that I’d made a good decision; the work was interesting and varied, my colleagues were kind and smart and I was given a generous paycheck that allowed me to set myself up after university. It also totally reignited my love of writing, which it is the only reason I’m sitting here typing this now.

However, now that I’m a little more settled at work after a year and a half in the professional workforce, I’ve started thinking about what matters long-term and where I might want to take my career. All of Bregman’s comments about the mismatching of incentives have been weighing on me. While I do want to do something meaningful, it doesn’t appear like there’s a good option right now. You can do hard, low-paid meaningful work, often in the public sector, or have a ‘meaningless’ better-paid job in the private sector that offers you some semblance of financial security.

The thing is, I don’t know if there’s any job that would make low pay, long hours and stressful work worth it. My overall quality of life matters to me. If I had a job I loved that left me struggling to pay rent or save, overworked me and made me massively stressed I doubt I’d consider that a good choice overall, even if the work itself excited and fulfilled me. The big picture matters.

We can scoff about it being greedy or shallow to prioritise money all we want, but working in a financial institution – and generally being conscious of the financial challenges facing millennials – has emphasised to me just how much stuff there is to deal with. There are numerous articles making clear what a large amount you need to have saved for retirement, making it seem like you need a large salary to achieve that. Also, as the social safety net reduces more and more, it’s a huge question as to what the state will offer retirees in fifty years. And if we still have to pay rent, because we were never able to afford a house, then the costs only increase. Paying off debt, buying houses, seeing the world – this stuff all costs money, and I’m way too risk-averse and responsible boring to be able to forget that, even though I’m young and should probably be more carefree.

There’s a lot of rhetoric around taking care of yourself first and putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. However, in society currently, looking after yourself and your family in a major city often doesn’t leave that much time or resources for looking after other people. It’s a common misconception that people go into finance because they want to shower in champagne and snort caviar – some people do, sure, but many people are just looking to support themselves and their family while living close-ish to a major city like London or New York, where their job is based.

But then again, I think there’s a lot of talk that suggests that your career is the only way to offer things to others, which is patently false and erases the millions of people (mainly women) who spend their lives doing unpaid care work. The thing you are paid for is not the sum total of your impact on the world around you. Is it okay, then, to work at a job that you find interesting and pays you fairly and then use some of that money and time you now have from having a stable job to support those in need, both globally and those who are close to you? If I donate money, support important political and social causes and do my best to be both emotionally and financially generous with my friends and those around me, is that enough? Does that ‘justify’ having a job that is more about you than anyone else?

I know it’s irrational because life is long and I have plenty of time to decide what to focus on long-term, but recently I’ve been feeling guilty about not doing a job that offers more to other people. Or at least, feeling strongly like I need to orient myself that way in the future. Getting set up and independent post-graduation can be hard, so I can’t regret taking some time to stabilise myself financially. Some financial security has allowed me to breathe, explore my others interests and think deeply about what matters to me, which can only be a good thing overall. It has also allowed me to save, which gives me a lot of peace of mind and more freedom going forward.

It’s also interesting seeing how people find meaning for themselves. Lots of people at work feel passionate about the financial sector and the important role they play in safeguarding people’s pensions (which are primarily what the company I work for manages). For various economic reasons, you can’t just save money for your pension, because decades of inflation (at a rate that is almost certainly higher than your standard savings account’s interest rate) would reduce the value significantly. All pensions are invested for the long-term in order to keep up with inflation and ensure that the money you get has real spending power. There are also people working hard to develop sustainable investing and championing responsible investment practices, which have already had positive impacts in companies across the world and that translate to improving the lives of average people in a host of different countries. The financial sector absolutely has a lot of issues that can be hard to address, but saying finance = bad is a very limited view and shows a lack of understanding of the enormous complexity that makes up the economy. As with most things, it is not black or white. It is very, very grey.

There’s also the feminism point. The industry remains massively male-dominated and it is rare to be a young woman working at a large investment house. On the one hand, it is good to increase the number of women working at financial firms and bulk out the pipeline. On the other hand, I have lived an extraordinarily privileged life, so me working for an institution like this may do a lot more to maintain the status quo than challenge it. There’s a lot of positive rhetoric around women making money, being the breadwinner and generally wielding financial power, but I think that that isn’t contrasted enough with the role that high-earners play in further cementing social inequalities. The wider intersection of woman (or other marginalised group) and wealthy person is interesting and part of intersectionality is grappling with that dynamic head-on.

I know it is fine for now. I often assume people hold me to very high ethical standards, which given that “people” is no one particular, really speaks to the ethical standards to which I want to hold myself. It is not easy finding your feet after school or university, and I’m sure everyone understands taking a job that, magically, you both really enjoy and gives you independence. But overall, the guilt and uncertainty are probably telling me something about what drives me and where I should aim to land in the future. I feel like it’s reasonable to play the long game, to take some time learning, making connections and building a safety net in order to allow yourself to switch paths and make change down the line without compromising yourself in the process. But do we need the opposite of that to solve inequality? Do we need to compromise our own happiness for the common good? Is it reasonable to expect that of anyone, when they have other, better options in front of them?

Recently, I’d been feeling strong urges to write more blogs that explored serious subjects (like this one!) and make some changes to my online presence. I leaned into those instincts, and so far, it has been exactly the right thing. I should probably apply that same sense of instinct plus thoughtful consideration to my future career.

I know this is an insanely fortunate position to be in; to have so much choice over my life is a huge privilege. But this is my life, and the life of many people around me, and part of appreciating my good luck in life is wanting to make the most of it. It seems like wasting good fortune is the worst thing to do with opportunities and I want to make good choices.

I have loved learning more about economics and politics in the past year, and definitely think that that’s a field I could continue to work in. There is a lot of powerful work to be done in terms of addressing wealth inequality and changing social policy. But maybe if I switch money for meaning, I’ll find myself leaning the other way. I guess the only thing I can do is think carefully about my choices, get advice from those around me, and trust my instincts.

This is very much an ongoing thought process for me, so I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts. What matters? How do you balance making money and finding meaning? Is it possible to do both? What should I do with my life?!

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