Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Big Paycheck or Service? Is There a Middle Way?

The New York Times recently published an article, Big Paycheck or Service? Students are Put to Test, about graduates who go into school with high ideals for changing the world, but come out working for big business. (Hat tip to Echoing Green for the link).

According to the article, Harvard professor, Howard Gardner, is teaching “reflection” seminars at Harvard, Amherst and Colby, "which he hopes will push undergraduates to think more deeply about the connection between their educations and aspirations."

Aimée Baker of The Refutation Process writes in her post, Public Service and the Graduate, that the expense of college, and the debt it creates, is what causes students to choose careers that pay big bucks. Only when the prices change will students' choices change.

Nathaniel of do good well thinks that a lot of what influences students' career choices has to do with what "seems possible," and that nonprofits need to do more to make students aware of what opportunities are available to them. His "question of the week" is, Do colleges and society need to incentivize public service and nonprofit work after college?

I'm wondering, is there is a medium ground between the big paycheck and service?

Whenever people make choices about the work they do, there are three variables that they balance: time, money and passion. At different times in our lives, putting more energy into one of these variables than the others may be our priority, but emphasizing one at the complete expense of the others usually doesn't bring happiness.

Seems to me that students need to be taught how to prioritize and balance time, money and passion. Students who are planning on entering high paying careers need to learn how to make their businesses sustainable, and how to give back to their community through philanthropy or volunteerism. Students who are attracted to lower paying careers in service need to learn the importance of taking care of themselves (including financially), as well as others.

In some ways, it isn't what work you do that matters, it's how you do it. If you work for a company whose values you don't agree with to pay the bills, do you try to set up a company fundraiser, buy organic and fair trade goods, or volunteer for a nonprofit on the weekend? If you work for a low paying nonprofit, do you make sure to not overwork, ask for a raise when appropriate, and have a long-term plan for how you're going to save for the future?

Finally, whether you work for the big paycheck or for service, are you kind to other people? What you do definitely impacts the world, but who you are while you are doing it does too.

Flickr photo credit: . . . Middle . . . uploaded by mistress_f.


  1. Anonymous3:54 PM

    I don't know if there is a middle ground. Everyone who I know who has a big paycheck job such as investment banking barely has time to sleep in their apartment let alone service oriented activities. I don't know if the corporate workplace has become flexible enough to allow that kind of flextime. Entry level salaries in nonprofit positions are so low that recent graduates barely have enough to pay the bills. I think that we still start to see some changes now that there is more activity in corporate social responsibility which might create the middle way that you are looking for.

  2. Anonymous7:17 PM

    I think colleges and society should do more to incentivize students to take on roles in the nonprofit sector. Recently Harvard Law School started an extensive program to pay off student debt for those who committed to a period of public service for a number of years. Why shouldn't under graduate programs try the same approach, especially when entry level salaries in the field are so low

  3. Anonymous7:12 AM

    In my mind the middle ground is being created right now. Social enterprise is in greater demand than it ever has been. Four Harvard Business School professors just published a case study entitled "Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector", which advocates that the social sector should take a more entrepreneurial approach. The trend towards brands being identified as much by their social vision as by their products is beginning to gain traction finally. And most importantly, companies like B corporation have cropped up to certify companies that are truly purpose driven. This certification step is perhaps the most important step because there's an awful lot of false marketing hype floating around especially in the "green" overload days we're living in. I think that in the next few years the opportunities to do good and make a comfortable living will only continue to grow in the entrepreneurial realm.

  4. Hi Vanessa, Avi and Brenan,

    Thanks for you comments!

    Vanessa - I hear you about big paycheck people not having time to do volunteer work outside of their, but as I mentioned in the piece, there are other things they can do - donate money, use their income to buy organic and fair trade products, etc. And yes, many nonprofits don't pay a livable wage, but there can also be a victim culture among nonprofit workers which they need to work on as well. The reason I wrote the piece is to say that part of the dichotomy of big paycheck v. service is caused by external circumstances, but some of it is internal. There are ways for people who make big paychecks to be of service and for people who work at nonprofits to live financially viable lives.

  5. Anonymous12:33 PM

    There's also the question of what kind of messages students get once they're in college. They might enter school idealistic. But over four years, they absorb the messages (explicit & implicit) the school sends about how they actually should spend their lives.

    A recent article in The American Scholar observed that Ivy League schools, for example, are in the business of "creating alumni", ie: people who will one day write fat checks to the school. So students get this subliminal messaging that while they should "pursue their dreams," they also should really make sure they earn a lot of money too.

    I'm not sure if anything can be done about that. It's built into the institution, and institutions are notoriously difficult to change.

  6. Hi Liza,

    Good point. That was one of the points in the article, that it is part of the school culture.


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