• 03.04.13

Is Working On Wall Street Actually The Most Ethical Career Choice?

Giving away a lot of money might be the best way to do good. And to get money, you’re going to need a high-paying job.

It stands to reason that the way to do good is to go out and do good. But what if the way to do really good–better than just “good”–is to do something, well, less good, first?


Like working on Wall Street, say. You might dislike it, your colleagues may get on your nerves, and you may have to wake up at 4 a.m. to call flippin’ Asia. But at least you’ll earn beaucoup bucks, and do something useful with it. A career at a charity might be more satisfying emotionally–but will working there do better for the world? Probably not. You’ll have less money, limiting your room for maneuver, and you won’t be contributing anything another person couldn’t do just as well.

That, at least, is the message of a group called 80,000 hours that’s asking people to consider how they can use their time “to most help others.” What it suggests is most helpful might be different than what you think it is (though, of course, not everyone needs to work at an investment bank).

Here’s William MacAskill, 80,000 Hours’ founder, writing in Quartz:

Annual salaries in banking or investment start at $80,000 and grow to over $500,000 if you do well. A lifetime salary of over $10 million is typical. Careers in nonprofits start at about $40,000, and don’t typically exceed $100,000, even for executive directors. Over a lifetime, a typical salary is only about $2.5 million. By entering finance and donating 50% of your lifetime earnings, you could pay for two nonprofit workers in your place–while still living on double what you would have if you’d chosen that route.

The important thing is giving 50% of your money away, MacAskill says. Don’t assume that you can help a charity as much by going to work there.

In general, the charitable sector is people-rich but money-poor. Adding another person to the labor pool just isn’t as valuable as providing more money so that more workers can be hired. You might feel less directly involved because you haven’t dedicated every hour of your day to charity, but you’ll have made a much bigger difference.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.