25 September 2023
Which jobs help people the most?
Which jobs help people the most?
This article is based on research from our partner organisation 80,000 Hours.
Many people think of Superman as a hero. But he may be the greatest example of underutilised talent in all of fiction. It was a blunder to spend his life fighting crime one case at a time; if he’d thought a little more creatively, he could have done far more good. How about delivering vaccines to everyone in the world at superspeed? That would have eradicated many infectious diseases, saving hundreds of millions of lives.
Here we’ll argue that a lot of people who want to “make a difference” with their career fall into the same trap as Superman. University graduates imagine becoming doctors or teachers, but these may not be the best fit for their particular skills. And like Superman fighting crime, these paths are often limited in the amount they could potentially contribute to solving a problem.
In contrast, Nobel Prize winner Karl Landsteiner discovered blood groups, enabling hundreds of millions of lifesaving operations. He would have never been able to carry out that many surgeries himself.
Below we’ll introduce five ways you could use your career to help tackle the social problems you want to help work on. Five ways are: communication, research, government and policy, organisation-building, and ‘earning to give’.
Communications and Advocacy
Consider the following options:
Earn to give yourself.
Persuade two friends to earn to give.
The second path does more good — in fact, probably about twice as much. This illustrates the power of communication careers.
Effective communicators and advocates can shift public opinion and drive policy changes. Rosa Parks, for instance, catalysed the American civil rights movement, proving that societal change can spring from individual actions.
People often pan academics as Ivory Tower intellectuals whose writing has no impact. And we agree there are many problems with academia that mean researchers achieve less than they could. However, we still think research is often high impact, both within academia and outside it.
Along with communicators, many of the highest-impact people in history have been researchers. Alan Turing’s work, for instance, hastened the end of World War II and birthed modern computing. While academia often faces critique, its societal contributions are undeniable. Research is a field where individual contributions can lead to widespread benefits.
Government and Policy
Senior government officials often oversee budgets of tens or even hundreds of millions. If you could enable those budgets to be spent just a couple of percent more effectively, that would be worth millions of extra dollars spent on those programmes. And more broadly, the scale of the influence in government positions can be enormous.
Take the example of Suzy Deuster. She wanted to become a public defender to ensure disadvantaged people have good legal defence. She realised that in that role she might improve criminal justice for perhaps hundreds of people over her career, but by changing policy she might improve the justice system for thousands or even millions. Even if the impact per person is smaller, the numbers involved give her the chance of making a greater impact. She was able to use her legal background to enter government, and now works in the Executive Office of the President of the US on criminal justice reform, and from there she can explore other areas of policy in the future.
Nonprofits can tackle issues that other organisations can’t. They can carry out research that doesn’t earn academic prestige, or do political advocacy on behalf of disempowered groups such as animals or future generations, or provide services that would never be profitable within the market.
And there are lots of nonprofits doing great work that really need more people to help build and scale them up. There are also lots of niches that aren’t being filled, where we need new nonprofits to be set up to tackle them.
And if you can help make an already existing and impactful organisation somewhat more effective, that can also be a route to a big impact.
Clare joined Lead Exposure Elimination Project (LEEP) as its third staff member. She thought that joining LEEP would help build her career capital — especially her skills and connections — and, more importantly, that lead exposure in low- and middle-income countries is an important, solvable, and highly neglected problem. Since joining, Clare has developed LEEP’s programmes and managed the team implementing them, as well as led the hiring for crucial new staff. LEEP has since started working with governments and industry in 16 countries, and has successfully advocated for the government in Malawi to monitor levels of lead in paints.
These organisations don’t even need to be nonprofits — some social impact projects are better structured as businesses, and could also include think tanks, research groups, advocacy groups, and so on.
Earning to Give
Not every impactful career involves direct service. High-earning roles in sectors like finance or tech, when combined with significant charitable giving, can lead to substantial positive change.
Consider the story of Julia and Jeff, a couple from Boston with three children. Through his relationship with Julia, Jeff became interested in using his career for good. Jeff used to work as a research technician. He decided to train up to become a software engineer, and eventually got a job at Google. They were able to earn more than twice as much, so they started to donate about half their income to charity each year.
By doing this, they may have had more impact than they could by working directly in a nonprofit. Jeff could live on about two times as much as he would have earned in the nonprofit sector, and still donate enough to fund the salaries of about two nonprofit CEOs. Jeff’s guess is that the direct impact of his job was approximately neutral. He also thinks he became happier in his work because he enjoys engineering.
We see earning to give mostly as a baseline. It’s a path that many could pursue and do a lot of good — on the scale of saving 100 lives or more, as we just argued.
But we think that most of our readers can have an even greater impact again by pursuing one of the other approaches below. Overall, for people we advise, we only think about 10% should earn to give.
In fact, in 2022, Jeff left his high-paying job at Google. He’s now a researcher at the Nucleic Acid Observatory, building a wastewater monitoring system that he hopes will help detect pandemics before they start.
A Word of Caution: The Dual-Edged Sword of Influence
Greater influence comes with heightened responsibility. As one’s power grows, ethical considerations become paramount. Balancing ambition with integrity is crucial in any impactful career.
Take the example of Sam Bankman-Fried. He founded the cryptocurrency exchange FTX with the stated goal of earning to give. He briefly became the world’s richest person under 30, and made large donations to pressing causes. Many in the effective altruism movement put him forward as positive example of someone pursuing a high-impact career.
Sam is now charged with fraud, FTX collapsed into bankruptcy, and billions of dollars of customer funds went missing.
This has done a lot of harm to individual depositors and society, both through the money lost and the indirect harms of criminal activity. It may have also harmed the reputation of the causes he was supporting, and the idea of earning to give in general. For our part, we felt betrayed and shaken when we found out what had happened, and ashamed about our past promotion of him.
It now seems clear that even if Sam told himself that the rewards justified the risks, that was totally wrong.
How might this be relevant to you? Each of the five paths covered in this article offers ways to substantially increase the amount that you can contribute to solving a problem.
But generally, the greater your ability to contribute, the greater your ability to do harm — whether by making a substantial mistake, supporting the wrong issues, or acting unethically.
Moreover, as you gain more ability to affect the world, you may face more temptations to act badly. “Power corrupts” is a cliché for a good reason.
So, be careful. With great power comes great responsibility.
Finding the Right Approach
The most impactful careers align personal fit with societal need. By identifying one’s strengths and passions and matching them with the world’s needs, it’s possible to craft a career that’s both fulfilling and beneficial to society.
From finance to research, advocacy to policy-making, myriad career paths can lead to significant societal impact. By strategically choosing one’s role and aligning it with broader societal needs, it’s possible to leave a lasting, positive mark on the world.
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