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Severance, 2022 (TV still)Courtesy Apple TV

Are we all doomed to work ‘unethically’ under capitalism?

More and more people want to do work which makes a positive social impact – but thanks to the cost of living crisis, many feel trapped in jobs which go against their values

What do young people want from work? According to a number of recent surveys, having a job which makes a positive impact on the world and aligns closely with our values is a major priority. And if it doesn’t? Apparently, we’re happy to quit. 

Almost half of young professionals say they have resigned from a role because it didn’t fit their values – a trend forecasters have dubbed “conscious quitting”. Meanwhile, two-thirds claim there are certain industries they’d refuse to work in for ethical reasons. 

But obviously, this isn’t always possible. Handing in your notice without having another job lined up is often not feasible, especially in the midst of the ongoing cost of living crisis. Landing a new role is tricky too, with a competitive jobs market, widespread layoffs and hiring freezings, plus few opportunities to upskill and retrain without forking out thousands or taking on debt. Because of this, ruling out any remotely unethical employers from your job search soon becomes an idealistic fantasy.

It’s a dilemma Anna*, who’s in her early 20s, is currently facing. Over the last few years, she’s become hugely passionate about climate justice. But at the university where she works, she says she’s been told it’s not a key priority. “It’s incredibly – I don’t want to say heartbreaking – but it’s difficult,” she says. “You feel lonely and are made to feel very radical, in a way.”

“When the climate crisis is a perspective through which you see and live in the world, when you don’t see that reflected in other people’s actions, it is incredibly frustrating… you feel like it should be on everyone’s agenda,” she says. This disconnect has made her keen to seek work more aligned with her values – but quitting right now isn’t an option. “The thing that’s stopping me is financial security and just needing to pay the bills to exist,” she says. “I want to go back into some form of education and upskill myself as much as possible for the future. But it’s about finding that balance – can I even afford to study again?”

Elly*, 24, is similarly demoralised. Her marketing job involves creating ads for wellness companies who promote products such as meal replacement shakes, diet pills, fat-freezing procedures and fillers, which makes her feel guilty. “It just feels as though I’m responsible for making young people think they need these things, and personally I would never ever promote that to anyone because I don't believe in [them],” she says. “I think it’s incredibly damaging to people’s self-image and mental health and I don’t want to be contributing to it. It’s weighing me down.”

She says staying in the job is “absolute hell” and would love to quit, but she fears she’s “not really qualified for much else”. It doesn’t help that there are few opportunities in the small place where she lives. “Until I can find a role in something else, I’m stuck,” she says.

In our current economic climate, a soul-crushing job is better than no job at all. A 2022 survey found that, with the threat of a recession looming, almost three-quarters of Gen Z were prioritising job security and stability over all else. Plus, not all young people subscribe to the notion that work should be where they find meaning and purpose in their lives. The idea that work “should be a source of fulfilment” is still pervasive – as author Sarah Jaffe notes in her book, Work Won’t Love You Back – but recent years have seen kickback to this notion, as evidenced in the rise of the anti-work movement. No doubt some young people will see work as purely a way to support themselves, and perhaps use their free time to find fulfilment and fight for social justice and progress.

‘When you are going to work each day feeling deeply uncomfortable inside about how a company is operating, it becomes more and more difficult to live with yourself’ – Elisa

Still, for many, where we spend the majority of our hours each week does matter. Evidently, Anna and Elly feel alienated and frustrated to devote so much of their time to jobs which are entirely discordant with their personal values. In his essay On The Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs, the American anthropologist David Graeber described the “profound psychological violence” of working a job you secretly believe is pointless and contributes nothing meaningful to the world. According to Graeber, this creates “a sense of deep rage and resentment”.

Elly is clear that, going forward, it’s “vital” for her to work with a company whose values align with hers. But how easy is that to find? According to Anna: “It’s definitely not easy… especially when so many companies are very persistent in greenwashing or youthwashing. It’s really hard to know what the truth is about an organisation.” Because even organisations that appear ethical can’t completely escape the contradictions of operating in a profit-driven society. “The same capitalist tendencies still replicate themselves, even in organisations like charities,” Anna says.

Clover Hogan, a 23-year-old climate activist and the founding Executive Director of Force of Nature, a youth non-profit mobilising mindsets for climate action, is not surprised young people want to work in climate-friendly jobs in particular, considering that 70 per cent of young people report feeling eco-anxiety. Yet she says that, in many instances, businesses are “investing more time and energy in being seen to do the right thing, rather than actually getting on and doing it”.

She wants to see more transparency and more regulation when it comes to greenwashing and wokewashing. What I’m really excited about as a product of this ‘conscious quitting’ research is a real barometer to be able to understand which are the companies that young people are right to want to work with, and which are the bad actors who young people are right to not want to work with,” she says.

‘It’s not easy... when so many companies are very persistent in greenwashing or youthwashing. It’s really hard to know what the truth is about an organisation’ – Elly

Young people’s reluctance to compromise their values when it comes to work is already having an impact. The oil and gas industry – arguably the most unethical sector to work in – faces “significant talent gaps” according to a report by Accenture, which warned that millennials “won’t close the gap” due to their perceptions of the sector. A separate survey saw millennials rank the industry as the least appealing to work in globally. And with the success of student-led campaigns to ban fossil fuel recruiters from campus career fairs – which has seen four universities agree to its demands so far – this antipathy is likely to grow. 

For those who find themselves in morally dubious or unethical jobs, being able to ‘consciously quit’ may seem like a privilege. But some have chosen this path despite the difficulties it presents. Elisa quit her “dream job” working in a large charity because she didn’t agree with the way it was spending publicly-donated money. “The salary was great, better than I had ever earned before. The office was lovely and the perks were good. So leaving that security was not an easy choice,” she says.

“I’m not one of these people with a financial cushion from owning property or from family money. I’m the daughter of immigrants,” she continues. “But when you are going to work each day feeling deeply uncomfortable inside about how a company is operating, it becomes more and more difficult to live with yourself. My moral compass kept pointing at my heart.”

While she didn’t have another job lined up, she knew that she could find work at a restaurant. She’s since started working as a kitchen chef – going from living on more than £50,000 a year to earning almost minimum wage and working double shifts of 14 hours. Yet Elisa says she has no regrets. “I stand by my decision,” she says. “I’m at peace inside.”

*Names have been changed