Working in the private sector: matters of contradiction, self-interest, practicality and personal values

This post began as a response to a question left by an anonymous reader of my blog on a previous post in which I reflected on the origins of my interest in anthropology and my training and career as an anthropologist. I thought it was a really good question, and wanted to be able to explain my answer in detail (in typical Amy fashion), so I decided to create a new post for it altogether. I also just came from watching the second presidential debate, so making sure I actually answer the question is top of mind. 🙂 I’ll post the question here:

I read a lot of your Tweets/posts on anthropology-related matters. Always good reads, and thanks for sharing this interview. I, too, fell in love with anthropology in a similar way that you did. I want to challenge you on one point (because that’s what we do, right?), though. I’ve noticed that a lot of your posts relate to “the 1%,” corporate greed, and so on, but you say this in your above post: “There is also one more reason I have my current job. Private sector jobs (i.e. at corporations) are also typically more high-paying than public sector or non-profit jobs.” It seems a bit contradictory to me, that you took your current job with a large corporation, just because it paid you more money. I don’t fault you, but it just seems as if that’s the opposite of what I’d expect, although I don’t know you personally. Just a point I noticed; I was surprised to see that you work for State Farm. I’d be interested if you could elaborate on your decision to for work for a corporate giant. I’d hope that it was based on more than greed, alone. Again, no disrespect, and perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Keep up the good posts.

Hello Anonymous,

Thanks for your question. I don’t think you’re being disrespectful at all. In fact, you make a great point. I’m happy to explain more about my decision, and appreciate the opportunity for dialogue (because, you are right, that’s what we do!)

I’ll start with a little bit of background. After I graduated last year, I found myself with two job offers: one to go work at State Farm as a consumer research analyst, and the other to go to D.C. and work on health and education policy research. I was excited about both of these potential opportunities, but decided on State Farm for two reasons. First, I’m really interested in consumerism and the things people do with their money. It’s just something that I find fascinating and something I enjoy researching, and relates really well to my training in anthropology. I can take a critical eye to it or look at it purely as social phenomena, or both. One great thing is that practically everyone does it, so there will never be a lack of jobs where money is concerned.

However, the true driving force behind my decision is that I have an extremely large amount of student loan debt. Without going into details, it’s enough so that unless I win the lottery (I do not play, which significantly lessens my chances) or get a surprise inheritance from some long lost relative (I don’t think any exist), I will likely be paying it off for the next few decades.

This is something I have thought a lot about, starting with deciding which of these jobs to take in the first place. I had the choice to go live in D.C. and do something great, but make a lot less money while paying my student loan bills and just scraping by. This job offered a salary of $10,000 less than the one I have now, and would be located in a major metropolitan area where the cost of living was much greater than what I was used to or could realistically afford. Or, I could go to State Farm, make a good amount of money, and still be able to do interesting research. It might just not be research that would benefit humanity in the sense that I had hoped for in all of my years as a budding anthropologist.

As you can imagine, I would have preferred the non-profit job because of its good intentions and potential to positively impact humanity, and D.C. would have been a really cool place to live, but the State Farm job has allowed me to live comfortably and pay my bills with some money left over for travel, hobbies, and savings. Bloomington, IL isn’t the most interesting city, but the cost of living is relatively low compared to D.C. Not only that, but I also received relocation assistance, which was a big help because I had no money saved up during graduate school. The job in D.C. was simply unable to assist me in this way.

On the surface, my choice might sound contradictory, especially to those familiar with my interests in social issues, civil rights, politics, and other related topics, not to mention my penchant for taking a critical eye to the capitalist system. But it never came down to simple greed. It was all about circumstance. I like to think about it from a structure-agency perspective, in that there are structural forces that influenced my decision (paying for my own education, limited job options, the economy, etc.), combined with my own individual actions and choices. We all live within the confines of the world around us, yet we are all able to make decisions based on what we feel is right for ourselves given our options within a specific moment in time. Again, circumstance is key. Where did you go to school, and how much did it cost? Are you going to school to get a job or to become a better citizen or both? Did you get any scholarships or have to take out student loans? Were your student loans public or private, and how much are the interests rates? Did you not have to worry about paying for school because your parents paid for it for you? These questions could reach even further to those who don’t have the opportunity to go to college in the first place.

To me, life isn’t so black and white. Decisions are so much more complex and infinitely affected by variables that are both within our control and outside of it. While my decision might have been contradictory to what I personally tend to think about corporations and capitalism and “the 1%” as you put it, it was not contradictory to what I determined to be in my best interest at the time, which was to be able to make ends meet and enjoy life within my own means. It was also not contradictory to my perhaps naive hope that the company I was going to work for would somehow be different from the ones I have spent so long criticizing. Of course, this all leads to the question of the capitalist system as a catalyst for having to put oneself and one’s own interests before those of others to begin with. If it were different, would everyone’s needs be considered equally? How does the system reconcile personal values with making ends meet? Another post for another time, I suppose.

On the subject of working for corporations, I am not totally opposed to the idea. I do not think all corporations are evil, I just think that some are better than others, and most need to do a better job at respecting people and the environment, or we can consider ourselves permanently screwed. To make things more interesting, I recently submitted my resignation to State Farm, as I will be relocating to Portland, OR. I do not currently have a position lined up, but I do have a continued interest in remaining within the field of market research for the same reasons I entered it in the first place. It’s hard to predict the path my future endeavors will take me down. Perhaps I will remain within this industry until I am able to take on a position related to what I enjoy professionally but that does not ask me to sacrifice my personal values for the sake of paying bills. Or perhaps I will one day work with a company whose values match mine more closely. I am sure they are out there somewhere.

I also want add that the reason I didn’t go into this topic in my previous post was that I didn’t feel it was necessary or helpful to discuss with the student for the purposes of his assignment (I probably gave him way more than he thought he would get to begin with!) 🙂

Thanks for taking the time to read my blog and for encouraging dialogue with your thoughtful question. Looking forward to more discussions in the future.

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