Would you quit your job on ethical grounds? Last summer, a dozen Google employees did just that.

According to several reports, they ditched the prestigious technology firm over its involvement in a project named Maven. The project involved providing data processing to US military drones, there was also a broader disagreement over the way senior leadership dealt with the ethical underpinnings of their work.

Many of us face a more common ethical dilemma – would you turn down an attractive salary because you couldn’t bring yourself to agree with a company’s position on, say, the environment, animal testing or simply the way it treated customers?

If you answered yes, data suggest it is likely that you are a millennial. Study after study claim this cohort, more than previous generations, are motivated by ‘making a difference’ through their work. Many of those who leave jobs seek a better ethical or cultural fit, it is claimed, even when doing this involves taking a salary hit.

But is this true? In reality who can afford to make that choice?

The cost of leaving

Millennials are often described as “the job-hopping generation”: several studies flag our unwillingness to stick with steady work or follow a predictable ladder climb. Some traditional industries are having a hard time retaining their youngest recruits: a 2017 study of the Institute of Student Employers shows that 46% of graduates in the UK leave their first employer after just five years.

For all the lip service we pay to ‘making a difference’, evidence shows the primary driver for selecting a job is still the payslip check 

The widely held perception is that many leave to ‘pursue their dreams’ or go backpacking around the world.  But rejecting the corporate career path to go off travelling or kick-start your own business is a fairly drastic and costly decision. Only a few can really afford to make it.

Research shows consistently that having ‘employment gaps’ lowers the average salary — for some, by thousands of dollars per year — and can decrease future job quality and satisfaction.  

Christian Byfield, a Colombian former investment banker and consultant, left a string of well-paid but “not fulfilling jobs” in banking and insurance, and started travelling around the world, he said on a TedX Talk in Bogota. “A lot of things started to happen because I started to follow my heart,” he said. After a couple of years of financial insecurity he eventually became a travel influencer with a huge audience.

But Byfield is an exceptional case – most of us still have to think about our wallets when we make job decisions. For all the lip service we pay to ‘making a difference’, evidence shows the primary driver for selecting a job is still the payslip. The most recent Deloitte survey on millennials underlines that 63% of millennials consider the financial reward a very important factor in weighing up a job offer – the highest ranking one. Research by Triplebyte, a start-up which recruits technical talent for technology companies, found 70% of those who get two job offers choose the highest paying one – exactly as our parents’ generation would have done.

The financial downsides of making this kind of change do not make a lot of sense for most of us. “It is not true that millennials do not want stability,” says Lee Caraher, author of the book Millennials & Management. In fact, we need financial stability more than our parents did. In many countries, we carry the burden of increasing student debt. The fallout from the economic crisis further delayed our economic progress and our big financial decisions.

In general, some recent research questions whether millennials are actually ditching secure jobs at a higher rate than our predecessors did. In the US, Pew Research’s latest statistics show that we are just as likely to remain in work than Generation X members were at our age – a study among many others that also signals high turnover is not really a millennial novelty at all.

It is not true that millennials do not want stability – Lee Caraher

María Reyes, who did not want to use her real name, is a 26-year-old category manager in a retail chain in Colombia. When she started as a trainee she felt the corporate culture clashed with her expectations and beliefs. “The company does not care about people at all”, she says. But she stuck with the job. She even signed a two-years exclusivity contract in exchange for an expensive training course abroad – which would have to be repaid if she left the firm.  

Eventually she was promoted to her current position, where her internal conflict deepened. Her job is liaising with providers and “trying to make money at all cost, without any regard for the other party”. She does not like to hustle for every penny, especially at the expense of smaller companies that depend heavily on her decisions. “I believe both sides should win in a business, not only one of them,” she says.

But the problem is she’s relatively senior for someone so young. If she were to apply for a similar job elsewhere, she doesn’t think she would be successful. She doubts she would even get an interview and says there are not a lot of job openings in her field – making changing jobs unwise.

It gets even worse when millennials start to grow up, have kids and take on mortgages. Marcela Cardona, who did not want to use her real name, began her career in pharmaceuticals hoping to help people through her work, but soon felt overwhelmed by the many ethical dilemmas and questionable situations she says she witnessed. “This is a business and its goal is to make money, not to help people,” she says. She soon started a masters in bioethics, pursuing a bigger sense of the human implications of what she did — and perhaps a new career.

But when she became pregnant things changed. With a daughter to support, she could no longer afford to change track. She switched jobs hoping things would improve, but she encountered the same issues everywhere she worked. She remains very unhappy with her job, “but you have to be practical”, she says.

The better safety nets people have in place – savings, assets or professional qualifications – the easier it is to take decisions that involve sacrificing their salary

Some have it better than others

Not all job markets are equal – some sectors have more flexibility. Some skills are in higher demand, meaning more jobs to choose from. Engineers in Silicon Valley, for instance, are highly prized and get to be demanding about their workplaces, says Ammon Bartram, a co-founder of Triplebyte.

He says people in non-technical areas, like public relations or legal services, won’t have as many options as programmers. And when it comes to a sabbatical, the cost of taking one is less if you are a talented engineer. “If they are technically strong, engineers do pay something in ‘career progress’, but they generally get back to (the level) where they would have been.”

Yet in other fields like social sciences or communications, where salaries are lower and jobs scarcer, making a decision is a lot more difficult. In general, the better safety nets people have in place – savings, assets or professional qualifications – the easier it is to take decisions that involve sacrificing their salary.

Making a difference?

For many millennials, a more feasible solution is to align their work more closely with their values from the outset. Both academic and industry research suggests that this generation want the people they work for to be ethical, committed to diversity and playing their part in making the world a better place.

Older generations “never asked why and did what they were told”, according to Caraher. Young workers, however, need to ensure they have a good grasp of their employers’ values and their role in the organisation. “They want to matter in their job, they want to understand they make a difference on their team.”

Psychologists have consistently found that the extent to which a worker’s values are compatible with their employer’s plays a crucial role in determining employee job satisfaction and company profitability.  

Some companies, particularly big ones, work hard to communicate their values. Having a strong brand makes it easier to attract people who are a good fit for the company, says Bartram. But smaller companies “have to do things to stand out, and one of the most effective strategies is emphasising the positive social impact of their work”.

The good news is that employee pressure can bring tangible change. Many big employers work to fulfil these demands through philanthropy and corporate social responsibility, and by setting out ethical positions more explicitly. Offering “a moral compass”, says Caraher, is increasingly important in attracting younger talent.

If anything, the outcome of the Google affair brings some hope. The company did not renew project Maven amid employee opposition and ditched a lucrative Pentagon contract partly, it says, because it did not align with its “AI principles”. It was a sacrifice – but one the tech giant could afford to make. Some of its workers, it seems, could also afford to put their values first: their livelihoods were not as vulnerable and they had good employment prospects elsewhere.  

But for most of those who feel their work conflicts with their values, the bad news is that ‘making a difference’ and ‘pursuing your passion’ are financial decisions. And those are better made with a clear head and the cold hard numbers in front of you.

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