Altruism: A Dying Value? Will you pay me for it?

I posted a version of this on a discussion board related to green careers for young adults. A green professional in city government asked: “what kind work would be of interest to young people?” The responses from students stirred up a provocative question for me: why would anyone do anything that doesn’t lead to personal gain?

That’s the kind of thinking that got us into the kinds of environmental challenges we were talking about on the discussion board in the first place. It makes me wonder what young adults are learning and having modeled for them about altruism – the idea that we take actions that benefit the “greater good,” that have implications beyond ourselves. Why do elderly people volunteer in their community? Because they’re bored and have nothing better to do? Most of the ones I speak with do so because it enhances their sense of belonging, creates better circumstances in their community, and is connected to a sense of being involved in something greater than one’s self. If what’s being modeled to young adults instead is that you have to get yours, fight hard for it, compete, and “get something,” then I opine we’re headed in the wrong direction and away from solving the challenges.


I’m not much of a fan of perpetuating the “start at the bottom cleaning toilets and work your way up” model of work, particularly for bright, A+ students, particularly a model that dictates young people have to do menial work before they can come to meaningful work. I didn’t follow that model, for the most part. I started by working in a computer store at 14, selling IBMs and Apple products, doing a little programming, learning how to repair systems, and answering the telephone. And I also sweeped, mopped, changed the toilet paper, and got my boss’ coffee. Sure, I got paid, a whopping $4.75 an hour. I wasn’t there for the money; I was there to learn, to meet people who also liked computers, to help customers solve their computer problems. In a way, I wanted to “strut my stuff,” to impress someone, to show people what I knew… in the hopes that I would connect with even better jobs later, to build a resume toward college, and see what this whole adult “work” thing was about.


Jobs and internships don’t drop out of the sky on a silver platter. Everyone has a starting point, and goes through a process of building experience. “You gotta work!!”  If money is a motivator, that’s great, but especially in environmental jobs, not all internships translate into money. I know college graduates who volunteer for internships to gain exposure, network, build resume, and learn about the technical and program issues. One student related his experience that his “grunt” work while volunteering in a social service agency didn’t lead to those insights and opportunities – it didn’t take him close to program work which was his actual interest. Good to get clear and move on from those situations and invite ones from which you can learn about a career field.

We’ve talked in our youth green jobs program about the idea of a “journey” through learning about green careers, but I’m not sure that the process really registered; everyone seemed focus on the end result – a job, money, an employer contacting them about a position. What the process will reveal is the need to actively engage employers and green career professsionals; they’re not spending their day actively looking for you. Not arrogant, just real.
The value to an internship – paid or not, grunt work or high-brow intellectual – is more about networking, learning, and yes even resume building. As a volunteer in Portland’s Master Recycler program, I had to be “arms and legs” staffing booths, schlepping displays, and spending time away from my paid consulting. I did it because I enjoyed it. It helped people in my community understand how to deal with waste, recycling, and compost. The idea that I would do this for my own learning, for the benefit of community service, for achieving some greater goal than just drawing a paycheck seems to be largely lost on a culture that values the $financial$ bottom line. Is altruism a dying value?


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