In the book-turned-movie "Thank You for Smoking," tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor meets every week with his buds, a firearms lobbyist and alcohol lobbyist, and later with lobbyists from the fast food, hazardous waste and oil drilling industries. They call themselves the "Merchants of Death" or "The MOD Squad."
Few people actually consider their jobs evil. Even if the work we do everyday does have a net negative effect on the world, most people have developed a sophisticated set of rationalizations to pretend it isn't true.
But not everyone. According to data collected by PayScale from 30,000 workers over the past year, and obtained by The New York Times, 15.9 percent of employees in tobacco manufacturing agreed with the statement, "My job may make the world a worse place," as did 5 percent of workers in the gambling industry, 4.4 percent of gas station employees, 2.8 percent of fast food restaurant workers, 2.1 percent of alcohol wholesalers, 1.9 percent of petroleum wholesalers, and 1.8 percent of those in "legal services."
When you look at the data by specific job title, a clear winner emerges by a dizzying margin. It isn't petroleum engineers (3.1 percent), advertising account executives (3.4 percent), personal bankers or investment banking associates (3.2 percent and 3.8 percent), legal assistants or senior attorneys (3.6 percent and 4.9 percent), or fashion designers (4.1 percent). It's fast-food workers, who believe their work may make the world a worse place at the whopping rate of 42.3 percent.
The campaign against fast food over the last decade, which included Eric Schlosser's 2001 best-seller "Fast Food Nation," Marion Nestle's 2002 "Food Politics" and Morgan Spurlock's 2004 documentary, "Super Size Me," probably hasn't helped the restaurant employees' sense of worth. But these jobs remain one of the few low-skill employment opportunities actually projected to expand. There are currently 3,312,000 fast-food and counter workers and 577,000 fast-food cooks, according to the National Restaurant Association. Extrapolating from the PayScale data, that's 1,645,000 people who think their daily toils might be making the world a worse place. Ten years from now, that number could rise to 1,875,000.
At the same time, surveys of young Americans emphasize again and again that the new crop of the workforce is looking for work with an positive impact. According to a 2010 survey by Kelly Services Inc. of 14,000 people across the U.S., 47 percent of Generation Y are willing to sacrifice wage and status if their work "contributes to something more important or meaningful." But of course, the only people able to make such a choice are those who can afford to sacrifice that wage and status.
There's much talk of the growing wealth gap these days. But perhaps the "do you think your work is maybe good or bad for the world?" gap will be the next frontier of inequality.
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