I'm writing this to ask for guidance regarding a personal conflict between two perspectives I struggle with reconciling. The first is one I've absorbed from the EA community, the second from my upbringing and society in general. 

Note that this focuses on the US specifically, as many other developed countries have healthcare systems or social safety nets that result in different dynamics.

The first perspective: People in Western developed countries are vastly richer and better off than people in developing countries. As such, Americans are morally obligated to give some proportion of their wealth (usually 10%) to altruistic causes. This shouldn't be too big of a burden, and can be done by giving up wasteful luxuries and making a few bothersome (but not overwhelming) personal sacrifices. By the same logic, American EAs should seek out careers that do the most good, even if they pay somewhat lower salaries than the alternatives.

The second perspective: Nearly all Americans are constantly facing financial struggles. The disappearance of pensions, high cost of healthcare, and likely depletion of Social Security mean that millions of dollars in savings will be needed for current younger generations to retire semi-comfortably. Most people don't have the means to do this, and thus have very little saved for retirement. But even if one has a decent job (~100k/year) and saves as much money as possible, millions of dollars in savings can be lost on health emergencies (like cancer treatment) or nursing homes. In the coming years, almost all elderly Americans will either have to work until retirement (which is difficult for many jobs, especially in the tech industry where age discrimination exists), become homeless, or leech off of their children for support (which simply compounds the problem for the next generation). The only option is to take whatever job pays the maximum amount of money and save every last dollar.

In other words, it's a conflict between "Use your time and money to help the less fortunate" and "Use your time and money to maximize your chances in the rat race, or you're screwed."

The first perspective might argue that the second perspective is overly pessimistic. Surely it's possible to survive retirement without an extremely high salary—many in the FIRE community even manage to retire early on programmer salaries (higher than average, but not necessarily rich). And if everything in the second perspective were true, homeless elderly populations in the future would skyrocket beyond realistic numbers.

The second perspective might argue that most people with the first perspective seem to be either extremely intelligent (and can thus easily score a high-paying job) or come from well-off families that can support them if things go wrong. This is not true for most of the population. Helping others is nice, but ensuring your own survival comes first.

I'm a college student without much experience managing personal finance, so apologies if I have some pretty big knowledge gaps in this area. I would appreciate any resources or ideas that would help me better understand this conflict, or balancing financial security with EA in general.

16

7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:37 AM
New Comment

It depends on a host of factors - it's hard to say what any one individual should do. In general and in very broad terms, however, I'd say the following regarding young EAs.

  • Be willing to seek out high-impact careers (given that you can find one that suits you)
  • But  those careers should pay decently well, so that this isn't a huge sacrifice
  • If you don't have a high income and have uncertain prospects, then put more emphasis on financial security than on donations 

I imagine that if I were a multi-billionaire that was "running" EA, I would prefer that young professionals prioritize their safety net over donating. I would probably even want to give some of them a safety net if I could (though that would be a complicated project).

Wouldn't you?

This framing doesn’t clarify the issue much to me. Why do you think this billionaire would want young professionals to build their safety net over donating? Seems there are considerations (gcrs, potential monetary ease of building safety nets, low expected return on some people’s long-term career, low expectation that people stay involved in EA long-term, etc) which may flip the calculus for any given person.

Why do you think this billionaire would want young professionals to build their safety net over donating?

Here's one consideration: If someone in EA find themselves in a financially scary situation, and their ability to earn income depends on them publishing/doing impressive things about anthropogenic x-risks, then it seemingly becomes more likely that they will cause accidental harm due to biased judgment. (By drawing attention to something in a harmful way, etc.)

Hey, I'll dive deeper to why I think so (maybe you'll change my mind)

  1. Most of the impact comes from late-stage professionals
  2. We want people to reach the late-stage part
  3. Something that might prevent someone from reaching a high impact late career is a financial problem (I'm imagining losing 6-12 months of salary) where they don't have a safety net
  4. Another failure mode might be the fear of such a financial problem, which would cause the professional to not dare switch jobs or so [I think this is not a theoretical problem, I can elaborate]
  5. Or not be able to save time (or improve productivity) by paying money, like 
    1. Not having a reasonable office or computer
    2. Not having a quiet apartment to sleep in
    3. Taking bad cheap public transport

 

Another (similar) way to think about it:

  1. If everyone would have a safety net of only 2 months or so (because they'd donate everything else), I think
    1. EA would have lots more donations from early career people
    2. EA would have a lot less very strong late career people, because many wouldn't make it

 

I also want to say you changed my mind and I agree with you:

  1. Yes there's less value in getting donations later
    1. Because we can't use them today
    2. Because we might not get them at all

 

Regarding "may flip the calculus for any given person" - I already agree with that. That's part of what I meant by "that would be a complicated project".

My story : I’m a self employed physician, so don’t have a pension, and spent 14 years in university/residency. Due to my long training, I graduated feeling behind in terms of retirement savings - I had none. I’m now six years into practice and have been giving about a 12th of my salary yearly. There is certainly a tension - should I be saving this money for me/my kids? If I saved more, I could maybe give more later. I think investing in my (2nd gen EA) children is worthwhile and important. When have I saved enough and can I call an amount extra? Being a physician has been a tough gig the last few years but I’m a long way from FI, obviously saving more I could get there faster. If I reached FI, I may be open to partially switching to a higher impact career. Rationally, I know I’m probably helping more people with my donation than I am through my (rewarding, but ineffectively altruistic) work so that helps.

It looks like there are an increasing number of well paying EA jobs in all kinds of roles. Maybe you need to do some work to find the right personal fit (like 80K hours). As soon as you start working, start investing because compound interest is amazing. A book that helped me learn to invest is Millionaire Teacher by Andrew Hallam.

If you don't feel financially secure, it's likely going to affect your productivity a lot. Financial issues affect one's mental health, relationships, children, etc.

In my own experience, as I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate the importance of financial security much more than when I was young, in particular to being able to make a sustainable impact and a bigger impact in the future.