Why sell out?

Jane Purdom delves into the minefield of multinational firms and discovers that “the idea of selling out is far from simple”


The Big Four in the world of business, the Big Five in the world of law — any final year student knows what these terms mean. Multinational firms that have set up in Ireland for what some may consider questionable interests, looking to entice soon-to-be-graduates at every possible opportunity.

This interest is not unidirectional, with a sizeable number of final year students flocking to apply and ideally pursue what is often a minimum three-year training contract with one of these massive companies. The contract usually involves a rigid exit clause, long hours, and a far from “adventurous” start to your adult life. So one has to ask – why?

If one considers what many think of as “the dream” – travelling the world before settling down to a glamorous and innovative career doing what you love – it has to be asked: when did a graduate contract with a big organisation become a more appealing option?

Research took me initially to first year students. I knew not to go in search of answers from any younger group; it is hard to imagine a class of children telling me that, rather than wanting to be singers and superheroes, they instead would like to pursue a three-year audit contract with Deloitte. On attempting to discover if first year students had already resigned themselves to one of these streamlined graduate programs, I found that the majority had not.

Many new Arts and Science students were confident that, despite a lack of paid graduate opportunities, they would secure one in their field, and would never even consider a graduate contract with one of these multinational organisations. The breakdown of degree disciplines that the likes of PwC and KPMG pride themselves on hiring at entry level showed me that many of these students would at some point change their minds. It is just a question of finding out where and how this massive shift in outlook and ambition occurs.

The sophister outlook

I contacted third and final year students who were now considering, or had just signed, a graduate contract with a multinational. I initially thought that I would be met with a degree of what some may consider denial – a rigid belief that this was not selling out, that this had been a dream all along.

However, millennials as a generation are thoughtful and more aware of ourselves than our predecessors, and so this was not the case. As contemporary living has become so inherently complex, so had this decision.

Selling out? We won’t be earning that much money, or at least not initially. The promise of salaries doubling, even trebling, on completion of exams is certainly an enticing tool for attracting graduates.

Not being able to travel? Well, what if you’ve already lived in the USA, or Canada, and with this contract can work for six months in Southeast Asia if you so wish? In this case, it can’t be denied that graduate recruitment in these firms is doing a great job engaging with their target group.

A rational decision

With this information, I could understand how many students rationalised their decision to sign on the dotted line with a corporate giant. However, as a generation of critical thinkers and analysers with a stronger sense of social responsibility than any of our predecessors, I had to consider if the answers that I had received merely skimmed the surface of what might potentially be a life-altering decision. I had to wonder if these young people had, like myself, grappled with the socioeconomic consequences of the corporate world that they were queuing up to enter.

Many of us had strong opinions on the now infamous Apple tax case of 2016, arguing that this money should indeed be taken from the big dogs, and given to the Irish people through services such as healthcare and education. The same critics then signed contracts with multinationals that openly and actively supported Apple’s appeal of this ruling, solely for monetary gain.

On a personal level, I found that my reckoning with this moral contradiction lay in a sense of responsibility. I felt that I owed it to my parents, having invested so heavily in my education, to build a well-paying and solid career. I felt that I owed it to other women to enter into the world of business, as even one more female in the world of tax had to improve the infuriating lack gender balance in the industry.

Furthermore, what effect would one person’s decision not to conform to the system actually have on society? Can one person really make any impact or effect change? In this sense, the two sides of the argument are, perhaps, the two sides of our own rationalisations.

When considering the power of an individual to change a rigid system, I found myself questioning whether this sense of duty that I had was itself flawed. Surely if truly advocating for change, I should consider not attempting to help balance the gender of an industry, but rather trying to redefine the standards within it or perhaps reconsidering my career path completely. Perhaps I should instead devote my professional career to directly combatting the inequalities that so evidently frustrated me?

The real world

The final piece of the puzzle lies with people that have made this journey, and transitioned from the world of student ideals to adult reality. Having spoken with someone who has been in the business world for nearly ten years now, I instinctively expected to be met with a sort of bemused belittlement, and to be told that I would understand more once I too had made the jump to the “real world”.

However, my fears were unfounded, and I was met with answers of genuine understanding and agreement. “Of course you consider that seventeen-year-old lad in you, that wanted to play for Ireland or start a band or whatever. But as I got older I found out that the best way to be was to get a job that facilitated the lifestyle you want. I love helping out and it’s through this job that I’ve had the opportunity to sit on the board of a huge non-profit organisation”.

When I asked if he thought he was contributing to the bigger issue of social and economic inequality, I was met with a confident no: “I don’t believe that Ireland’s issues, like homelessness, are indirectly or directly to blame on the likes of multinationals. Our companies are paying massive taxes that aren’t being spent properly. That’s not on us”.

So there you have it. If you want to change the world, go into politics, not business. But is it really that simple? My research into the modern world, where corporate giants meet socially-conscious millennials, taught me that the idea of “selling out” is far from simple.

Deciding whether or not you are compromising on values is a deeply personal and complex task. Speaking with individuals at different stages in their journeys showed me that some do consider following this path to be crossing over to the dark side, while others see it as a genuine opportunity to better themselves, advance their own prospects, and possibly make the world a better place at the same time.

As “selling out” is perhaps a truly subjective thing, the novelist Dorothy Sayers may lend a hand in attempting to define such a prospect: “to make a deliberate falsification for personal gain is the last, worst depth to which either scholar or artist can descend in work or life”. Perhaps, if you truly believe that your choices aren’t compromising your own morals or beliefs, then you have nothing to worry about in terms of “selling out”.