Sat. Nov 27th, 2021

This week’s issue

I’m a tax accountant at a Big Four firm. It’s interesting and pays well, but I wonder when I get to the end of my life, will I think what I did with it was worth it? I can quit and become a teacher or doctor, but I’m not in a position to spend years on retraining or get a big pay cut. Is there a career I can sidestep using my existing skills, where I can make a positive impact on the world without taking a hefty salary cut? Anonymous, 30’s

Jonathan’s answer

It is not uncommon to ask existential questions in the middle of the career, and perhaps the pandemic caused it to arise earlier. When you chose your current path, the world was calmer and more predictable. But now, with increased uncertainty, you and many others are questioning whether a well-formed and clearly defined career will be satisfactory enough.

Nearly 80 years ago, American psychologist Abraham Maslow defined his hierarchy of needs for human motivation. However, it is probably only in the last 10 years that people start expecting – and then demanding – that their work meet all these needs. Before that, people might have had lower expectations, knowing that they would only fulfill some of their needs through work and the rest of the home or social life.

One answer for you is to return to a mixed model: use your current role for intellectual interest and good pay, while satisfying your other needs (feeling the job is “worthwhile”) elsewhere. A quick approach would be to apply your tax accounting (or even general accounting and finance) skills to people or organizations where you would feel there is more purpose. It could be volunteering to help British doctors with the labyrinthine NHS pensions, support charities to manage their finances, or as a school governor.

You worry about whether you will find your work worthwhile, or of value to you for the time you spend. The examples of medicine and teaching show how you can define and measure value. There’s a tension here that may be underlying your unrest: your job seems to be primarily about helping people have more money, but your examples are about improving people’s lives through education or health.

Since you are in a reflective mood, it will be valuable to work out what you dreamed of being when you were younger. Even if you eventually reject it, there is no better time than now to consider what it might take to live out that dream.

Retraining and lower pay for a few years can be a price worth paying so that at the end of your life you will feel fulfilled with a life worth living.

Readers’ advice

Move into the industry as a tax accountant, work a 37-hour week and take all of your annual leave. Get your breath back and then start building something worthwhile in your spare time. Sotonrob

I found a huge improvement in my sense of value and purpose when I moved out of a Big Four firm to work as an accountant in a corporate environment. I then felt I was. . . work to build and improve a business. The expatriate expatriate

Look at the OECD or World Cup [World Bank] of IMF[International Monetary Fund]. . . You will probably get more fulfilling and intellectually stimulating work, but you should be aware that the recruitment threshold is quite high. R EPS

Jonathan Black is Director of the Career Service at the University of Oxford. Every two weeks, he answers your questions about personal and career development and work life. Do you have a question for him? Email:

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