“I’m carrying two paper bags. One contains a croissant, the other my soul”

It’s time to stop demonising a corporate career choice and accept the rent-paying reality, writes Nicola Dwornik

Shiny towers and lifts to 116 floors. Glass windows in every direction, the concentrated smell of freshly-pressed suits and over-strained orange juice. Unfulfilled syrupy hopes and dreams are dashed into coffee shots, workwear choices are a sliding scale of monochrome shades – correlating levels of fatigue and monotony that are exhibited by their wearers. Discussions about the weather deliciously extend into ones about financial spreadsheets. After a while everyone looks like a spreadsheet. I press a light-up button and begin the greasy climb. It’s my first day at The Corporation and I’m carrying two paper bags. One contains a croissant, the other my soul. I hand over the latter to a receptionist who really knows how to use eyeliner. The precision of her eye contouring seems rather judgmental, and I immediately doubt the authenticity of her response: “Thank you, you’ll get that back in forty years.”

In return for surrendering my soul, I receive a seductive starting salary and a lanyard that supposedly opens doors. In ten years’ time I will have watched four Wimbledon matches (none of them with my friends), read a disappointing number of books, and have an
unmatched amount of LinkedIn endorsements. I will cash in my bonus for a golden retriever, a dutiful partner, and a home in Clapham. Such is the soulless corporate world, narrated by a beautifully uniformed humanities student. It’s a sterile and naked brand of Hades’ lair that has napping pods rather than glowing pits of fire, and fancy hand cream dispensers littered about in bathrooms to soothe monetary burns.

Dramatics aside, hostility towards the corporate world features rather a lot in conversations I have with other finalists. If we’re not matching types of herbal tea to our moods or discussing dreams had whilst napping, we’re usually producing passive sighs and eyerolls whilst discussing our future careers. Someone has probably just expressed an interest in pursuing a corporate career and suggested that they might find it tolerable, even enjoyable. It may even be that that someone is the one doing the eye-rolling – to soften the blow for us, who are, naturally, the ‘non-corporate intelligentsia’.

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This rhetoric that prevails has prompted me to consider rewriting various dictionary definitions. For example: ‘Selling out’ (verb). Used by Oxford students to describe other Oxford students who decide that there is nothing better in life than to get really loaded, exchange their soul for a branded highlighter, and renounce the virtuous lifetime pursuit of wholesome intellectualism.

It’s all a bit silly and small-minded. Whilst our scepticism and mocking might seem mildly amusing, it is arguably rooted in an unwillingness to acknowledge reality. Life, for most, runs on rent and realism, rather than padded-out footnotes. And, it is often brushed over that not everyone from Oxford is presented with the same range of opportunities on graduation.

It’s very easy to lull ourselves into a false sense of homogeneity here. Together we live in a somewhat ethereal kingdom where our continued existence, regardless of our subject, largely depends on reading books or completing a tute sheet, or pretending to have done either. It is an seven-day weekly routine of sparring at pre-arranged tutorial duels and sleeping in marbled towers.

We are also taught by tutors who rarely venture outside. Rather predictably they often only concern themselves with life in the rewarding, yet expensive and volatile, realm of academia. Their words, whether they concern potential career routes or my essay plan, are often ungrounded and rather incomprehensible. It is this aura of intellectual uniformity that starts to show its cracks as graduation beckons. In our final years of Oxford, the real world becomes imminent and less cloaked by stuffy gowns and the like. It becomes a lot more obvious that we are each our own individuals, with different priorities and facing different realities. Upon graduation, some people will eagerly move back home, whilst others won’t want or be able to. Whilst comparing career options, some people will always look for economic security, whilst others will be more flexible and be in the position to be pickier. Just as some can’t justify taking on an unpaid internship, others struggle to qualify applying for jobs in the charity sector, or those which are equally morally applauded, particularly if it means that making ends meet seem impossible or a plain struggle.

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A corporate job isn’t always the answer to these insecurities, let alone the only answer. However, amidst all our hate speech I think it’s important to stress that the corporate life is an informed choice, sometimes even a compromise, that many students know they’re lucky to have the privilege to make. For many, it’s the stepping stone to other careers and a foundation from which other goals are pursued. Whilst I’m arguably naïve in saying so, I feel that the drawing of such finite lines between people’s calculated life choices and inherent morals is rather an oversimplification. After all, we are not cut-out paper dolls, and those who choose to go down the corporate route probably do have more highly prized possessions than a logo-embossed Moleskine notebook.

As students, revelling in intellectual snobbery and the rhetoric of ‘selling out’ is amusing. Actually, it’s often hilarious, yet hilariously bad at providing the full picture – which I’m sure we realise, but often forget. It also serves to place those, for whom money is no problem, in a position where making the moral choice is an easier step.

After all, given that my brother does work for a bank, I’m pretty sure that some financiers do have their souls intact, because he has a rather great one. I’m certain that like the aesthetic filter on the Paradise Papers, corporate people have shades of yellow in their lives as well as monochrome, just like all of us.

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