Answering the question of what you do for work is just draining. Who wants to be reminded of their inbox, the sad Tupperware lunch from Tuesday or the latest brain-numbing lingo handed down from corporate? But for others who work in controversial – arguably unethical – industries like fossil fuels, tobacco and nuclear arms, this question can be deeply uncomfortable to answer, and can leave the listener wishing they’d never asked in the first place.
Ben has worked in oil and gas for over 10 years, and is desperate to get out. “I try not to go into detail about where I work,” he says. “I used to tell my niece I worked in a chocolate factory, because I would come home covered in oil. I do feel ashamed of what I do.”
After a brief soul-searching hiatus, where he tried his best to move into a different sector, he found himself starting a new position as a technical salesman – back in oil and gas. Like all those interviewed for the piece, he requested anonymity as he fears repercussions from his employer.
“I've got an excellent amount of experience, but it benefits me in no way outside of oil and gas,” he says. “In my time away, I reflected on how much I can't stand what I do. I was very depressed, thinking: ‘This is what I've dedicated years of my life to.’ It doesn't seem very worth it.”
Millennials and Gen Z are commonly thought to be politically engaged and progressive on climate and social justice issues, with 62 percent of the latter finding a career in oil and gas unappealing. But the truth is, none of these industries would be able to keep going without fresh infusions of talent, or at least young people willing to temporarily put aside their morals for the sake of a pay check, even if that average pay check – at least in Ben’s field – clocks in at £45,500, making it worse-paid than advertising, finance and research.
George, 27, works in tobacco – a bona fide “sin stock” that causes more than eight million deaths a year, and has been accused of mass deforestation and litter pollution on a global scale. He joined one of the world’s biggest tobacco companies after graduating, and “absolutely jumped at the opportunity” of his high starting salary in sales, though he knew tobacco would never be his “forever job”.
The issue of ethics never really came up, but “I do remember getting teased a lot by my friends about being a cigarette salesman,” he tells me. “Anyone that would come to our house parties, I’d be introduced as the cigarette peddler, like, ‘we just keep him around in case we need cigarettes’ kind of thing.”
When George eventually reached a managerial position, the question of his workplace became trickier to answer. “I've been on dates with people who haven’t taken it well. They’d question how I could work in this job and still have ethics. So I don't really talk about what I do anymore.” And in the end, the nagging thought that tobacco was just a stopgap in his career became too difficult to suppress – it was time to move on.
Like Ben, George is now attempting to quit, but has concerns about his employability. “I know I will be limited from working in certain sectors – like healthcare – but what about sports, and tech? When I was working in tobacco, every time I thought about leaving, fear of judgement from future employers was always something that stopped me.”
One of Ben’s lowest points came when he was told to fire over 60 people in 2020, a year in which his company made record profits. “Oil and gas companies are making the most money they’ve ever made,” he says, “but where people are demanding more fuel and oil, companies will hold it back, because if they over saturate the market, prices will go down and they’ll lose profits.” In the end, he explains, it’s normal people who pick up the tab – and he no longer wants to be part of that system.
Do people like Ben and George deserve our sympathy? Your mileage may vary on this one, but their desire to quit is arguably a good thing if they represent a tide of younger workers turning against these industries. Harder to reconcile with are those who choose to remain in these controversial fields, like Katie, who works in nuclear arms – specifically, as the manager for a programme for nuclear submarine design and maintenance.
“I grew up at the tail end of the Cold War, so ever since I was a child I’ve been morbidly intrigued with how these things work,” she says. How does Katie grapple with her nine to five and a world increasingly armed for war, of the kind that could annihilate millions and drive the planet into nuclear winter?
“I’m not building the actual warheads, I just work on the submarines that carry them – I’m not designing the thing that can kill people,” she says. “In my head, it's all funded by the government anyway. Does it matter if I'm taking the money for doing it?”
It’s only recently that she’s been forced to reflect more deeply on her role in the sector. “With the news coming from Russia at the moment, I do find myself thinking: ‘Am I actually adding to these problems in some way, shape or form?’ Also, if anything went terribly wrong, where I work would get bombed. If I’m in the office on the day Putin decides to kick off – I'm toast.”
Industries like the ones that Ben, George and Katie work in have, understandably, faced intense public backlash and increasing scrutiny over the years. Take the abundance of legal challenges faced by oil and gas companies over their greenwashing marketing, or US president Joe Biden’s latest move to force cigarette companies to reduce nicotine levels in their products. The European Parliament is currently under fire from campaigners after approving plans to classify nuclear energy as “green”.
But these are Sisyphean pushbacks in the face of industries that wield immense power, influence and economic control. Even Ben, who works directly in oil and gas, “couldn't think of anything that me or even 10,000 of me could do to change the tides of the way things are going at the moment”.
And there’s another reason why these insiders feel such deep pessimism over their industries. They create so many jobs, Katie says sadly, that “they’d have a hell of a job getting rid of them”. In her eyes, all of us – from the warhead designer, to the lorry driver transporting the arms, to the taxpayer funding these projects – contribute towards propping up the nuclear industry.
But if you’re caught in the middle of a nuclear showdown between Russia and the West – or, in the case of oil and gas or tobacco, you’ve lost your home to flooding or a loved one to lung cancer, this will come as very cold comfort indeed.