They’re all Bono now

The laptop classes are convinced that they are saving the world – one Zoom meeting at a time.

Jacob Phillips

Topics Culture UK World

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American parents are far more concerned about their children’s careers than whether they marry or have children. That’s according to a new Pew Research Centre survey published in January. It shows that just one-fifth of parents consider it ‘extremely’ important for their children to marry or have kids, while nearly half say that these things are ‘not at all’ important. By contrast, 88 per cent of parents consider it vital that their children become ‘financially independent’ and ‘have jobs or careers they enjoy’.

After reading this, I decided to do some research of my own: I went on LinkedIn. It soon felt as though I had entered the peculiar world predicted by the survey. A world that values wealth accumulation and job satisfaction above all else. A universe that the Pew-polled parents so dearly want their grown-up children to inhabit.

LinkedIn also revealed something that Pew’s research barely touched on. Having a job or career one enjoys no longer rests on being paid well and having likeable colleagues or a pleasant work environment. No, the overwhelming impression you’ll get is that jobs are only deemed satisfying if they serve some greater cause or do something to ‘make the world a better place’.

LinkedIn is full of people boasting of the seemingly virtuous nature of their professional activity. Hedge-fund staffers talk about ‘fostering change’ and ‘empowerment’. Accountants claim to be ‘solving the problems of tomorrow’. And HR apparatchiks quote Gandhi by encouraging us to ‘be the change you want to see in the world’.

We are witnessing the Bono-fication of the professional managerial class. It seems that every investment banker, every corporate lawyer, every project manager is now simultaneously an advocate of good causes. But is the ostentatious do-gooding of a celebrity like U2’s lead singer really something to aspire to?

There is no doubt that Bono is arguably as well-known for his activism as he is for his music. In the 1990s, he was the leading voice in the Jubilee 2000 ‘drop the debt’ campaign – which sought to wipe out billions of dollars of third-world debt by the turn of the millennium. In 2002, he founded the NGO, ‘DATA’ (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), and a year later, he met with US president George W Bush to push for more international funding to combat AIDS. As a result, Bono has often been called ‘the face of fusion philanthropy’ thanks to his success in bringing together the often disparate worlds of celebrity, NGOs, politics and business.

But this style of fusion philanthropy has not been without its critics. In 2005, at the peak of Bono’s celebrity activism, writer Paul Theroux expressed how annoying it is to be ‘hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat’. Citing his experience teaching in Malawi six decades ago, Theroux attacked the counter-productive strategies of celebrity charity work. He said it undermined local people’s independence, was inefficient and often fostered corruption. In his view, ‘fusion philanthropy’ is more about easing the conscience of wealthy individuals than it is about genuinely helping those in need.

Fusion philanthropy is certainly not as virtuous as it appears. In 2010, the New York Post reported that little more than one per cent of the £9.6million in donations to Bono’s ONE foundation went to the needy. In 2018, it was revealed that ONE avoided paying local taxes in South Africa for five straight years, despite its founding mission to combat corruption and tax abuse in the developing world.

Of course very few have the wealth and profile to engage in fusion philanthropy on the scale of Bono. Yet that has not stopped middle-class professionals from engaging in Bono-lite. They are not just earning a fair whack – they are also determined to show they are improving people’s lives. Indeed, it often seems as if the laptop classes are incapable of doing their jobs without also believing that they are saving the world.

Predictably, this incessant moral posturing has led to no noticeable improvements in the wider world. Structural inequality persists throughout society, while geopolitical instability continues to rise. That’s hardly a surprise. This pseudo-activism is not saving the world. It’s a way to justify middle-class professionals’ wealth and status.

Builders, street cleaners and tradesmen seem to harbour no such Bono-fied illusions about their jobs. They understand that the purpose of, say, a builder is to build a house or an office, not to change the world. Unlike the professional middle class, they feel no need to justify their work in moral, do-gooding terms. Most importantly perhaps, they have their jobs in perspective. And as a result, they are free to focus on richer sources of purpose beyond work, from their family to the life of their wider community. Work becomes a means to a much better end.

Of course, work is a necessity. But too many are dressing up high-status, high-income jobs as modes of life-fulfilling activism. The sooner we throw off the Bono-fication of work, the easier it will be for our children and young people to pursue rich, meaningful lives.

Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Counteredlogos

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture UK World


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