I was trolling LinkedIn the other day when I saw the recently-updated profile of someone who I went to high school with, and who graduated two years after I did. She was now in a senior associate position at a large multinational banking and financial services corporation.
I’m still working in customer service.
Probably due to some deep-seated desire for self-destruction, I googled the average salary of the position.
It’s over three times what I make.
Since the Great Recession, salaries have been stagnant, especially for millennials. According to the Wall Street Journal, if you’re income is higher than $35,000, you’re bringing in more than half of millennials. Further increasing this pressure on our generation, it’s been shown that the amount you make in your lifetime correlates with how much you make in your 20s, which is when the bulk of your increase in earnings potential takes place.
As you move up in your career and your salary increases, there’s a point where raises begin to level off. Most of the highest wage increase take place within the first ten years of employment, or when there is the most opportunity for growth and promotion. Since many millennials entered the work force with already deflated salaries or were underemployed, we end up losing this increase in income.
I think about these statistics and charts and articles, and I wonder whether the choices that I have made, re: my professional life have been mistakes. My lifelong earnings potential was nowhere on my mind when I was choosing which college to go to, or what to major in. I wanted to study something I was passionate about at a school (and which fit my ideal of a good college), and was told that as long as I did well, I would be okay.
I think about the people who went to Ivy League schools who are making a hundred thousand-plus dollars a year working at an investment bank, plugging numbers into a spreadsheet until 2 AM. I think about how terrible I was at STEM subjects, and how if maybe I was smarter, I wouldn’t be in the situation I am now. Maybe I should have majored in computer science — even though I find it terribly dry and boring.
I go on LinkedIn and see the career progress of people that I went to high school with, both older and younger, and I know that they are making more than I am, and I can’t help but feel that somehow I am failing. I wonder if I would have been happier if I had majored in a more lucrative field ,or pursued a more admired career path, despite my more creative passions, simply because it would provide more wealth.
What I make has become so entwined with my self-worth, and it has happened in a way that I never saw coming. Where I used to only be concerned with my personal fulfillment and my ability to do something I enjoy, now I am filled with questions that never occurred to my college-bound mind. Will my boyfriend and I be able to buy a house together? Have kids? Retire? Right now, with the way things are going with my paycheck, probably not anytime soon. If I chose a high-stress, yet high-salaried career, maybe I could have been in my dream house by now. I could have been able to afford extravagant vacations and expensive meals. But right now, that’s not in the cards.
But honestly, that’s okay.
Consulting jobs and Wall Street careers may offer a high salary and social prestige, but often lead to high job dissatisfaction. You could be on call at all hours of the night, work 80+ hour work weeks, doing tedious and repetitive work for hours, and maybe, in the end, feel like nothing more than a cog in a machine. And even if the people doing these specific jobs are happy, I know that I would not be in their same position — which is ultimately what matters to me. No one else’s successes are my failures.
What is important is figuring out whether you want money to survive comfortably, or if you want money for prestige. The desire to live a life for oneself is not the same as the desire to live a life for the approval of others, and especially when you’re starting out in your career, it’s easy to get them confused. Right now, I’ve managed my income well enough to not struggle every month, and am still able to save a portion of my salary every month. I remind myself that those who make more money than me might not necessarily be happier than I am, and that social prestige is not a valid cause to dedicate your life to.
It is still difficult to accept that I will probably, unless very lucky, reach the level of comfort and wealth my parents have worked long and hard for, even though I expect to work just as long and just as hard. If you want to be a rocking Wall Street banker who works until 3 AM, go for it (but please don’t destroy the world’s financial system. It’s very delicate right now, thank you very much). But at the moment, I’ll be more comfortable with less, while staying true to myself.