December 9, 2019

A few hastily-scribbled thoughts on making less money as the years go on

Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a few people share their salaries online—mostly in an effort to increase salary transparency, which I admire and applaud—and one thing that I’ve noticed is that salaries for each person increased as the years, and as their careers, went on.

The progression feels natural: as you do your job for longer, and as you get better at it, you get paid more to do it. I do, however, want to remind people that sometimes, life doesn’t quite work out that way.

Currently, I get paid almost half of what I got paid ten years ago. When I started my career, juggling freelance clients and billing for the work I did, I was able to make a lot more than I did now. My income went up progressively until my late-20s, as I managed to score some big clients who paid well (and more often than not, paid on time). My income peaked at the age of 28, when I was making pretty close to double what I make now.

As I approached my 30s, and well into them, I started to make trade-offs that inevitably affected my ability to earn more. The first was to eschew the constant churn (and anxiety) of looking for clients and to take on full-time, permanent work. The second was to prioritize work that allowed me to pursue passions outside of the office—family, volunteering, advocacy, friends, reading—as well as those inside the workplace. And the third was to look for work that not only allowed me to have a positive impact on the world, but allowed me the space for reflection and inner thought: to have a positive impact on myself.

These choices mean that my income would steadily drop over the past decade to where it sits now, back to what I was making when I first started out in my career. These choices also mean, however, that I don’t worry about healthcare anymore because I have benefits that cover (at least, partly) many of the things I had to pay out of pocket for before. They mean that I feel like I can leave work at the end of the day and put all my attention on the people I love, the activities I enjoy, and the causes I want to advocate for. They mean that I leave each work day knowing that the work I did made a difference and that I’m valued for the work. They mean, most of all, that I am more free to be who I want to be, even if that means I make significantly less than I did before.

I’m not saying everyone’s trajectory will look like mine, or should, but what I am saying is that the common narrative of career progress—particularly around income and financial growth—doesn’t have to be pervasive. What I’d love to see is a narrative that tells us not that we’ll make more money as we progress in our careers, but that we’ll have more ability to make choices; it’s that freedom of choice that is the real value that we accrue.