Have you ever been asked point blank, ‘What’s your income?’
In the rare event you have (outside of a job interview), you probably gave a vague, wishy washy answer. You might have said, ‘Why do you ask?’, or have tried to keep a poker face while the asker plays the The Price is Right.
Just like we rarely talk about how we use our money, talking about our income is one of life’s remaining taboos. We might tell our partners what we earn, but we’re unlikely to share it with our peers, family or friends.
It’s not even discussed in the workplace. As a finance coach to millennials I meet more than a few people who can’t even put a figure on what they personally earn — let alone their colleagues.
Why do we keep our wages so intensely private? It’s something I struggle with sharing myself, even though I talk about money all day every day. I wonder what the world would be like if we all had a better understanding of each others’ incomes?
It feels like the height of rudeness to ask about another person’s income. I cringed when tenants applied for my rental property, and on the estate agent’s application form they were required to disclose their wages to me.
Across Asia and in the US, people are much more open about the topic. So why does it feel so invasive in Australia?
It could be something to do with our ‘tall poppy syndrome’, and a fear of revealing how well we’re doing. Or we could worry we’ll be judged for not earning ‘enough’. We might look at what people our own age are bringing in, and think, ‘Shit I’m 29 too, and I’m not stacking up!’
Or perhaps it’s that we see our income as a reflection of our sense of worth as a person, so sharing our ‘dollar value’ can feel like a very personal disclosure.
In weighing up the benefits of opening up, I’ve found it helpful to look at it from both professional and personal viewpoints.
Professionally, if someone asked me what I earn, I would be far more likely to answer clearly and truthfully. I expect it would be in context and they’d probably have a good reason for asking. The answer could help them make a career decision, or plan better negotiations with their employer.
As we move into the gig economy — and go from having base salary packages to percentage-based bonuses, side hustles, contract and freelance work — being more transparent could really help our conversations about what our skills are worth. If we can’t hack the conversation, we’ll lose out in negotiations.
In a personal context, I don’t think the benefits are as cut and dry. I still feel hesitation with the idea of discussing my income. I’ll definitely talk about it if asked, but I’m not going out of my way to raise it.
Perhaps the positives are the same as when we talk about how we value and use our money, and how understanding what matters to people means we can be supportive of their financial and life goals.
Likewise, understanding what we each earn could help us be more emotionally in tune with those we care about, rather than making assumptions. If we know our friend is on a first year teaching salary, we’re probably not going to recommend we go out for a four-dollar-sign dinner.
Make all news good news
If we become more open about income, there’s a chance we’re going to face some answers we don't like, or some workplace politics. We’re going to have to get over the shock that our peer is earning $10,000 more. Instead of moaning, ‘I’m smarter than them, I’m better at my job, and they shouldn’t earn that much!’, we could use that knowledge as power: ‘I’m going to negotiate more. I can use this information not to take them down, but to lift myself up.’
Maybe it’s also a chance to weigh up what we’re paid against other workplace benefits, and to think about what really fits with our life goals and values. Flexibility, salary packaging, health insurance, gym memberships, travel or transport benefits could mean more than extra money.
A few years ago I left my steady career in a professional services firm, knowing that my earnings would progress faster if I stayed, as opposed to going into wealth management. But the flexible lifestyle, satisfaction in my work, and fewer grey hairs were worth thousands to me and my family!
Transparency the trick
In a professional context, I do think that if we can sort our shit out, and be less awkward about talking income, everyone will be better off. Not necessarily in each individual workplace, but in the labour economy overall. It could help with career planning, decisions around what people want to study, or when to take career breaks.
Remember when we looked into the idea of how we’re caught in the wheel of striving for ‘progress’ — like chasing pay rises. If we know what we really need to earn in order to reach our goals, we might not actually need that pay rise.
In the portfolio career approach, it could help us achieve work life balance. If we know our goals, what we need to earn, what our skills are worth, and likely rates, it can help us make informed decisions.
On the personal front, the jury's still out. I'd love to start trialling conversations and learning from others, just to see what's valuable and what's just chit-chat.
Talking income might be uncomfortable, but we can lead the way, so when the next generation says to us, ‘You didn’t have marriage equality? You didn’t know mobile phones are bad for you? You didn’t talk about your income?’, we can say, ‘Yes we did!’