Money and work
That weird tug-of-war between perceived value and sense of worth.
A few weeks ago, I saw an intriguing question (probably on Twitter):
Would my 15-year-old self think I’m the coolest?
I laughed a bit and saved the idea to revisit later.
My 15-year-old self wanted to be a writer. Later, in college, she would decide that being a writer “wasn’t practical.” It was too uncertain, not enough money in writing. Neither of those qualities was appealing for someone who wanted a family.
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The 15-year-old version of me would scribble endlessly in notebooks or type at an ancient word processor in her bedroom. She wrote entire volumes of poetry (that haven’t been looked at in decades). She would probably be delighted that the 39-year-old version of herself is, in fact, a writer.
But I don’t want to talk about my childhood dreams. Instead, I want to talk about the thing that stopped me from pursuing my dream: money. And how attitudes toward money have changed over time.
When the job isn’t worth the money
People who quit don’t get unemployment checks. And if they have nothing else lined up, they are literally saying, “I’d rather earn $0 than work here.”
I quit a job when I had nothing else lined up. I’d reached a breaking point. And, up until that point, I’d never been a risk-taker in my career. But I was willing to take the chance that I would earn $0 for awhile instead of my six-figure salary.
(And I want to fully acknowledge that not everyone has that option. It’s a privilege to walk away with nothing else lined up.)
One of the last things the CEO said to me was, “Well, we always tried to take care of you.” He was talking about money, of course. But nothing about the job took care of my other needs as a human, such as positive interactions with my co-workers or doing work I was proud of.
But that CEO didn’t get it. He thought money was the answer to anything. If an employee complains — throw more money at the situation. That should be enough to appease them.
Younger generations take a much different approach to money. A study by Deloitte found that Gen Z values salary less than every other generation:
If given the choice of accepting a better-paying but boring job versus work that was more interesting but didn’t pay as well, Gen Z was fairly evenly split over the choice.
A few months before I quit, the company paid another employee a bonus to create some marketing materials. This was far outside of her role (as a data analyst) but she had the necessary skills. And the company had fired its external marketing agency, in part due to the pandemic and in part due to lack of results.
She took the bonus with the understanding that she would do the work for six months. At the end of that time, the CEO directed me (as the employee’s manager) to offer her an additional bonus to continue the work. When I approached her, she said, “No thanks, I don’t like this work.”
The CEO was frustrated. Why didn’t money work? Did she need more money? I explained that wasn’t it. The money wasn’t worth it to her to do work she didn’t enjoy.
That employee’s boundaries were a lot better than my own had been up until that point.
But compensation is still part of the equation
There’s a big distinction between money not being a primary factor and being undervalued for one’s work.
I met a guy a few weeks ago who told me he’d been at his job for 25 years (as a software engineer). I said, “Wow, you must be really happy there.” He replied, “Yeah, every time I ask for a raise, they give it to me.” He feels that he’s compensated appropriately for his work.
I also talked to a friend who had moved into a new role at her company: one that had significantly more responsibility than her previous role. Yet her bonus was lower than it had been in prior years.
When she complained, she was chided. How dare she ask for more money? She was getting an opportunity with the new role! And besides, her manager told her, “your work isn’t that complicated.” (The role is mission-critical to the company’s operations. And let’s not even bring up the issue of women being consistently undervalued for their work and the fact that many women don’t advocate for additional compensation.)
When I left my job to make $0, someone pointed out that my company had kept me “gainfully employed” for 15 years. Yes, I got a paycheck in exchange for work. But gainful employment (according to Wikipedia) only refers to an employee’s “self-sufficiency.” It has nothing to do with being appropriately compensated for value and contributions.
That’s where companies fall short. They think that “gainful employment” is enough.
Make a move and know your worth
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that not many employees are overestimating how much they’re worth. Instead, companies are content to keep compensation low — either to maintain a profit margin or because their notion of employee value is a few decades out of date.
After leaving fintech and pivoting into content marketing, I took a job that was far below my previous salary. And at first, I was ok with that. Opportunity! New career! Of course I have to start at the bottom!
It quickly became apparent that I was undervalued. I wasn’t being recognized for other skills I brought to the table: skills that made me better at the job. Other perks — such as a better work environment — weren’t enough to offset a low salary. I knew I was worth more.
There are two ways in which companies fail to acknowledge employee value. One is that promotions/raises are based on nothing more than “gut instinct” (and that gut is often misguided). Or the company has specific criteria/tiers for promotion and the requirements are so rigidly followed that it doesn’t take other factors/skills into account.
The first time I was offered real money for writing, I nearly fell out of my chair. Someone saw my value. Not my lack of specific experience.
Now I work as a freelance writer. Freelancing is definitely not for everyone, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like my skills are being matched with my compensation.
I know what I’m worth.
A roundup of stuff from around The Interwebs. Some to make you smile, some to make you roll your eyes. And some stuff that I wrote on other platforms.
How to Recover from a Toxic Job | Harvard Business Review
5 Steps to Build Social Connections in the Workplace | Blend Me Inc (oh hey - I worked on this one!)
Why Bosses Are So Miserable | Anne Helen Peterson
You can also follow me on LinkedIn for more insights about work, or on Twitter for spicier takes, and Medium where I write about fun stuff like productivity and creativity. Or catch up on the personal side of my life on my blog.
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Yes! Money is only one of so many motivating factors and, in my experience, it is almost never the most important one.