Talking About Pay

Felix Salmon has a piece at Vox about the Jill Abramson thing at the New York Times. Apparently there are rumors that she wasn’t paid as well as her male predecessor and that her complaints about this lead to her ouster. At one point in the piece, he says something that gives me a chance to make a point I’ve been wanting to make:

Very few people like to talk about how much money they make — especially not people who earn a lot of money.

I hear this sentiment expressed, almost always by upper class people, but is it actually true? Salmon adds “especially not people who earn a lot of money.” But, in my experience (could not find studies), this is only true for people who earn a lot of money, as well as those who may not make that much money but still find themselves in that high socioeconomic status milieu (e.g lesser-paid writers).

Over the years, I’ve asked and seen others ask dozens and dozens of lower-paid wage workers what their pay is and an hourly figure almost always pops out immediately without hesitation. This has been true of people who were familiar to me and those who were not.

In conversations among those in upper class professions, I’ve noticed that once the job and employer are identified, the next questions are about how they like it and what kinds of things they do. In conversations among those in lower class professions, after the job and employer is identified, most of the time the next question is about what the pay and benefits are. When jobs aren’t self-actualizing and don’t confer status, that’s all they are about.

Asking about the pay serves another function as well, which is to gain information about a job that you might consider trying to get. If you are a low-level worker and you meet someone or have a friend who works at a restaurant or retail store or similar, it’s useful to know what their employer pays people. If you are in that low-level labor market, you can plausibly move into these jobs at some point. The same is not generally true for professional jobs where it’s not plausible for an accountant to think they might get hired as a writer at Vox at some point, for instance.

Again, this is just what I’ve seen. Pay is much more transparent and open at the bottom. People in those jobs regularly share that information with one another and don’t seem squeamish about it in the least bit. I have never seen any larger scale research on whether there is such a class divide in willingness to share one’s income, but it’s one I’ve noticed.

Adjusting to this culture of pay secrecy (which to me seems unnecessarily tense and awkward) is something I’ve had to intentionally undertake as well in the course of learning all of those arbitrary cultural capital habits that make upper class people so awesome (err I mean “noncognitive skills” that are all definitely objectively valuable, not valuable simply because they make you a better fit among the crowd that controls things).