I don’t attach the word “millennial” to topics willy-nilly. A lot of our advice is aimed at everyone living in these strange times! But this advice is tailored specifically to those who came to adulthood immediately before or after the 2008 recession.
Graduating in a recession leads to earnings losses of about 9% compared to those who graduate in balmier financial climates. The pay gap takes a full decade to become statistically insignificant. For the average worker, that amounts to five grand in a single year. The lost opportunities to invest some of that income—as well as the recession-graduate’s stymied options for other jobs—creates a staggering wealth gap.
Worst of all, it’s completely fucking unfair, because we were kids when this hot mess was cooked up, yet we’re still the ones who have to eat it. We have every right to be salty about that.
There are some things you can do to get yourself back up to the level you deserve. Here’s what we suggest.
Be really damn good at your job
I have met many people in management positions whose continued employment is utterly mystifying. People so dumb they couldn’t tell which way an elevator was going if they had two guesses. I mean, really, people who are not even functionally useless to the daily operation of a company—but active hindrances. We’re talking full Ashley Graham situations.
I used to see this as evidence that Corporate America was full of arbitrary bad decisions. In some workplaces, that may be the case. But as I have met more of these people over the course of my career, I see a more subtle pattern emerging. These people are rarely the company’s ideal choices—often, they were the only choice. They were the last man standing. Some freak combination of departures, arrivals, layoffs, and bad timing made it so that they had no other options. That is neither a stable nor a desirable position.
That means it’s impossible to try to be this person. Do not think you can make more money while also being bad at your job. When you’re bad at your job, you’re a drag on your team, whose support and recommendations you’ll need to advance. Work to get better in whatever way you can by seeking additional training, finding a mentor, soliciting tough love, and applying yourself.
If you are not good at your job, I don’t know how to tell you to advance. All subsequent advice assumes your performance merits a pay hike.
Make friends at the workplace
I got my first corporate job by applying through a big-name job site. Every job change and title upgrade since has been because of positive relationships with coworkers.
They’ve forwarded applications to me when they knew I was looking; they’ve written me glowing recommendations; they’ve thrown me the kinds of projects my portfolio needed; they’ve run practice interviews with me; they’ve done salary and culture recon for me; they’ve even created space for me at their company when no such position existed.
Make friends by being good at your job, by putting humanity before business, and by being honest and open-hearted. This will net you the kind of squad mates who will have your back years after you stop working together.
Don’t try to make friends by sucking up, kissing ass, gossiping, forming cliques, and complaining. It probably won’t get you any squad-mates—and if it does, they’ll be the kind of people who disappear when you need help.
Do your research
Do you know what your coworkers make? Do you know what the company paid the last person who did your job? Do you know what the average salary for your position is nationally? Do you know how your closest urban center influences that number?
This is one of the easiest steps to do. (We already have a guide for it!) There are lots of online resources that offer this kind of information for free. Consider joining online forums for people in your industry. Make nice with your coworkers and get them to fess up. Remind them it’s a feminist act of compassion to share salary information!
Rock-solid knowledge of your professional worth is essential.
Unless you adore the company, don’t pine away for a raise
I was astonishingly underpaid at a previous position, so I did what I thought was right: I asked for a raise.
And I didn’t just ask—I made a production out of it. I got access to financial data and demonstrated the dollar amount I had saved the company (it was hundreds of thousands). I pointed out the trainings I had taken and the new programs I had learned. I pulled up salary data to demonstrate I was making easily $20k lower than the industry standard.
Long story short: they didn’t bite. I was at that company for almost three years, and never got more than a 2% cost-of-living increase. I found out later that my boss hadn’t even passed my requests along to anyone in finance or higher up the decision-making chain. Why? Because she was expending all of her political capital within the company trying to get her own raise.
(She didn’t get it, by the way. She was escorted out by security after ten years with the company. Cool.)
You’ve heard the relationship advice that trying to change another person is a lost cause? The same is true of companies. They have different values and you’re asking for heartache by trying to transform them through sheer willpower. Some companies value a cheap labor force; some value recognizing, retaining, and rewarding talent. If you’re at the former, don’t waste your time and energy trying to make yourself the exception. Focus your efforts on getting yourself to the latter.
Change jobs every two years
My first salaried position paid $45,000. I moved on after two years.
My second paid $80,000. I moved on after nine months.
My third paid $93,000—and they gave me an unasked-for raise before I’d even been there a year.
That’s how I know I’m finally at the right place. Our values align: they love me, and I love me too!
Workers who stay at a company longer than two years see their wages stagnate alarmingly quickly. Compare that to the average worker changing jobs, who sees a 9% jump in their base salary. Two years is an ideal window. It’s not a suspiciously short amount of time, leaving hiring managers to think you’re unreliable. And it’s not such a long time that you’ll run out of things to do and learn.
When you are young, it makes no sense for you to stay at one company. The world is wide! Every workplace is different! The world is full of opportunities to learn and grow and explore. And I know a surprising number of people who’ve returned to old workplaces after they found themselves missing it. As long as you leave on good terms, the way back isn’t necessarily barred behind you.
Negotiate FOR. YOUR. LIFE.
Listen to Mother and don’t fuck it up.
Negotiating is a learned skill that’s difficult to practice and easy to mess up. I have learned some tricks over the years. Check out our articles on salary negotiation techniques here.
The best general advice I can give is that this process is like poker. Even if it feels like the hiring manager can see all of your cards, they cannot. They can only see what you show them. Now is your time to quiet your inner imposter and focus on winning the game. You can go back to being a hot mess once it’s done.
Find a pair of coattails and hang on tight
I am passive-ambitious. I like having more money and responsibility, but I am also lazy and like to take BuzzFeed quizzes while I’m supposed to be working. (By the way, my result for “Which Ousted Arab Spring Ruler Are You?” was Muammar Gaddafi, which I think is fair.)
Early in my career, I was lucky enough to make friends with some legit ambitious coworkers—people who had made it their mission in life to claw their way up to the top. They plowed ahead, and I was often sucked up in their wake. I now have a leadership team who sees great potential in me, and I know they’re grooming me for new challenges.
Not everyone in the workplace is a shark. There are loyal people out there who are willing to give you a helping hand up the ladder. Find them, cleave unto them. Let them advocate on your behalf. And when you find yourself in a better position down the road, don’t forget how much help you had. Make sure you do the same for others.
Don’t build your nest in a dead tree
I’ve worked for horrible companies, and I’ve worked for mediocre companies. I stayed at neither for longer than I had to. Just this past year, I finally landed at a great company. And it’s here I’ve decided to settle in, invest some hard work, and build my career future.
When you’re in the right job, you will not have to beg for raises and promotions. You will not have to fret about networking and making your voice heard. You will not have to work for less than you deserve. And you will not have to hide who you are. Don’t invest your best work and your most fruitful years at companies that don’t treat you like the rockstar we’ve established you to be.
There you go. These concepts helped me quintuple my salary in five years. I’m now a full-time artist sitting pretty on a six-figure salary at twenty-nine years old. Imagine fucking that.