We’re Millennials. Which means we graduated from college in 2009, just in time for the Great Recession to really fuck with our job prospects and salary levels. Nevertheless, we persisted, managing to carve careers out of the bleak post-recession landscape, a feat that eventually led to us being amateur career advice-givers right here on the internet!
I lead with all this because circumstances are feeling… familiar. The COVID-19 pandemic has hammered Gen Z especially, just as they’re starting their careers and building independent lives. And no matter your age, the pandemic took a toll on a lot of folks’ livelihoods. They’re facing challenges like what we experienced, and we hate it. So our time has come! Learn from your slightly-elders, younglings!
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 those affected were kids when this hot mess was cooked up, yet still the ones who have to eat it. You have every right to be salty about that.
So here’s what we suggest you do to get yourself back up to the level you deserve.
Be really damn good at your job
I’ve met many people in management whose continued employment is utterly mystifying. People so un-smart they couldn’t tell which way an elevator was going if they had two guesses. I mean, 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’ve met more of these people over the course of my career, a more subtle pattern emerges. These people are rarely the company’s ideal choices—often, they were the only choice, the last man standing. Some freak combination of departures, arrivals, layoffs, and bad timing left them with no other options. That’s neither a stable nor desirable position.
So it’s impossible to try to be this person. Don’t 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 aren’t 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 happened because of positive relationships with coworkers.
Coworkers have 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; I have even had coworkers create 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 squadmates 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 squadmates—and if it does, they’ll be the kind of people who disappear when you need help.
Do your salary research
Any chance you know what your coworkers make? Do you know what the company paid the last person who did your job? How about the average salary for your position nationally? Do you know how your closest urban center influences that number?
This is one of the easiest steps. (We already have a guide for it!) There are lots of online resources that offer this kind of information for free. Our favorite is Glassdoor.com. 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.
Don’t pine away for a salary 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 of it. I accessed financial data and demonstrated the dollar amount I’d saved the company (hundreds of thousands). I pointed out trainings I had taken and new programs I had learned and used 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 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 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.
And when you do get to that company that values your worth, go ahead and request raises on a regular basis. Here’s our advice on how to do that:
- You Need To Ask for a Fucking Raise
- The First Time I Asked for a Raise
- Should You Increase Your Salary or Decrease Your Spending?
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 knew I was finally at the right employer. 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.
Don’t believe me? We did a whole survey of our followers that revealed how successful everyone was at growing their salaries through job-hopping!
- Job Hopping vs. Career Loyalty by the Numbers
- The Fascinating Results of Our Job Hopping vs. Career Loyalty Poll
When you’re 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 your salary FOR. YOUR. LIFE.
Listen to Mother and don’t fuck it up.
Negotiating is a learned skill. It’s difficult to practice and easy to mess up. I’ve learned some tricks over the years. Check out our articles on salary negotiation techniques here:
- How NOT to Determine Your Salary
- When It Comes to Salary Negotiations, Are You Asking for Enough?
- What To Do When You’re Asked About Your Salary Requirements in a Job Interview
- If Your Employer Refuses To Negotiate Salary, Try These 11 Creative Counteroffers
The best general advice I can give is that this process is like poker. Even if it feels like the hiring manager can see your cards, they can’t. 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 soon had a leadership team who saw great potential in me, and I knew they were 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. In my last year of working, I finally landed at a great company. And it’s there I 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 won’t 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 until I was a full-time artist sitting pretty on a six-figure salary at twenty-nine years old. Then I was able to retire at thirty-five. Imagine fucking that.
An early version of this article was published in June, 2016.