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“Redefining Success”: A Euphemism for Unfair Pay?

Updated: Jun 16, 2020

I love the concept of “re-defining success,” which has gained ground over the decade as a way to feel more contented about life’s prospects. It is beneficial to figure out what really matters to you so that you can take actions that will help you reach goals that genuinely satisfy.

When “Redefining Success” is Fair

I had the opportunity to participate in a Minnesota Public Radio show with Kerri Miller, Marcheta Fornoff, and Nerdwallet’s Sara Rathner about the financial difficulties that the Covid-19 crisis is bringing to millennials and Gen Z. You can listen here. It is a great show full of tips and optimism for overcoming financial difficulties as a result of Covid-19. One of the great points made during the show is the importance of “redefining success” when it becomes evident that previously-hoped-for financial dreams are dead.

Redefining your idea of success to conform to the realities you find yourself in is smart and reasonable. For example, deciding that you get more fulfillment from experiences than you do from material things might mean that your house is sparsely furnished but that your travel journal is full. You could forgo the slog to the “corner office” (that expression may soon count for less, thanks to Covid-19!) in favor of a career in social work where you make daily differences in the lives of people you serve. It’s great for your life to be meaningful to you rather than to try to fit in to what society tells you should be important.

When “Redefining Success” is Unjust

The place where “redefining success” breaks down for me is where wages earned though paid work are not sufficient to support a healthy, financially safe life. About 50% of Americans earn $40K or less. Fully 32% of wage earners in the U.S. earned $21K or less in 2018, and many of them were households greater than one. Can people “redefine success” when their life’s work doesn’t offer a living wage?

At a glance, $40K a year doesn’t sound terribly low, but let’s consider. Here are some ballpark numbers using a $40K salary, which is not considered a bad salary and is much higher than the $20K to $30K earned by so many Americans. Let’s assume that “Chris” (single parent with two kids and no extra child support) earns $40K, and after income taxes and FICA taxes brings in $35K or about $2,900 per month. We’ll assume (conservatively – these estimates might work in my town of Aiken, SC but wouldn’t in Charlotte or Los Angeles, where my two millennial kids live) fixed costs of $1,000 for rent or mortgage, $300 for utilities, $200 for healthcare and auto insurance, $200 for car payment, $100 for student loan payment. After those fixed monthly costs, there is $1,100 left per month for everything else.

What is “everything else?” That $1,110 would have to cover gas, child care, vacations, car repairs, kid’s sports, sports equipment, oil changes, tires, hotels, car repairs and needs, outings, extra eating out, entire family clothing, sports fees and camps, shoes, sneakers, public transportation, gym memberships, haircuts, kid's school activities, hunting stuff, books, movie and video rentals, doctor visits, dentist, appliances, appliance repair, gifts, snacks, school supplies, home decorations, furniture, hobbies, special events, travel, holidays, airline tickets, all emergencies, savings, etc. Let’s face it: that $1,100 per month is NOT going to be able easily pay for all the costs of a normal, healthy, middle-class American life for Chris and the kids. If enough bad luck, job loss, or unfortunate circumstances hit at one time, it can mean that Chris’s family could end up homeless, separated, or in other situations that are dangerous. And yet half of Americans rely on $40k or less a year.

In the case of Chris and the kids, no amount of “being careful” or spending less is going to work because that little family is not bringing in enough money to thrive. Poverty guidelines (2019) consider that a household of one needs at least $12,490 to exist, a family of 3 needs $21,330. Yes, Chris brings in much more than the poverty level of $21K, but it is not a comfortable or reliable existence that “redefining success” can make secure.

If Chris had a partner and both parents earned $40K, then their combined income of $80K would probably work. But since 32% of Americans are in the under $21K range, there is a good chance that even in a family of two parents, they might only be combining two $21K jobs for an annual amount that is still under $41K and with four people to share it.

Which Jobs Pay $40k or Less?

Who are those workers who make up 50% of the United States’ employees? Generally, (although these are averages, and many people in these areas make less), jobs in the $20K to $30K range include most of the people who produce, grow, tend, pick, make, serve, stock, sell, and clean up our food; those who take care of, assist