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“Redefining Success”: A Euphemism for Unfair Pay?

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

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 in life skills, and help teachers teach and care for our kids, elderly, and disabled loved ones; workers who clean up after us; support staff who serve us in hotels, entertainment areas, and outdoor recreation; and our cashiers and retail sales people.

Jobs in the $30K to $35K range are filled by people who drive us and our stuff around; a slightly higher echelon of skilled food producers such as butchers, food processing workers, outdoor workers, sanitation supervisors, and personal care providers; those who assist teachers and medical professionals; people who make us beautiful, or at least presentable; security guards who keep us safe; and many in administrative support fields.

Jobs in the $35K to $41K range may often require a two-or four-year college degree (which likely means additional fixed costs in the form of student loand). In this category, I went up to $41K because 80% of America’s college-educated social workers make less than $40K and as low as $20K, and the average salary for America’s K-12 teachers is $41K. In fact, in 37 states, starting salaries for college-degreed teachers are under $41k, and in 12 states (including my state of South Carolina) they are under $35K. And even after decades of teaching, salaries remain low compared to salaries of comparable professions. Common, prevalent jobs that offer between $35K to $41K include teachers; social workers; truck drivers; clerks in various industries; assemblers/fabricators; customer service reps; healthcare techs; administrative professionals; and dental assistants.

If 50% of Americans Make $40K or Less, How Are the 1%-ers Doing?

On the other hand, as the fortunes of lower-paid workers have diminished over the decades, CEOs have thrived. In other words, since 1978, your pay has grown about 12%. CEO pay has grown 940%. The ratio of CEO pay to worker pay has also skewed grotesquely, moving from ratios of 20-to-1 in 1965 and 58-to-1 in 1989 to 278-to-1 in 2019. Sobering, huh?

What’s Up with the Effects of Covid-19 on Most Wage Earners?

As with all crises, poorer citizens suffer more than richer ones. In May 2020, the greatest financial pain has been felt by those who make $40K or less (about $19/hour or less) Fed Chair Jerome Powell pointed out in his 60 Minutes interview that “of the people who were working in February who were making less than $40,000 per year, almost 40% have lost their jobs in the last month or so. Extraordinary statistic. So that's who's really bearing the brunt of this.”

Solutions? I Got Nothin’

For all the words I’ve written, I don’t have the requisite “take-away” solutions the marketing experts tell us to offer at the end of your blogs. It’s not possible to make sweeping, immediate changes that bring American workers’ pay up to liveable levels. Just like we can’t summarily force the world to pay top female basketball athletes the millions that male stars get, we can’t wave a magic economic wand and ensure that workers make enough to support themselves and their children.

What I aim to do here (without wading into political discussion!) is to point out that if you are a single parent of two with no child support dollars and an annual income of $28,000, no amount of “redefining success” is going to cut it for you. Budgeting “better,” being “more careful,” or making your coffee at home won’t make life financially stable. If you are in this situation, please don’t feel as if you are doing something wrong in managing your money, because you aren’t. By getting up every day and going to work and managing as best as you can, you are succeeding. It is your society that is failing, and hopefully over time, it will “redefine success” so that citizens like you who work hard can live well. My best advice to you is to try to get certificates or education that can help you change to a better-paying career. Your local technical school (I teach at Aiken Tech) or the reference librarian at your public library would be good place to start researching and to get some assistance. You can also email me.

Financial expert Suze Orman recently pointed out in a recent NYTimes interview that the ultimate result of the Covid-19 crisis is that although she hopes “we will emerge a stronger country from all this [the] more likely diagnosis for how this crisis will shake out, [is that] ‘the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Sorry.’”

For now, I try to guide my clients, students, followers, and friends toward jobs or careers that pay as high as possible while still feeling like they are a personal “fit.” If you have several skills you are good at and enjoy, research to see what kinds of jobs a match for your interests and try to end up in the areas that pay the best. Guide your children to do the same. That’s not a foolproof solution, but today it’s the best we have.


Kathryn Hauer, a Certified Financial Planner ™, adjunct professor, and financial literacy educator has written numerous articles and several books. She works to help clients and readers understand and act on complex financial information to keep them and their money safe. She functions as a strong advocate and guiding light for her clients as they move through murky and unfamiliar financial and career worlds. Read more at her website.

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