“Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.” – Socrates
When I graduated from Rutgers University in 2001 the job market was about as warm as the Russian Vostok Station in Antarctica ( – 93.2 degrees). The summer of 2001 I sent over 60 resumes to offices within ten miles of my hometown. In retrospect, a degree in Fine Arts wasn’t the most marketable skill but the fact I had a degree would surely open doors right? Wrong. I would later learn the United States was in the middle of a “mild” recession, most likely due to the burst of the Dot Com Bubble the prior year. At any rate, when a fresh supply of graduates and a crowd of newly unemployed workers flood the job market at the same time employers can become more prudent when it comes to hiring. It took a year, but I finally found a job working at a bank. It became apparent to me, graduates my age would be the first generation of Americans whose wealth did not meet or exceed that of the generation before us.
After working for the bank for five years, I became restless and needed to expand my horizons. I had just earned my MS in Management from The College of St. Elizabeth and figured now I would finally be able to obtain a job where I felt I was adequately compensated for my education, expertise, and effort. Wrong again. Although it was a bump up from my bank job I found every stereotype about modern-day corporate America was true. I did find it unusual there were many seasoned employees (5 years plus) in the same position as when they were hired. I have always been someone who finds repition boring. I need to constantly learn and grow to be satisfied with my work life. I made a mental note to keep myself motivated as I had no intention of becoming one a person satisfied with staying in place. I made the decision early on to work hard so I could advance and expand my horizons.
Following the financial meltdown of 2008 the company drastically changed their approach to advancement and compensation. The company, as many large corporations are doing today, shifted towards an incentive based payment system, which sounded promising at the time but now I see works in the best interest of the corporation, not necessarily the employee. The idea is you have a base annual salary but can earn a bonus depending on your production sounds good at a glance but there are other factors which are detrimental to the white-collar employee.
First, unless you change positions or switch employers you’re most likely not getting an increase to your base pay. With so many consecutive years of slow job growth, the market if full of candidates who are willing to perform your job for less than you earn. If the company can pay ten thousand dollars less to have someone perform the same job, why wouldn’t they? According to an article that appeared in USA Today this past summer (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/workplace/2003-08-05-outsourcing_x.htm), the white-collar worker is America’s latest export. Employers can pay workers overseas half of what the America white-collar worker earns and doesn’t have to provide healthcare or retirement packages. The same article points out once these jobs leave America they are not coming back. This is becoming, and will become, the standard of the corporate world and will render the American white-collar worker extinct, just as manufacturing left our shores many years ago.
Second incentive based pay breeds competition among employees rather than cooperation. The employer makes it clear at the beginning of the year there is only a limited amount of resources allocated for bonuses and only top performers may be awarded any additional compensation. All year the employee will hustle and exhaust themself to meet or exceed performance standards but if the employer simply doesn’t want to compensate said employee for any reason, the bonus will not be awarded. Although the employee may over perform, they lose because incentive based pay allows the company to simply change the standards of what they are looking for to earn a bonus. The company can now pay the worker less, effectively reducing the worker’s salary but get the same amount of work they would have in the past.
Finally, with annual increases more or less removed from the vocabulary of the worker’s language, the employees retirement account suffers. If earnings aren’t increasing, this means the company is matching the same amount towards the worker’s 401k. In the past, the increase may have been used to offset a sagging economy but if wages aren’t increasing, the financial market continues to be less stable, and the cost of living continues to steadily increase retirement plans will shrink over time. The employee would be wise to increase the amount they are having taken out of their pay to max out matching levels, if they can afford it but many are already making the maximum contribution or may not be able to afford to at all.
Without longevity, annual salaries, and a limited future many American white-collar workers are forced to change employers if they want an increase. Years of service and loyalty to the company are no longer appreciated or valued in the corporate world. With unemployment levels continuing to be as high as they’ve been the last few years, this allows the company to hire talent for less than they would have years ago. Incentive based compensation has enabled companies around the country to create a cycle of new or newer workers constantly re-entering the job market and competing with new job seekers for the same jobs. In other words they’ve simply “rigged the game.” The role of the employer is less like the extended family our parents and grand parents regarded their employers as and more like a casino. In the end the house always wins and the middle class is left at the table with empty pockets and a mortgaged future.
What can the white-collar worker do to secure their financial future? They can either adapt and bounce from company to company every few years or they can go into business for themselves. For skilled workers looking to establish their own business network marketing, not to be confused with multi-level marketing, is quickly becoming a viable profession. Many workers, myself included, have began establishing a plan B while maintaing their current corporate position. For those who may not have considered how incentive based pay will limit their career or are looking to build a rewarding future based on your commitment and performance, please contact me or visit my website If you’ve found another way to survive in the corporate world please share it with me and anyone else reading this post. [contact-form-7 404 "Not Found"]