Dani James makes $14.75 an hour at her job as a part-time receptionist in Chicago. You know this because, much to her mother’s horror, the 24-year-old Ohio State graduate student tells me when I ask.
“That’s none of anybody’s business,” Lesley Jaymes, 52, tells her daughter and me.
“Oh, Mom, what difference does it make?” Dani replies.
Right there, in the concessions line at the Ohio State-Northwestern football game on Saturday night in Indianapolis, a growing generational divide regarding the privacy of one of the most personal areas of an adult’s life—your paycheck—comes to life.
A recent Bankrate study found 58% of millennials—classified as between 18 and 37—have revealed their salaries to friends, versus just 33% of Baby Boomers, who are between 54 and 72.
About one-third of millennials also said they had disclosed their pay to coworkers, a minority but still almost double the 18% of baby boomers who had done so.
“This generation and Gen Z that’s right behind them have grown up without filters, with everything being fairly open, with people talking about their sexuality, people talking about the fact that they hate their bosses,” says Roberta Matuson, a corporate staffing consultant whose clients include GM and New Balance.
“There’s a big cocktail party going on 24/7 on Instagram and Facebook and all these other places,” she says. “So they don’t really look at this as taboo.”
Not so fast
While the rise of the oversharing digital culture clearly plays a role, Bankrate survey analyst Amanda Dixon says the older generation needs to remember the uniquely challenging financial environment facing millennials, which has made open discussions of money more necessary.
Today’s 20- and 30-somethings came of age in the teeth of the Great Recession, she says, emerging from college with mountains of student debt. But jobs were hard to find—in part, because so many baby boomers were unable to retire.
And even now, Dixon says, the wage stagnation faced by younger Americans is unlike anything endured by prior living generations.
“Yes, millennials are part of a generation that is accustomed to sharing so much information on social media, but also they are very aware of and forced to talk about financial challenges their parents didn’t face,” Dixon says. “They have certain financial goals they want to reach, but many of them are finding them difficult to actually get there.”
Millennials are also a generation far more conscious and on guard about wage discrimination based on gender or race—and see more open discussions of their salaries as a way of keeping companies honest.
Indeed, experts point back to the origin of the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a federal pay-equity law named for an Alabama woman who learned via an anonymous letter shortly before she was set to retire that she had been making significantly less than her male counterparts for decades.
The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Ledbetter’s federal lawsuit seeking damages for gender-based wage discrimination, but Congress then passed a law to provide legal recourse for women in similar situations.
Millennials realize that perhaps the only way to learn if there’s discrimination and combat it is to be willing to disclose their wages, says Roy Cohen, a career coach and author of “The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide.”
“Younger generations have learned lessons from their parents that secrecy, caution and loyalty don’t necessarily pay off,” Cohen says.
“We in the older generations have been socialized to maintain a high level of confidence and secrecy about money, but from the perspective of these kids, companies screwed their parents precisely for their loyalty,’’ he says. “So why bother? Why not share that information?”
Cohen and others believe more transparency in pay curbs the “likelihood for people to be paid unfairly.”
“But if they are, if they are paid a differential, then companies need to have a reason to justify that differential,” Cohen says. “It forces companies to be far more thoughtful and fair in how they determine compensation.”
Who you tell
It’s worth noting that these personal salary disclosures are not, as a general rule, happening in open public forums like Facebook or Twitter.
Rather, Dixon says, these are mostly person-to-person conversations between people who trust one another, such as relatives, romantic partners or real-life—as opposed to digital-only—friends.
“I would tell some of my friends or my cousins, sure, just so we each know what everyone can afford when we go places, but would I tell someone at work?” says Drew Bay, a 33-year-old property manager from Chicago. “No, I doubt it. I’m not sure how it would even come up at work. People do that?”
Evidently, yes, although the Bankrate data does show that even among millennials it’s unusual. More likely, they will reveal their salaries anonymously via sites like Salary.com and Glassdoor.com, popular online stops for people curious about how their pay compares generally to similarly situated professionals in their fields.
Even in that context, though, there are downsides to the trend. Telling colleagues what you make—or asking them their salaries—can invite workplace friction and drama.
Equal isn’t always fair
“Equal isn’t always fair,” Matuson the staffing consultant says.
“I may provide more value to the organization then you do,” she says. You don’t know that I come to the table with 10 years of experience, even though we’re in the same job. I might have gotten my job offer when our employer was absolutely desperate to fill a position. I might have asked for more money than you. There’s a lot of factors.”
Indeed, the answers may not be pleasing—and then what?
“If you’re out at a bar and you say to somebody, ‘I’m making $48,000 a year,’ that compared to anybody on the planet is fantastic and it’s above the national average, but what if someone else says, ‘What? Oh my gosh, you only make that? How do you live?’ ” posits John Crossman, 47, CEO of an Orlando-based commercial real estate firm and author of “Career Builders, Career Killers.”
The way he sees it: “What’s the likelihood that you’re going to get a response that’s “Oh, wow, that’s the appropriate amount of money for the work you do. Good for you!’? “
“That’s not gonna happen,” he says. “So I just don’t get how that becomes a healthy exchange.”
But that’s not usually how it goes, though, says Arlene Guzman, 34, vice president of a startup cannabis-products firm.
“I have a pretty good idea of how much my friends make regardless of what they’re doing,” says Guzman, who declined to give her own pay because the figure is complicated by stock and options.
“I happen to be surrounded by some pretty high-performing individuals, and so it’s motivating for me,” she says. “They call me out, they say, ‘Arlene we expect great things from you.’ ”