What do Flatlining Salaries Mean for the Average Worker?

In news that will come as a surprise to pretty much nobody, the TUC has just revealed that pay for the average British worker was stagnant between 2016 and 2018. The highest earners (pocketing more than £63 an hour) saw their pay increase quite a bit though, so, you know, every cloud. 

What can we take from this? Well, my immediate reaction is a bit of a shrug, closely followed by a tut, with a trusty typical bringing up the rear. There is a little more to it though. Without knowing any more about the numbers, it’s difficult to say how much extra money, in absolute terms, is going to those at the top but each one of them, on average, spent those two years getting a bigger share of the total. I wonder how they did that? 

The details are beyond the scope of this post but I think there are two main culprits. Firstly, the highest earners often own businesses and can, to an extent, set their own salaries; secondly, the negotiating power of average workers has diminished and so they are less able to demand pay increases. These factors are, of course, two sides of the same coin: the power to determine salaries has shifted in favour of the highest paid.

This trend is the result of a complex panoply of factors which are difficult to isolate but, looking at it as an individual, there is something you can take from the news: only by finding a better position from which to negotiate, will you be able to take home a bigger cut of the profits. The days of steadily increasing salaries are gone; if you want more money you have to ask for it and, to be taken seriously, you need to have a strong hand.

If this is all coming across as a bit selfish and greedy, I would suggest that there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking better compensation. Perhaps the only concern you have is yourself; nothing else matters to you, in which case you might not be the most virtuous of souls. Maybe you have children, though, or really care about the fate of killer whales or girls who don’t receive formal education and you use your income to their benefit. The ethical measure of us is how we spend our money, not how much we earn, surely?

With that out of the way, it’s time to roll our sleeves up and get some more cash. How? The simplest way, according to PayScale, is just to ask; you have a 70% chance of success. It’s best to have a strategy when doing this and, again, PayScale have some excellent advice about that. The key is to understand exactly how much value you’re bringing to the organisation. What have you accomplished that might not have been achieved by someone else in your position? What is the market rate for your job? It might also be worth researching and bearing in mind how much you would cost to replace. Be careful about vocalising this though; nobody likes to be openly threatened. If you’re reasonably happy with your current situation then, it might be well worth opening negotiations for a little more of the money you’re bringing in to the company.

There are times, though, when this isn’t going to work. You’re going to struggle if you’ve already been turned down for a raise recently. Perhaps you’re on a public sector pay scale; there’s no room for manoeuvre here either. It may also be that, despite your efforts, your employer is really struggling. If there is no way to get more money where you are, it might be time to look elsewhere.

As I mentioned in another recent post, 85% of us aren’t happy in our current positions anyway and so jumping ship might well be our best option for the future, even if we don’t take pay into account. It’s so simple to do the minimum of research, starting with LinkedIn, Monster or Glassdoor; that way you’ll at least have a decent idea about what’s out there. The way I see it, this information can only be a good thing. It could be that you’ve reached a ceiling in your current profession and there isn’t much further to go without training, in which case you can make an informed choice about whether or not adding another string to your bow is worth it. You might, on the other hand, discover that your best move is an application to somewhere else. Your career is such an important part of your life that it really is a good idea to know if you are in the best place you can be, taking everything into account.

Too many people think of their work as drudgery and there is no doubt that much of the daily routine can be unpleasant or dull. But is it really so bad? When we’re at work, most of us are safe, warm and dry and, by virtue of having a job, probably not starving either. It would be remiss not to mention that there are thousands of people in the UK earning a pittance and in unstable working conditions but, at first glance, for the majority of the working population, things aren’t so bad. It almost goes without saying that work is actually a positive thing or, at least, should be. Work is fundamentally about producing stuff, about making things better and, when structures are organised well, is of benefit to everyone. 

What causes people to be unhappy at work then? I may have answered my own question in that it might be that structures aren’t organised well. I think it could also be a question of power, of autonomy. Workplaces can be petty, political fiefdoms in which the joy of collaboration and cooperation guided by insightful and just leadership is but a dream. People feel held back and constrained. It’s to those people, the ones who don’t feel their contributions are valued or that their talents are recognised, that stagnating salaries really matter because, for them, where is the progress? Where is the autonomy?

If you recognise yourself here, then you need to bring your own autonomy to work. It’s time to start seeing yourself as the leader of your own organisation and do the best you can for it. Maybe it’s time to negotiate and maybe it’s time to move on; everything you care about, those with even less power, depend on it. It’s time to corral your resources and make a difference because things don’t get better on their own. 

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