Salaries top out at age 40


Whatever you earn at age 40 is likely to be the top of your earning potential. This is one of a gazillion things I’ve learned from talking with Al Lee, the director of quantitative analysis at PayScale.

Al’s data, which is based on the careers of college graduates, is basically that the salary curve for most people in their 20s is very steep. Then it starts to flatten in the 30s, and then you get into the land of the 3% raise. In real dollars, those 3% raises are not actually raises, they are just keeping up with inflation.

The information is grim. But here are some things you can do with it:

1. Go where the men are. To be precise, pay tops out at age 38 for women ($61K) and age 45 for men ($95K). But the difference, according to PayScale data, is not due to unequal pay for equal work. Rather, the difference is that women choose lower paying careers, and women are more likely to take time out of the workforce for kids. So the first thing you can do to prevent your salary from flat-lining is choose a career that men dominate. But it’s not just about industry—it is also about influence. Stick to line-management positions rather than support roles. For example, skip human resources and go to supply chain management.

2. Rewrite your resume. If you’re at the beginning of your career, focus on accomplishments rather than responsibilities. This makes you look like you’re in a higher pay bracket so you will get larger salary increases. If you’ve been in the workforce for a while, cut anything that is more than 15 years old, including the date of your college graduation. Al says that there is no premium paid for two decades of experience because jobs change so quickly that long-gone experience is not particularly relevant. And because age discrimination creates a sort of penalty for more than 15 years of experience. So just leave it off. (Good resume editing tips here, at Quint Careers.)

3. Be a lawyer. Have I ever given this advice before? I don’t think so. Even the American Bar Association reports that law school is a ripoff. But I’m open to counter-arguments—Al says that the only profession where your pay increases after 20 years is in law. Because laws change very slowly, especially procedural law, and so much of being a good lawyer is your on-the-job training.

4. Specialize. By your mid 30s, if you don’t have a specialty, it’s hard to get your salary into the next bracket. You earn more money if your talents are more scarce. (Here’s some information about how to specialize.) Also, don’t give up hope if you have no idea what you’re doing in your mid-20s. As long as you figure things out by the time you’re 30, you will get a premium for 15 years of experience before your salary stops rising.

5. Buy a house assuming you won’t get a raise. Ever. When it comes to houses in the U.S., the average age of a first-time buyer is 33. So people go through their 20s gaining super-high raises, and then people buy a house in their mid-30s with the assumption that the raises will continue. In fact, though, you should buy a house preparing for your real income to remain unchanged until age 55, when it is likely to go down.

6. Recognize your limitations. People eventually start to realize that they are not going to get to the very top. They see that only one out of 100 web designers is the director, and only one out of 50 directors is a VP. Al calls this the funnel effect, and he says many people recognize this and start to trade time for money; people see that chasing the increasingly smaller raises is not as fulfilling as doing a wide range of other things with their time.

7. Focus on maintenance. Most people in their 40s have a lot going on. Taking care of aging parents, young kids, community organizations—all these jobs are falling on people in their 40s, which means it’s not a good time to be trying also to leverage one’s highest earning power. So instead of killing yourself trying to earn more and more, be realistic and go into maintenance mode.

One of the most common but least-talked about career moves is to get to a relatively high spot and then see how much you can cut back in terms of effort and still maintain that level of salary and/or prestige. This seems like a reasonable strategy for a wide range of people. So do small experiments with cutting back early in your career because creating enormous efficiencies takes practice. And a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is not the training you need for this type of change.

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115 replies
Newer Comments »
    • Victoria
      Victoria says:

      I TOTALLY disagree with your first point–that the wage gap is not due to unequal pay for equal work. How dare you totally eliminate that assumption? I’m sorry, but PayScale is not the most valid source. I’m in grad school writing my dissertation which focuses on the wage gap and why it exists. Studies from top tier psychology and econ journals show that with all things being equal (job, tenure, background, skills, education, industry, etc.), the wage gap STILL persists. One of the main reasons is that women just don’t ask. We don’t ask for more money! And men do. It’s partially up to us women to open our mouths and negotiate higher salaries, and negotiate what we’re worth.

      • FB @
        FB @ says:

        I agree. Women just don’t ask or negotiate, but is that really the company’s problem and a true “unequal pay for equal work”?

        Just being a devil’s advocate here, but I don’t think so. Women who don’t ask or negotiate, don’t get paid for what a company would be willing to pay them.

        If I were a company, I wouldn’t want to offer “fair” wages off the bat either. I’d assume they’d negotiate back after the first round, and most men do, but not women.

        So is it really “unequal pay”, when it is the woman who doesn’t negotiate and is the one who creates that situation?

        In my above situation, companies are not REFUSING to pay women a fair wage. They just don’t pay it to ANYONE (men or women) who don’t ask for it.

        By the way, as a background, I am a woman who asks for every penny and I earn as much, if not more than guys double my age.

      • Jess
        Jess says:

        Victoria you need to read a little more widely before getting overexcited. Especially if you are writing a dissertation. Yes women don’t ask as much as men, but the studies you refer to – where women still earn less with all things being equal – still reflect societal perceptions, wwhich are created by women working in roles where traditional “female skills” dominate and are traditionally less valued.. I think Penelope is right on the money..

      • hw
        hw says:

        I think the gender pay gap also exists because there is the expectation that women will lose interest or leave once they have children. I get asked all the time if I miss my babies; male colleagues never get asked that question.

        I agree that negotiating still may be the #1 reason for the pay gap, but I have also read that ‘aggressive’ women are perceived less favorably than aggressive men.
        I’m in the middle of trying to get a raise right now and my boss hasn’t yet responded. We’ll see if my assertiveness will be rewarded!

      • Steve
        Steve says:

        Yeah, I dated a woman once who was a women’s studies PhD. The academic types really are a whole different breed. They take the most unrelated data sets and combine them together to make some ridiculous argument, and it just perpetuates more of the same. All the while they are living in their ivory tower, out of touch with any reality of the real world. All they know are statistics that were collected by grad students.

        When I would say “but nobody cares about that” in response to some nonsensical claim she would make based on some tiny granular piece of data, she would become incensed and say “Lots of people care about that!” Yeah, other people writing dissertations, or profs who were making $400k/year because they have grad students do all their research for them. Nobody in the real world can put any use to any of it other than posting to some web page and claiming to be more informed than anyone else because “I AM WRITING A DISSERTATION!!’

    • Steve
      Steve says:

      … best to read thomas sowell Economic Facts and Fallacies. The chapter on salary discrepancies opened my eyes. All things equal women make more than men… they work harder too.

      • Liz
        Liz says:

        Oh, should we womenfolk just be a little more aggressive? You’ve never seen a woman punished for that before, have you?

        Everywhere I’ve worked, the women who acted in stereotypically male ways, like pushing for better assignments or sticking up for their ideas in meetings, were punished by both men and other women. While the women who acted in stereotypically female ways – by cooperating, making friends, not asking for much – were not promoted or recognized for their contributions.

        The work environment is a choice between two poisons, and Penelope doesn’t care if people think she’s a bitch (part of the reason I like her so much) so she doesn’t notice that it’s not as simple as “just ask for more.”

        • anon
          anon says:

          I totally agree with this. I’m one of those aggressive go getters who have asked for more, not once but many times and not out of a sense of entitlement but by delivering exceptional work as assessed by the review process of the company. Yet, anywhere close to competitive pay for equal or even more work than a male counterpart has been a distant fairy tale scenario in my case. And been actively punished, passed over and sidelined or it.

  1. Jessica Chandler
    Jessica Chandler says:

    Sad but true. Where were you Penelope when I was 20’s? I so would have done my life different. I hate being a GenXer.

    • Marcia
      Marcia says:

      I agree also. I am an engineer. What also interests me is that I’m 40, and I just got $15k worth of raises this year. But I can see, by looking at coworkers, that depending on how I play it, this could be the top of my salary.

      I am somewhat aggressive – I stick up for myself but I am ALSO INCREDIBLY supportive and helpful and cooperative. Which is probably why my pay has been very fair.

  2. rainmaker9
    rainmaker9 says:

    great post and insight! i agree that i wish i had your advice when i was in my 20s!

    thank you for your point on the 3% raise. my multi-national fortune 100 highly profitable & successful company only gives 1.0-1.1% annual raises over the past 4 years that I’ve been working here.

    your post makes me realize that working here decreases my standard of living year over year.

    thank you for all you do and share!

  3. Danny @ Firepole Marketing
    Danny @ Firepole Marketing says:

    Hi Penelope, thanks for the post! I agree with a lot of the findings, but I think it’s important to remember that with any kind of statistical analysis, the data tells you about trends, all things being equal. The big difference between people is *how good you are* at your job – as long as you do what you’re great at, you should be able to beat the numbers.

    (That being said, buying a house assuming that you won’t ever get a raise is a good idea!)

  4. Jake
    Jake says:

    Do you think that since gen y is less concerned with salary and more concerned with work environment/happiness that this salary trend will continue? People used to work their way to a place in their career where they could make it big and retire. But gen y's careers are our passions – often with less salary and more flexibility – and as we work our way through our lives with no intention of getting that big payoff and moving on, maybe salaries will rise more slowly but for longer – Just a thought. Thanks for the interesting post, as always.

  5. jim
    jim says:

    Most of my colleagues own McMansions and I chose to buy a modest, older home that cost less than a year of my salary, because I had this sense that the money I make now (age 43) might not last. Thanks for validating my choice.

  6. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I’ve been working a “real job” for six months now and my salary has already nearly doubled. Of course, I will tell you that I started out making basically pocket change, and so now I have only just reached what I’ve been hearing other recent grads ask for during our hiring process. (That is the downfall of being the boss’s daughter in a startup: you find out that you are the area that costs can be kept low). But I won’t go into detail because we do not have transparent salaries, despite a) my pleading your case, Penelope, and b) the fact that I know everyone’s salaries anyway because it’s no secret that I make the least. But I’m also discovering I’m quite pragmatic about my money, which gives me hope about maintaining flexibility no matter what my salary will grow to be. Except for the times that I give in to temptation and order five pairs of shoes online. But at least I’m not in denial, I suppose, and I’m reading up on what my financial life will likely look like in my forties, in my twenties.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Harriet, your last three sentences echoed my thoughts regarding money management as we get older. Salaries may top out at age 40 but by that time we are (or should be) be better at managing our money and making better decisions with it – hopefully offsetting the effect of the trend as described above. However, having said that, there are the unforeseen expenses that may make it a case of snafu.

      • Harriet May
        Harriet May says:

        I agree, you can’t prepare for everything. But I’ve also had the good fortune of watching my parents make mistakes with money and learn from them (I use the phrase “good fortune” loosely, of course; it meant fewer Christmas presents those years!). And I get really excited about saving, which might be geeky but it’s also smart, especially since there are so many ways to save and they’re not all created equal. And apparently buying shoes does not count (low market resale value, unfortunately).

      • FB @
        FB @ says:

        I think that at any salary and any age, watching your money becomes a key part of financial security.

        You can only make so much, and you can only save so much. The key is to maximize the profit gap between the two, but to keep a balance as well.

        All tricky stuff. :)

  7. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    I wonder how this data (including the variance/modality on those averages) changes depending on eduction level and industry. It certainly varies by career path (hence the lawyer bit). And it certainly will be affected by isolating the group of people who change careers mid-stream, which I’m guessing is non insignificant.

    My point is to focus on the trends shown (which Penelope does, to her credit) rather than exact ages (as I think the variance will be huge). e.g. when you have personal responsibilities, recognize this will affect current and future earning potential; when it’s early in your career, don’t assume high raises are a permanent trend; etc.

  8. Lisa Cach
    Lisa Cach says:

    Although it doesn’t touch on income, here’s a very interesting post (from a defunct, archived blog) about age, achievement over the life span, and entrepreneurship, from Marc Andreessen. It focuses on research by Dr. Simonton at UC Davis, who has spent his career studying the topic.

    Some highlights from Andreessen’s post:

    * Generally, productivity — output — rises rapidly from the start of a career to a peak and then declines gradually until retirement.

    * This peak in productivity varies by field, from the late 20s to the early 50s, for reasons that are field-specific.

    * Precocity, longevity, and output rate are linked. “Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit.” High producers produce highly, systematically, over time.

    * The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The periods of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity — taking more swings at the bat — is much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.

    * Intelligence, at least as measured by metrics such as IQ, is largely irrelevant.

    Since I’m a novelist, it encourages me that my best years are supposedly still ahead of me — as long as I focus on production!

    • Jimbo
      Jimbo says:

      What exactly is productivity, though? I might do less “hard” work in my 40s, but my decisions have a much higher impact on the company now. I can save 100k for the company by asking 1 question that nobody thought of about an IT project. If I do that 3 times this year, am I more or less productive than someone in their 30s?

      • FB @
        FB @ says:

        That’s such an interesting point.

        I think “productivity” spans across many different ideas. What you’re talking about (the saving of 100k) is economic productivity.

        But how about time/efficiency productivity? For instance, someone in their 20s who grew up with computers will more than likely be faster and more productive entering data or taking shortcuts than someone in their 50s to whom computers are a new sort of phenomenon (thinking of my mother here).

        It all varies by the type of job/work you do, but I think if you compare “productivity”, it should be at a horizontal level, as in, comparing what you just mentioned to someone in their 30s who is doing the same job as you are.

        If they too, can save $100k with just one question, would they be just as productive? It may not be just an age thing, either.

        I am always the youngest on every team I join, but I daresay I make good enough suggestions to save a lot of money, when others would jump into a solution that is costlier just because they don’t know all of the options.

        It is experience to be sure, but not age, if that makes sense.

        Another instance is that in the 5 years I’ve been doing my job, I can clearly see that I have the cumulative experience of someone with 7-10 years of work experience, only because I’ve been really lucky to be on difficult, tough projects that have forced me to grow in my expertise higher, and sooner.

  9. Tom
    Tom says:

    Judging from my own life you’re probably right, being 50 I earn a bit less than 10 years ago. Although it’s not really a salary.

    Happily I/we have saved some capital so it does not matter too much what we earn. Also it is very much a personal choice. Not to work too much. To be here with the kids. You know.


  10. Nichole
    Nichole says:

    Thank you for this post Penelope. Sobering information for divorced women re-entering the workforce.
    This just reaffirms my belief in getting education that is tied to a specific in demand skill set such as accounting, engineering,nursing etc.
    I myself knew my best course of action in rejoining the work force after a ten year absence was further education. After my divorce I earned my Certified Financial Planner (TM) designation and it was the best career decision I ever made.

  11. Olivier
    Olivier says:

    I think §7 is key: do people in their 40s plateau because the market judges they have reached their peak or because they actively dis-engage?

    • Tom
      Tom says:

      At least for me, I agree. I have down-shifted after 40.

      My question is, after the little ones are big, would I like to/have the energy to do something wise&big? Change the world a bit, still?


    • Jake
      Jake says:

      Neither in many cases. Specialization & the funnel effect limit upward mobility. After a certain point, you are stuck what for the position above you to vacate.

  12. adam
    adam says:

    I feel compelled to point out that

    1) any free/on-line salary data is suspect at best. One needs access to employer data to determine accurate market salaries. organizations such as MSEC can provide this data because member employers submit their salary data so a company can know what an appropriate salary should be, and

    2) generally salary caps don’t exist in the technology sector. if you are an application developer (client, client/server, web), your experience drives the salary you are able to command (well, as long as there’s no depressed market, like after the bubble).

    additionally, if you are in the tech sector, maintain a relationship with at least one recruiter. while they have a vested interest in getting you into one of their jobs, they are also VERY in the know. just make sure you filter the things they say based on that vested interest fact.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, if you’re a rock star in any industry, your salary goes up and up. I mean, the Friendster acquisition by Facebook was really like a signing bonus worth millions in order to be able to hire hot-shot developers.

      That said, the chance of you being that big a hotshot are nearly ziltch. And this is true in any industry.

      Also, a company like PayScale has incredible data on the tech sector. You are delusional if you think the plateau at 40 does not apply. After all, you are not worth more as a developer with 15 years of experience because tech changes so much in 15 years.


      • awiz8
        awiz8 says:

        “After all, you are not worth more as a developer with 15 years of experience because tech changes so much in 15 years.”

        There’s a two word answer that proves this wrong, and makes a developer with this much experience even more valueable.


      • Jennifer Hamilton
        Jennifer Hamilton says:

        It’ll be interesting to see what happens when you change careers at 35 (which I’m in the process of doing). Does this mean I’ll max out at 65? Is it really the experience, work burn-out or ageism that is the issue?

      • Bitter (former) Architect
        Bitter (former) Architect says:

        “if you’re a rock star in any industry, your salary goes up and up.”

        …or, you can be a (female) rock star (in a male-dominated industry), suffer a severe case of burnout (due to choosing a highly stressful specialization area), and then, after 14 years of working your tail off (in an industry that looks at every year of “service” above 15 with increasing reverence), you can get laid off, and find all your years of schooling and experience have been completely decimated by a tanked economy, and an industry now unwilling to hire you because of a “break” in employment.

        Employers DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOU.
        Live as far below your current means as possible, always.

      • FB @
        FB @ says:

        IT is a tricky sector. Legacy systems are definitely something that continue to linger and live on long after everyone has has “moved on”.

        In the events where a company does a full IT revamp every 10 years, those legacy systems will eventually fade out and disappear (one would think), and be replaced with easy functionality already available in the new system.

        I also think that IT is a trickier industry because it moves so fast. Even being a rockstar for 15 years means jack to recruiters and companies because they think the biggest gap should only be a year or two, even if it isn’t entirely true.

        The people hiring in those industries are not IT folk. They’re usually from HR or are recruiters who don’t know the job. This makes it even trickier to prove to them that you still have the chops.

  13. Jamie
    Jamie says:

    I can relate to this article, the work I do is contract-based for both public and private sector IT departments and I haven’t received an increase in hourly rate since 2005. I try to negotiate for more, but they can’t budge past $XX/hour. Yet my cost of living has increased, including the value of the intentionally modest house we have! I’ve started taking side jobs just to get us ahead. It seems like an eventually unsustainable scenario, and we are supposed to somehow send two kids to college and save for retirement too!?! I imagine in 10 years I’ll be wearing tattered clothes, driving a jalopy, living in a rundown house with the lights and A/C turned off, eating from my home garden and raising chickens. Grim!

    • Nutsack
      Nutsack says:

      Grim?? That sounds like heaven to me…… you trying to keep up with the rat race and work more and more hours to ‘get ahead’ sounds like a living hell. Give up the game and start living. Gardens and chickens are where it’s at.

    • FB @
      FB @ says:

      Any chance you could scale back on your lifestyle?

      I don’t know how much you earn or spend, or what your lifestyle is like, but for me, I find that the more I make, the more I have to be careful that I don’t spend.

      I basically deflate my lifestyle or keep it at the same level, no matter my income increase or decrease.

      Personally I think chickens and a garden sound great. :) Fresh eggs, you just can’t beat it.

  14. Dave
    Dave says:

    I can definitely validate the ideas in #7 above…understatement of the year: “Most people in their 40s have a lot going on.” I’d comment more but I don’t have time.

  15. keemia
    keemia says:

    With the exception of the first bullet point, I can comfortably say everything this article recommends is the opposite of my experience.

  16. Marge
    Marge says:

    Ha ha ha. My daughter in her 40’s and my husband in his 60’s are raking it in. Why? Because they know stuff instead of having stupid bidness degrees.

  17. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    I had retrained myself in 2005 in NY to become a nurse at age 52 and started making more than I had ever earned previously…..AND then I had moved to CT and started with lower pay only to eventually make even more than I did in NY by simply changing jobs again. I”m wondering if changing careers and multiple job changes in a career were taken into account by the data?

  18. Jaime
    Jaime says:

    Awesome post. I am kinda freaking out with the need to specialise thing. I hope that in Europe I have more time to decide on how to specialise.

    But, yes, it is a great post!

  19. Erica
    Erica says:

    “…get to a relatively high spot and then see how much you can cut back in terms of effort and still maintain that level of salary and/or prestige.”

    hmmm…are we seriously advocating this? I’ve worked under people like this when I was in more junior positions and I don’t think this is great advice. If you take a really narrow point of view, admittedly, this strategy might be to one’s monetary advantage, but it’s not to the company’s, the employees, or society’s advantage — or actually to one’s own advantage — if you consider work satisfaction. I believe this approach this is commonly referred to as “the golden handcuffs”…

  20. Melissa Breau
    Melissa Breau says:

    You write, “people see that chasing the increasingly smaller raises is not as fulfilling as doing a wide range of other things with their time.”

    I wonder how this will change as Gen Y ages up, since we ALREADY (in our 20s) highly value the ability to do other things with our time, which is why we focus so much on flexibility when it comes to hours and work-from-home options.

  21. Karen
    Karen says:

    Interesting but fortunately nothing like my experience. I escaped the 3% raise routine at 40. When I stopped being a herd animal & started proposing and implementing process changes that helped companies save money and make customers happier, guess what happened? Redefine what you do, and you redefine what you’re worth. True at any age.

  22. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    Moving to a more expensive city would tend to up your salary at any age, but of course then your cost of living rises, too.

    I’d like to see what does the data says about people who switch careers, and where that takes them, salary-wise.

  23. JP
    JP says:

    I wonder is the pay slide is because 40 year olds start to coast. That the coasting comes first and the salary stagnation is a result. I like the point about trading time for money. I am in that age bracket and can see it in my former classmates. They are happy working 8 to 5 and then heading home. That was not the case in their 30’s when they were work-aholics.

  24. Janis Schubert
    Janis Schubert says:

    Even going into technical or male-dominated fields doesn’t guarantee success. I was a highly paid computer consultant in the early ’90’s when I had my first child. I intended to go right back to work, but he was born prematurely, had collapsed lungs, health problems, and later we discovered he had Aspergers, which no one knew much about then. I spent the next 10 years at home figuring out what he needed to grow up happy and healthy. He is 19 and fine now and doing great. But that 10 years out of the computing field destroyed my earning potential. That is a lifetime in a technical field. I have since gone back to school and gotten a PhD so now am earning more than ever, but it has not been easy and once the cost of the education is figured in, maybe my earnings would be flat. But the point I wanted to make is that technical fields are very sensitive to breaks in employment so a woman who ends up taking time off for children/parents risks her career.
    Just a note: all the challenges of our son had no effect on my now ex-husband’s earning potential. He made no adjustments to his work so it didn’t impact him at all.

    • FB @
      FB @ says:

      I am wondering if the situation would be reversed now, had your ex stayed at home and taken the salary hit, and if you could have continued working.

      I think if your ex was in the IT sector as well, he would have been just as adversely affect, no?

      That’s a really interesting perspective. Thanks.

  25. Angela DuBois
    Angela DuBois says:

    Unfortunately, I didn’t figure this one out until I was almost 50. It’s not something management wants is to find out. They seem to much prefer the nose-to-the-grindstone. :-/. But I’m finally pursuing a writing career via blogging. I won’t get rich, but I will have the life and work I want. :-)

  26. Aurian
    Aurian says:

    Good post, P, but I feel like 6 and 7 don’t fit with the list. Numbers 1-5 seem like good advice to follow (even if most of us can’t change which degree we already did, etc), whereas 6 & 7 are more like justification for life-based attrition.

    It seems to me that those who refuse to recognize their limitations, or who opt not to balance their lives (whether by circumstance, personal choice or ambition), are more likely to have the tenacity to be funnelled by default.

  27. Brijendra Dharampuria
    Brijendra Dharampuria says:

    “For example, skip human resources and go to supply chain management” I am agree with you for this statement. More challenging work means more chances of getting high salary.
    “Be a lawyer”. Lawyer and doctor profession offer you more money on the basis of your experience as you earn more and more experience. Rest points are also good.

  28. Jim Dugan
    Jim Dugan says:

    Defination of a JOB. Just Over Broke! People tend to look for security and don’t like change, and settle for the corporate life. They don’t care about you and will bleed every last drop of energy from you. Period! Become self employed and control your own future.

  29. Dale
    Dale says:

    I agree with Jim, the only way out of the rut and to avoid the endless drudge of networking is through self employment. Unfortunately, to excel there, one has to have a consistent schedule to make progress, (get into a rut) and interface with those who can do something for your business (network). It doesn’t seem like these things can be avoided.
    At least, this way if you do it right the potential payoff could be greater in terms of financial reward and job satisfaction.

  30. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    You know, I’m turning 40 in March and I would be fine being at this salary level for the rest of my career. I don’t need to be super rich. I just need to be able to go out for dinner when I don’t feel like cooking.

  31. Scott Messinger
    Scott Messinger says:

    I like # 7. As long as you have lived within your means, and invested your money wisely, you should be able to live well on whatever you are making at 40.

  32. Nancy
    Nancy says:

    Too bad most people in the housing bubble didn’t think about #5.

    And it is true that your earnings tend to peak out at 55, but that’s just because that’s when companies dump you for someone who’s 25 that they “can train”. Nothing like being unemployed to “top out” your salaries.

  33. m
    m says:

    Please, Please, and Please DO NOT follow her advice on #3. Do not become a lawyer! To start, there are over 200+ Law Schools in the USA pushing out useless JDs. The legal job market is so saturated that “newly barred attorneys” are having to take 2d jobs and are leaving the field in droves. Second, the ABA recently allowed legal outsourcing overseas. This has cost dozens of paralegal and temp attorney jobs. Third, as an attorney you can expect $100K in non-discharged debt at a $30K job. You can make more shoveling dirt. Sincerely, I haven’t meet an attorney in the past 8 years who hasn’t regretted going to Law school. Please see:,, or shillingmesoftly,

  34. Monica
    Monica says:

    One thing I never hear hard facts on are about adults, such as myself who are recent college graduates. I will be 37 years old and graduating this year with my BA in Advertising from the Academy of Art University in SF. So what does this say about someone like me? I don’t fit into any of the categories at all!!! If you have any info about people like myself, I’d love to hear about it.

    • Natalie
      Natalie says:

      Monica–I don’t know about you, but I felt queasy reading this post. I’m 35 and attending college. I have substantial debt from a previous school. I’m working as a contractor for a big corporation to pay the bills. I’m lucky to have this work, but I feel like I should be doing more to improve my prospects. Just treading water now. I’ve made the best decisions I’ve known how to make, and they’ve gotten me here. I need some air.

  35. Tara C
    Tara C says:

    All true – the 3% raises ended years ago at my Fortune 100 company, we are lucky to get 1-2% a year. They give bonuses instead of raises now, so they don’t permanently increase their obligations.

    • SueToo
      SueToo says:

      Agree with you 100%. I am 64 years old and I tell people – if you want good raises, do NOT go to work for a publicly traded company. Their first responsibility is to stockholders and their second responsibility is to upper level management. Ordinary workers are last in line. I know, I was a contractor for a large Defense contractor and some years (even during the “boom days” we were told we were lucky to get 2% raises. Never got bonuses.

  36. Stacey
    Stacey says:

    This sort of post is why I love your blog. You’ve exposed (but validated) some of my guilty secrets. I am in maintenance mode in my well-paying job, and while I am never going to be a VP, I am quite happy. As you say, I have more important responsibilities, such as older parents to take care of, as well as young children.

    Just to skew the statistics, however, I am making a lot more at 50 than I was at 40. I bought my house for the salary I was making when I was 40 because I never thought I would make more than that. Now that I am, I will not “trade up” because I know my job could be pulled out from under me at any minute. I see it happen a lot in my industry.

  37. Sheila Fisher
    Sheila Fisher says:

    I just turned 40. I’ve been out of work for the last year. My husband doesn’t want me to take a job that pays less than what I used to earn. He thinks I should find something that pays more. I tell him in this economy I’ll be lucky to find a job. I was earning ~$67K. I’m willing to settle for something in $50K range. Would this be a mistake? I mean, if I accept a lower paying job am I likely to never again earn what I used to?

    • Brad
      Brad says:

      You’re facing both unemployment discrimination and early age discrimination. If you can find something at 80% of your previous salary you should jump at it and count yourself lucky.

  38. Lex
    Lex says:

    The advice to go to law school is totally WRONG. Bad advice. You have to go to one of the top 14 law schools, and to place highly in your class, to get a good job, and then you have to work like an animal to have a chance to keep it (and even then, you might get canned). More likely is that you can add $150,000 in debt and make $40k/year (with the same risk of being laid off). Not good! I speak from experience as a lawyer.

  39. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I paid off my home when I was 40 and have been coasting ever since. I have never particularly enjoyed work – it’s just something I have to do in order to feed myself – but now that I am not a slave to a mortgage (and have no other debts or children) I spend all the extra money I make taking time OFF work.

  40. Susan
    Susan says:

    Penelope, I love this blog!
    Like Jennifer, I’m changing careers in mid-life (I’m 47) — applying for grad school. And I certainly do hope my salary goes up, because I’ve been working as an arts/arts education entrepreneur. Arts education is a tanked field at the moment, so any salary will be more than this.

    But in considering fields to invest time and money in, this data does put the “average income for this field” data into sobering perspective. I’ve worked very hard and gained a lot of skills to get to this (currently) non-living-wage position. I wonder how far a hard-working, creative, self-motivated woman can get up that salary range starting in mid her mid 40’s. I do seriously need to save for (or insure myself for) old age).

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