A month ago, I moved from San Francisco to New York with a Rolodex full of phone numbers and e-mail addresses of friends, friends-of-friends and so-called professional contacts. ("New York, eh? I know someone there who you have to call.")
I hit the ground speed dialing, eager to line up a writing job. Soon, I noticed my conversations began taking the same turn. Whether I met with friends or strangers, and whether we conversed in restaurants, hunched over drinks on bar stools or on plush coffeehouse sofas, I always ended up knowing very private information about them: their salaries.
As a journalist, I'm used to probing for personal details. And sure, the pretext of these meetings was to discuss my job search. But I never specifically asked anyone for paycheck specifics. It just always came up.
For instance, a college friend -- who quickly advanced up the rungs of financial services in the three years since we graduated -- freely launched into a story about the bidding war he had sparked between a headhunter and his employer, Deutsche Bank. He wound up with a $90,000-a-year deal, the lucky punk.
And over coffee with my fellow-job-seeking roommate, Jen Tang, and her former colleague, Laura Chen -- a programmer versed in the art of job-hopping for optimal salary boosts -- we shamelessly revealed our ideal asking prices for our next positions. With much-coveted computer and business skills, Tang and Chen, both in their twenties, expect to rake in around $100,000, while I hope to add another $10,000 to $20,000 to the $40,000 I earned at my last job in San Francisco.
I didn't always talk so openly about money.
In fact, while growing up, my parents maintained a strict no-money-talk policy. I never knew (and still don't know) what my father, a former medical professor and practicing neuroradiologist, or our mother, a hospice counselor, brought home on payday. It was clear we were financially stable; we lived in a four-bedroom house, attended private schools and took family vacations to Europe and the Caribbean. But I never knew any salary details, and my parents made it clear it was none of my business. "It's still hard for me to discuss money," my mother said, after I asked her about the subject.
Until recently, money was a taboo subject with most people. Revealing your salary was equivalent to discussing too-intimate details of your personal life, an uncouth gesture: bragging, in short.
Plus, jobs weren't as plentiful as they are now. It wasn't so long ago that the country was entrenched in a recession, where people held on to jobs they didn't like because they couldn't be sure another awaited them. Regular Joes weren't online trading -- or day trading for that matter -- and CNBC and CNNfn weren't the obsessions they are today. "Dot-com" also wasn't part of our workplace lingo, and only high-level executives were fluent in the language of stock options and IPOs.
But that's changed. The robust economy, fueled by the growth of the Internet, has emboldened us to become brash about our cash. It's OK to talk straightforwardly about salary boosts with the labor market chock full of jobs. The thinking now is to get as much as possible while the going is good, and if you're not making enough at your current job, why not snag a higher-paying gig? There are plenty to choose from. The emergence of pubescent dot-com millionaires and the mainstreaming of the stock market also have spurred brazen money discussions. Many people now freely discuss the value of their stock portfolios on Web message boards, with friends or co-workers or whoever will listen. And the media also has gotten in on the gab, with journalists no longer hesitating to reveal someone's net worth right down to the last decimal. Personal finance, in other words, has now become public finance.
To be sure, many publications -- including Money magazine and the Los Angeles Times -- frequently run articles profiling readers' exact financial portfolios. Through these stories, we learn what everyone from a firefighter in Nebraska to a nurse in Seattle makes, as well as how much they paid for their home and what mutual funds they have in their 401(k)s. Then of course, there's Parade magazine's annual salary issue, listing everything from Madonna's to a street vendor's annual income, replete with full names and photos.
Executive recruiter Mo Toueg, who works for New York firm Foster McKay, says it's true: "Everyone knows what everyone else makes."
"I heard from one candidate that he didn't want to move to one bank because he had heard they don't pay enough," Toueg says. "He had specific numbers. He heard the word on the street."
Zach Kron, a 27-year-old architecture student at MIT, admits that conversations about salaries tend to be blunt. "Dude, how much are you making?" he says, imitating how people inquire about each other's salaries.
Yet, after discussing the subject with friends, family and others, I realized young people might be more likely to open up about their salaries than the post-30 crowd. Of the nine people in their 20s I grilled, every one knew the salaries of at least half a dozen friends or co-workers. (I'm included in this pool.) The seven members of the over-30 set, however, were far more reserved, with the exception of an investment banker.
"It doesn't feel right," says Diana Jackson, a 34-year-old radio producer in San Francisco. "I don't even talk about how much I make with my very best friend, and we know all each others' sex secrets."
Jackson entered the work force in the early '90s, long before the advent of the celebrated new economy. She made $5 an hour at her first job, and never spoke about this to friends. The subject was too loaded and rife with potential to cause conflicts.
But now, among the post-college crowd, those assumptions no longer exist. Talking salary isn't so much about elevating your status as it is about making sure you're being fairly compensated.
"This is directly related to the job market," my 28-year-old brother says. "Corporate loyalty goes down and people get a mercenary attitude: 'Either you pay me this, or I'm gone.'"
Larry Light, Forbes' senior editor of money and investing, says he's noticed how younger and older generations discuss money differently. "The young reporters here talk about what they make," he says. "The older ones don't."
Light believes younger people are more open about their personal finances because they're more mobile, open to change and social. "When you're younger, there's more of a communal nature to your social life ... The longer you are in the game, you become less of a tribe, and more of an individual."
My father has a similar generational take. "When I was starting out," he says, "job security was dependent upon your relationship with your boss, and your boss's boss. You wouldn't let a co-worker have any information about yourself. It gives them a competitive edge. [But] your peer group network is now your security."
I know this is true from my first job. After working at a dot-com for 11 months, I learned that I was being taken for a ride after I compared my old salary with a friend at another company. I left, and the same friend later offered me a spot on her radio show.
So now, armed with good connections in a new city, I'm well aware of my worth. I've been told I should ask for something in the $45,000 to $60,000 range.
That sounds about right.
Unless of course, I should be making more ...