Whatever the reasons for our cultural disposition to not talk about salary, it seems to me that it has perfectly played into the hands of corporate America. Free markets work well in environments where all participants have equal access to information. Markets are distorted when some participants have more (or quicker) information than others. In most companies, the buyers of the resource (management) have all of the data, and the sellers (employees) have almost none. This leads to inevitable distortions of the local labor market, as manifested by people doing similar work for greatly dissimilar compensation.
At a corporate job not too long ago, I endured countless and fruitless meetings where the HR types were trying to inject a measure of "fairness" into the compensation system. Instead of the cumbersome review procedures being proposed, I suggested that everyone's salary be posted on the company's Intranet and let the free market work out issues of "fairness." From the reaction I got, you would think that I was about to throw a Molotov cocktail into the boardroom.
Management has a vested interest in owning all of the salary information and sharing none of it -- and this company now has a highly dysfunctional review procedure in an attempt to emulate "fairness."
-- Larry Abel
This reminds me of a story from Bell Labs. A number of years ago, a number of people were less than satisfied with their pay. Eventually, they started publishing a newsletter with compensation information from most of the people working there. They got this information by asking people, and most of them gave out the information.
In the process they discovered gross pay inequities, and when everything settled out, everyone was paid more fairly and most people were paid more money.
Knowledge is power, and the twentysomethings who discuss their salary know this. They do not trust potential employers, search agencies or experts so they need first-hand information.
-- Matthew Saroff