Do You Feel Underpaid? More Than Money, It's About Justice

Money buys status, which leads to happiness.
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By The Conversation via Reuters Connect

There has been endless chatter about the Great [insert pandemic-related work trend here].

Resignation. Renegotiation. Reshuffle.

Regardless of the descriptor used, employees in the United States are purportedly re-evaluating the role of work in their lives. While some of this is related to deeper existential questions — like “What am I doing with my life?” or “Is this really how I want to be spending most of my waking hours?” — there might be a much simpler and more practical explanation for the take-this-job-and-reinvent-it wave.

A classic quote from the 1996 film Jerry Maguire captures it well. Sports agent Jerry Maguire (played by Tom Cruise) has been fired and as he embarks to become an independent agent he desperately tries to retain one of his clients, football star Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding Jr.).

Tidwell shouts his demands: “Show me the money!” He adds: “I have a family to support, Jerry!”

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Given what Americans say about their earnings, you’d think many would be bellowing like Tidwell. From Jan. 19 to Feb. 2, 2022, my research assistant and I partnered with Angus Reid Global to field a national survey of 2,000 working Americans. We asked: Do you feel that the income from your job alone is enough to meet your family’s usual monthly expenses and bills?

An astonishing 54.8 percent said “no.”

Considering the ominous news about inflation lately, we figured that this unfavorable perception has spiked from previous years. But looking back through two decades of U.S. data from the General Social Survey (GSS) — a highly reputable national survey of Americans — we were surprised by how prevalent and stable the “no” responses have been.


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In 2018, the last time the GSS asked this question, 50.8% of American workers reported that the income from their job was not enough to make ends meet. And the percentage was even higher in previous years: 52.9% in 2014; 53.4% in 2006 and 55.9% in 2002. The highest on record — 58.2% — occurred in 2010 at the tail end of the Great Recession.

But “show me the money” isn’t only about having enough for life’s necessities. It’s also about the sense of fairness — what scholars refer to as distributive justice. In our survey, we asked: How fair is what you earn on your job in comparison to others doing the same type of work you do?

While 37.9% feel they are paid appropriately, 52.7% feel they are paid less than they deserve. On this indicator, the shift is substantial. Between 2002 and 2018, 40.6% on average have described their pay as being somewhat less or much less than they deserve, with 2010 again being the outlier at 46.2%.

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We need to earn enough to live, and the amount should be just. But there’s another element of pay that reflects something deeper. A fundamental human motive: status. Justifying his “show me the money” plea, Tidwell roars: “I’m a role model, Jerry,” adding “it’s a very personal … very important thing.”

Status matters. Not only in the eyes of others, but in our own self-evaluations too. Sociologists refer to this as subjective social status. To measure it, we told respondents to think of a ladder. At the top (10) are the people who are the best off. At the bottom (1) are the people who are the worst off. And, we asked: “Where would you put yourself at the present time?”

On average, American workers report a 6 on the status ladder. But those who report insufficient earnings and feel severely underpaid score significantly lower (4.9), compared to those who have sufficient earnings and feel their pay is appropriate (6.6). That difference holds regardless of education, occupation, income and job authority.

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Some say money can’t buy happiness, but it goes a long way to providing status. And status often translates into happiness.

In our survey, Americans who don’t earn enough to make ends meet and feel underpaid are less happy and hopeful about the future. Life, for them, is less enjoyable. Inadequate earnings and feeling underpaid also erode happiness more strongly than the objective indicators of low socio-economic standing do. And one’s position on the status ladder eclipses all other socio-economic indicators in predicting happiness.

Our sample doesn’t include any professional football stars. But it does contain a broad cross-section of American workers — doggie daycare assistants, accountants, truck drivers, software engineers, sous chefs, electricians, candle-makers and on and on. All have a few things in common: They want to earn enough money to make ends meet, they want to be paid fairly for the work they do and they all share the fundamental human motive for status.

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As dated as Jerry Maguire feels, “show me the money” still resonates. Maybe it always will. Given how consistent these indicators of income dissatisfaction have been for the past few decades, perhaps the Great Re-evaluation of work should focus first and foremost on compensation. Channel your inner Rod Tidwell!

The author,  is a Professor of Sociology and Canada Research Chair, at the University of Toronto.

Xin Ming Matthew Zhou, an undergraduate research assistant in the Department of Sociology at the University of Toronto, co-authored this article.

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