Sunday, April 27, 2008

Finances and privacy in the age of Facebook

Thanks to our favorite contributor, A. Nonny Moose, for bringing to our attention this article in today's New York Times about a shocking trend amongst today's young professionals: sharing salary information.

But between friends almost anything is fair game. Beth Kobliner, the author of the best-selling Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties, said she had noticed that many young people now “have no idea what their boomer parents earn, but know every intimate detail about their close friends’ salaries, 401(k)s and debt loads.”

She attributes the increase in openness in part to a shared sense of struggle by people in their 20s, who have come of age in a turbulent economic time, gyrating from the dot-com boom to the post-Sept. 11 gloom, to the housing bubble to the credit crunch.

“There is a bunker mentality,” Ms. Kobliner said. “They’ve had it rough, jobs are precarious and debts are outrageous.” Bill Coleman, the chief compensation officer of, which tracks income figures for numerous occupations by ZIP code, said that he had noticed more candor about income among those who live by social networking than among those who don’t — what he calls the “MySpace/Facebook rift.”

And, he said, the new openness on salaries is reflective of a deeper acceptance of networking, offline as well as online.

“This is a generation that is much more attuned to teamwork, collaboration and sharing information,” he said. “Everything they do is a kind of group event. How do you know, when you get your first job offer, if $45,000 is a good offer, a bad offer or an O.K. offer? You go to your friends.”

In our little corner of the professional universe, employers have been less than encouraging of this trend. Throughout the history of this blog, Steve Hulett has spoken of employers (more than one) coercing employees, sometimes in writing, not to reveal their salaries.

Apologies to those who have heard this from us on multiple occasions, but it bears repeating: coercing employees not to reveal their salaries is a violation of California state law.

But social scientists say that some young people have generation-specific motives for broaching this touchy subject.

Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell, said that an open flow of information is deemed crucial by young professionals who think of themselves as free agents, not company men.

“People move between jobs a lot more now than they used to,” Dr. Frank said. This mobility alone increases the instances that salary might come up among friends.

“If you change jobs, that’s news,” he said. “If you get a better salary, that’s the explanation of the news: ‘They’re paying me 80 grand, the last place only paying me 65.’ ”

And then there are professions such as ours where people have always moved between jobs, often with little information about what they should, or could, be making. That's why in 1995 we started an annual survey of our members to give people an idea of what the "going rates" are out there.

Our survey is an accurate indicator of where salaries are headed in our biz, but recently we've noted a trend that seems to run counter to the Times article: a smaller percentage of responses from employed members. Is it that employees are caving in to illegal pressures to keep their pay secret? Or do some animation workers still equate a lower salary to a lower self-worth?

Elders who equate openness with rudeness are missing the point, said Kate Hubin, a 28-year-old publicity director for a film studio in Los Angeles.

“For my generation, salary is one piece of the job satisfaction and self-worth puzzle, but not the only metric we use,” she wrote in an e-mail message. “Status is not just about money any more. Everyone knows you generally have to suffer to make a big income, so high-earners talk about their salary in the course of complaining — is all this worth $180,000? — while low-earners see their paltry salaries as a token of lifestyle freedom.”

In recent years, even some people over 35 have started to call for more candor on the topic. In a much-discussed appearance on The View last year, the personal-finance author Suze Orman, a proponent of people sharing salary figures as a means of fighting income disparity, challenged her fellow hosts and other guests to disclose their salary on the show (none did).

Some young professionals seem more receptive to Ms. Orman’s logic. Janet Polli, 32, who lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, works in sales and marketing for a nonprofit organization. A few years ago, she and a colleague were both selected for a promotion at a nonprofit, and Ms. Polli suggested they share salary information as a negotiating tool.

“I wanted to be open, like a union,” she recalled. “We would get more if we were together.”

But the other woman “was very secretive in her negotiations,” she said. “In the end, neither of us did very well.”

(Emphasis mine.)

No wonder animation employers are breaking the law in their personal contract language. It starts off with little things like sharing wage information, and the next thing you know people are talking about labor unions.


Anonymous said...

Knowledge is power.

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