Do salaries plateau at the age of 40?

Penelope Trunk (whom I read on occasion) wrote an interesting post about why salaries plateau at the age of 40.

Reading both the article and the comments are highly recommended.

Her points:

  1. Go where the men are, like in male-dominated industries.
  2. Rewrite your resume (too much experience is just as bad as too little).
  3. Be a lawyer.
  4. Specialize.
  5. Buy a house assuming you’ll never get a raise ever again.
  6. Recognize your limitations.
  7. Focus on maintenance

With the exception of #3 because I am not a lawyer, and #2 because I am fairly young in terms of experience, I’d agree with almost everything, only because my career has reflected that.


My first focus is on #1 “Go where the men are”, Penelope writes:

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 industryβ€”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.

A woman wrote in heatedly about not agreeing that the difference was due to unequal pay for equal work:

I absolutely agree that women simply don’t ask for more money.

We simply DON’T, and it SUCKS.

Companies generally offer EVERYONE (man or woman) a lowball starting offer, and it is up to the individual to negotiate that offer or to take it.

What I disagree with, is calling that unequal pay.

Playing the devil’s advocate, is it really unequal pay if it is the woman who doesn’t negotiate?

It’s not that the company REFUSES to give women more money when they ask for it, it’s that we just don’t ask for it to begin with.

So it is our fault or the company’s fault?

I also think that assuming the data Penelope referenced took into account that it was the same job, industry, role, experience and set of duties, then the other factors as to why women get paid less all boil down to them not negotiating at all (and taking time off for kids as well).

I don’t think Payscale data takes all of the above into account, but let’s take a sales clerk role as an example.

But if we start looking at the one role, the duties, experience and job are the same, but depending on the company, you could be paid more or less.

See,Β  some companies have special systems or special company-specific knowledge that can’t be taught over night, so if it takes 5 years to learn that knowledge, wouldn’t it make sense that they would be paid more than a clerk who can learn another industry’s sales job in a day?

A sales clerk job is not just as simple as taking a sales order for a customer. If you have to use a system, some are simpler than others, like paper-based or excel-based rather than systems-based.

I’m generalizing here, but I think with my above example, becomes less of a matter of men versus women, and more of nuances in each company, and what they value each role to be worth.

While women may do the same job as a man in another area, it isn’t really the same knowledge in either job, even though their job roles may seem like it.


Do people coast?

I don’t know, I’m not 40 yet, but when you come to think of it, don’t companies tend to look down on people past a certain age?

It’s funny, really.

When you are too young, you don’t have enough experience.

When you are too old, you have too much damn experience.

Companies seem to like fresher, hungrier (cheaper) graduates, so I guess by the age of 40, your earnings would seemingly plateau while you coast into the golden years.

I think 40 is still plenty young. Even 50 is young.

I know people at 55 who are sharper and more quick witted than I can ever hope to be! πŸ™‚ It seems like a darn shame to shuffle them off into the retirement pile so soon.

The good news, is that if my earnings really do peak at 40, then I have some solid years ahead of me, approximately 15 years of premium wage-earning on the horizon.

That is experience depicted in that photo up there, not age πŸ˜‰
I can just imagine the father having done the same thing at this young buck’s age, hahaha!


Okay, so this is going to sound vain, but I really think that in the past 5 years, I have learned so much more than what my years might indicate.

Before you chuck rotten tomatoes at me and brush me off for being boastful, please understand that I am trying to be as tactful and diplomatic about it as possible.

I am not trying to put down anyone, I’m just trying to (as objectively as possible) say that age and years have nothing to do with experience.

Here are the reasons why I think that:

  • I was lucky to be put on REALLY difficult projects early on in my career
  • …and not for duties that weren’t part of my actual job, like fetching coffee
  • I’ve consistently had awesome, high-curve learning projects in a row
  • I actually want to grow, so I learn stuff I’m not supposed to really care about
  • I didn’t just do a support role for companies — I am on actual projects

There are about 3 other people I know who have about the same experience as I do.

When I work with them, I could immediately see that they didn’t know as much as I did, simply because they hadn’t been on projects where they were forced to learn quickly and fall flat on their face repeatedly from the high learning curve (yes, that’s me!).

They were the ones who fetched coffee and weren’t allowed to learn how to do their job, so to speak.

So yes, they can put on their resume that they have the same experience as me, but it simply isn’t true.

Then I look at 2 other folks who have been in my job for about 8 years now.

They have been doing support for one client, and therefore haven’t actually been on any projects!!

Those people can say that they have more experience than me, but it simply isn’t true either; now all they know is that one client’s business, and when you don’t go on different projects you don’t remember or learn anything new, which is really boring and stifling.

It is also somewhat easier to support something that is already in place, tested and worked out, than something that is brand new and has never-been-done-before.

So even though I only have 5 years, I feel like the amount of knowledge in those 5 years spans closer to 8 or 10 of equivalent experience. Being forced into senior roles early on made me advance farther in my career, making all the mistakes (and still more to come) as a result.

That does it for my commentary.

It was a really interesting article for me, and the comments even more so. I highly recommend it.

What do you think about any of the above?

Do women need to negotiate more?

Do age/years really equal actual experience?

About the Author

Just a girl trying to find a balance between being a Shopaholic and a Saver. I cleared $60,000 in 18 months earning $65,000 gross/year. Now I am self-employed, and you can read more about my story here, or visit my other blog: The Everyday Minimalist.