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Commentary: Rethinking salaries — when is it too much or too little?

My 25-year-old friend lamented to me recently: “I was so happy to start my working life, then I had to read the news.”

In order to avoid panicking in a time of job loss, the author suggested thinking about how much you need instead of how much you should earn.

In order to avoid panicking in a time of job loss, the author suggested thinking about how much you need instead of how much you should earn.

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My 25-year-old friend lamented to me recently: “I was so happy to start my working life, then I had to read the news.”

He was referring to the recent news about higher starting salaries for graduates in Singapore. According to a survey, the median monthly gross salary for fresh graduates in full-time jobs was S$4,200 in 2022, up from S$3,800 in 2021.

My friend had just graduated from a local university and taken up a teaching role at a tertiary institution.

He said: “I really like my new job and I was satisfied with the salary. But why did I get so upset when I saw that the average salary was so much higher than mine?” 

We all know why — who does not want to earn more?

And many often ask — why are others earning more than me?

I told my young friend: “I know how you feel. At least you have a regular full-time job. You are not jobless like me!”

He cheered up a little but I knew my words were scant comfort.

He has the career aspirations of a twentysomething while I am a 46-year-old who is rebuilding my career from scratch after being retrenched last year.

What we did have in common though, was the perennial topic of money in our lives and the nagging worry we are not earning what is “due to us”.

MONEY PERMEATES OUR THOUGHTS

I scanned the front pages of a local newspaper in the past week. Almost daily, there were headlines about Housing and Development Board resale prices, money scams, financial crises, and government budget plans.

With ongoing high inflation, most of us are paying attention to prices at food courts and supermarkets. We constantly open shopping apps to collect discount vouchers and codes before the next monthly sale.

We cannot help but think about money all the time. It permeates our consciousness.

There are bills to pay, food to put on the table and children’s educational funds to top up.

Brands shout at you all the time to spend money on their new products. The taxman knocks on your door regularly. 

Many of us also judge our self-worth by how much we earn. We are taught to achieve upward mobility, to get to the next level of society. The pursuit of a better income is not wrong, but it can go awry.

I have seen high-performers burn out from pursuing a job their parents told them was their future but they had no aptitude for. People often fall for online scams because of the enticement of easy money.

The yes-men you see in companies may have started out wanting to change the world, but they soon learnt it is more lucrative to agree with whatever the boss wants, whether right or wrong.

At which point do you let your salary goals dictate how you live and think?

And what if the salary that has shaped your lifestyle suddenly disappears, like in the case of many retrenched people?

RETHINKING SALARIES

I spend a lot of time having coffee with other retrenched people these days. 

Here’s a question from a friend who was just laid off and felt that he would have to settle for a lower pay in his next job: “What is the percentage pay cut I should accept, Ian?”

I suggested to my friend that he should not think of it as a “pay cut”. It implies you ought to be earning a certain amount, but our market value is always subjective.

To avoid panicking in a time of job loss, do not think about how much you should earn. Instead, think about how much you need.

Compile your latest monthly bills and calculate what is the average amount you need to really keep the lights on. This is what I call a “sustenance budget”.

Knowing this sustenance budget allows you to decide what expenses you need to cut, and what types of part-time or contract jobs can help you pay the most critical bills in the short term.

In the long term, you need to rethink what a salary really means to you.

If you peg your worth to how much salary you should earn, it may be self-limiting (what if you could earn much more?) or you may lack reflection about your true value to employers (what if your skills are obsolete or not valuable?).

For young people, higher starting salaries are necessary to deal with rising cost of living, but they also need to consider the competition they are up against — the entire world.

Thanks to the pandemic, local companies have learnt how to hire remote workers who are willing to accept lower salaries versus Singaporeans.

I have a friend whose two-year-old startup has over 30 people working for him. Only 10 of them are locals with Central Provident Fund contributions, the rest are remote contributors from the Southeast Asia region working on a freelance basis.

He told me: “The overseas people who work for me are happy to work weekends or nights as long as there is work to be done at their local rates.”

Thus, younger people in Singapore have to demonstrate to employers they can contribute more than their global peers if they want to command some of the world’s highest starting salaries.

OUR RUNWAY IS LONG

If you are middle-aged and needing to do a career reset (voluntarily or not), then you have to be realistic about your salary expectations.

Whether you decide to set up your own business or do part-time work, you will have to invest time and money until your prospects improve.

You might protest, saying you are too old to start over, but remember that our generation probably has to work into our 70s. We are not even halfway in our career journey at 45!

And do be prepared that some employers do not even want to give you a chance to start over.

Shortly after I was retrenched from my tech industry job last December, I was curious enough to apply on a supermarket’s website to be a part-time cashier to make my time productive.

They never called me back. I did not get upset or have my self-worth diminished. I just went on to explore other opportunities.

After all, there is always money to be earned elsewhere.  
 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Ian Tan spent 21 years working in the media and technology industry until he was retrenched in late 2022, amid the "Great Tech Retrenchment". He is building a content business for public relations firm Gloo PR and also teaches part-time.

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