The Dollars and Sense of Good Career Choices

As you are working to enhance your Career Development programs, ask yourself, “how big an issue is money in the way our students look at career options?”  Are they placing too little emphasis on earnings, too much, or just about right?   Here’s some information that will help you fill out the conversation.

We understand that every young person wants to find a level of personal happiness as they move toward adulthood.  They want to find a sense of “well-being.” But well-being in a career is a little difficult to measure, so people often use earnings as a default measurement.  This message about the importance of earnings gets amplified by some college and university recruiters who play up the average higher level of earnings for their graduates over the average earnings of graduates of community colleges, certification programs, or high school.  They communicate the idea – either implicitly or explicitly – “the more I earn, the happier I will be.”

So, as you help your students engage with career choices, an important question should be – does money buy happiness?  The answer is — Yes and No.  Research conducted by researchers at Princeton University, utilizing Gallup data on well-being, discovered there is actually a level of earnings in the U.S. that allows an individual to reach a basic level of life satisfaction.  That level of family income is $75,000, but it ranges from $65,000 to $90,000, depending on the cost of living in the region of the country in which you reside.  No doubt, earning less than that level can exacerbate life strains – paying for medical care, keeping the car running, paying monthly bills for housing and food, etc…  But here’s a finding that might surprise your students — earning more than the basic amount does NOT add additional well-being or happiness.[i]  Money helps to avoid pain and discomfort, but it does not ‘buy happiness.’

Given the need to have a family income level of between $65,000 to $90,000, you could reasonably advise a youth that if both parents were working, they would each need to each earn between $32,500 and $45,000 so together they could cover the basic level of life necessities.

Here are some other figures to consider.  According to another Gallup survey conducted in spring of 2013, most American families believe that a family of four would need at least $58,000 per year to “get by “in their communities.[ii] That is several thousand dollars more than the median income of the average household in the US, which comes in at about $52,000 year, and is more than double the current federal “poverty” level of $24,000 for a family of four.

Here’s what it takes to simply survive with a living wage, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) living wage calculator (see  This excellent resource shows the absolute minimum you need to earn based on family size, differentiated by zip code.  The living wage varies a good deal depending on which region of the country you live in.  Here is what families of four, on average, need based on regions from highest to lowest are: North – $56,179; West – $53,505, South – $49,167; and, Midwest – $48,496.

Gallup also distinguishes between a “good job” and a “great job.”  A good job is one where you have steady work of 30 hours a week; a great job is where you get to do work that is meaningful and regularly draws on your innate strengths.  So as students consider career options, they should aim at a career that will allow them to earn enough for life necessities; those kind of earnings will almost always require education and training beyond high school, even if not a university education.  But once they reach that basic threshold of earning enough to have enough, they need to understand that the fullest measure of well-being relates to finding the right fit of their talents and interests to the needs of the world around them.  That’s the essential message and purpose of a good Career Development effort in your schools.  Make sure your students know that good “fit” leads to well-being, not just the career salary.

[i] Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489–16493.


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