What Are Your ‘High-Earning Years’? A Guide to Your Pay in Your 20s, 30s and 40s

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high earn yearWhen we’re younger, we probably think that we’ll make more money when we’re older. Job seniority comes with promotions—and raises—right?

As it turns out, your money arc is shorter than you think. According to an analysis from PayScale.com, women’s pay peaks at age 39, and, according to their median data, at about $60,000. After that, there may be small bumps in salary, but they rarely outpace inflation—so in real terms, you’ll make that $60,000 for the rest of your career.

Maybe that doesn’t sound so bad, except that, based on the same data, men’s salaries continue to grow until age 48, and top out at a median of $95,000.

And, regardless of your gender: “We’re trained to believe that our income is going to go up in a straight line, in a constantly growing trajectory,” says Lauren Lyons Cole, a Certified Financial Planner™ in Manhattan. “Unfortunately, that’s not the way it happens.”

What a Salary Arc Looks Like

So what’s actually happening? In your 20s, fresh out of school, everything is looking up—you’re probably doing some job hopping, getting promoted, climbing the corporate ladder with gusto, and your paycheck looks better and better. According to the same PayScale study, both men and women see salary growth of about 60% by age 30.

After that, however, the rate of growth slows for women. By age 39, the typical woman’s income has grown by less than 20 percent, compared to her 30-year-old self. And after that? Stagnationville. Sure, you’ll probably get cost-of-living raises along the way, but the days of the double-digit raise are over.

The picture is rosier for men, whose salary growth continues to be healthy after age 30. But by age 48 in this study, the typical man’s income has grown by about 45%, compared to age 30. That’s not too shabby, but it’s not on the cusp of retirement, either.

Of course, much of this depends on your career choices. Pharmacists, for instance, usually make top-dollar salaries straight out of school, but the potential to significantly boost their paychecks later is nearly nil. Lawyers, on the other hand, are typically well into their 50s before their salaries peak. “Any job where you get the majority of your training in school and the first few years of your career is not going to see much pay growth after that,” says Katie Bardaro, lead economist at PayScale. “If you’re a lawyer, you’re constantly learning on the job.”

But that’s not to say that you will necessarily peak at 39 (or 48). Here, some strategies for salary success:

When You’re in Your 20s

Have a plan. Out of college, it’s tempting to take the first job that comes your way. But one of the keys to work achievement is finding a career that makes you want to show up on Mondays. “From the first job you take, have a career strategy,” says Kathy Caprino, president of Ellia Communications, a career and leadership coaching company. “That can morph, that can be very malleable, but understand what your passions and talents are, and try to craft a career that’s aligned with that.”

Consider your industry carefully. The differences in men’s and women’s numbers in PayScale’s analyses was largely driven by job choice. According to PayScale’s results at least, “Men tend to go into engineering, computer science, management roles and director roles more so than women, and those jobs see fairly consistent pay increases year in and year out,” Bardaro says. Maybe there isn’t a higher-paying career choice that lights your soul on fire, but if there is, you’d be foolish not to pursue it over another option.

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  • Mr Nuff Said

    nice article

  • Reality

    Wish the article was more relatable to real middle class. $95,000 in my 40s and 50s? The average US family income is $50,000 combined. Trying helping out middle class/poor with hope, unless the facts are there is none and that’s why you stuck with more zeros and shine, because no one wants to read about dreadful, majority middle class/ poor.

    • GenxMarine

      That is why it is called an average. I am currently 45 making $120,000/year not including bonuses. I find it hard to believe that I am on the high-end of the middle class. Maybe I am just out of touch with most people’s lives.

    • Hank

      The average including everyone. 50k as far as I know isn’t middle class. Top one percent starts at around 300k.

    • prostarprofits

      It’s because quatum mechanics most people don’t understand stuff like this (average is not average)

      Perhaps you’ve heard of the 80/20 rules 20% earn 80% of the money.

      Take the 20% and these numbers seem low and take the 80% and these numbers seem high.

      Quantum mechanics always exists it is a law of nature not only in money but in everything health, productivity, etc…

      But you can decide which side of the 80/20 rule you want to be on.

      You might have to learn new skills and stop thinking mediocre.

    • Mark Joseph

      i read multiple articles 20,000 combined for families is consider the poverty line, does anyone agree?

  • Hank

    My tip is to always negotiate your salary to the top end of your range to maximize bonus each year. For me, my salary never increases because I’m at the max for for job but I get a bigger bonus each year than my peers.

    • Brea Plum

      I am always amused by comments like this from people who believe all salaries are negotiable. How quaint. Meanwhile, here in the real world…

      • collin

        “Meanwhile, here in the real world…”

        You are not “sentenced” to your salary. Your income is a DIRECT reflection of the value that you bring to the marketplace, this applies whether you’re a business owner or an employee.

        Fact of the matter is, if you can generate your company money as an employee (AKA: Provide Value) and you UNDERSTAND what you’re worth, you CAN negotiate a salary.

        No successful company is going to let go of a highly experienced, knowledgeable, and hard working employee if that said employee is making them money; they would rather increase the employees pay 9/10

        - Business Owner

  • Nirmal

    I have been in tech field last 9 years.
    1st year 35K
    2nd year 45K
    3rd year 65K
    4th year 68K
    5th & 6th year 85K
    7th year 95K
    8th & 9th year 110K

    I am now 35.

    • Mark Joseph

      sheesh what was your major?

    • GE boy

      Yr1 40
      Yr2 50
      Yr3 70
      Yr4 85
      Yr5 100
      Yr6 110
      Yr7 140
      Yr8 225 (inc bonus)
      Yr9 305 (inc bonus and stocks)
      Yr10 440 (inc bonus, stocks and exec retainer)

      I am 34 and havent saved much… Disgraceful!

  • Makin it happen

    Totally agree…..this is not accurate in my world. I took years off to raise my daughter. Left a job at 100k in 2005, re-entered the work force in 2011 at 40k and with in a year. made a move and was at 75k. Make your plan, work your plan. Don’t be complacent and, I hate to say it, but, be loyal to yourself only. It is the only way to keep earning at a higher rate.

    • erica o

      Love your line- be loyal to yourself!