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


woman at desk looking at papersWhen 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.

  • 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.

      • Manny38

        I’m 47 making $129,900/not including bonus or company cars

        • Mike Ipsen

          It seems we are the minority 38manny67. It is nice to see someone else on the ‘high’ end – lol

      • CoolJoe

        Close to 3/4 of Americans make an individual salary that doesn’t exceed $42,000/year. 50% of Americans make an individual salary that doesn’t exceed $30,000/year. That’s what you’re competing with.

        • Mike Ipsen

          Do you have a source for that?

          • CoolJoe

            Official Social Security stats.

          • CoolJoe

            This stuff takes a bit of digging around, admittedly, and it’s hard to get the most up-to-date stats. Unfortunately, many of the stats revolve around ‘household’ income too. I’m not interested in ‘household’ income. 50% (or perhaps even more now) of Americans are single according to government stats.

            Anyway, so now to ‘individual’ income. According to the SSA, the ‘average’ wage earning American made about $44,500/year in 2014. But, that was up 3.5% from the previous year(s) before that, when that amount was obviously lower. I don’t like the word ‘average’ though because it tells a person nothing. The high wage earners (although they are few) in this country are skewing the data for those that make a wage in the real world. Let’s talk about ‘median’ income. According to the SSA, ‘median’ income was less than $29,000/year. That means 50% of wage earners took home $29,000/year or less. Think about that for a second! Also, according to the SSA, 67% of wage earning Americans made $44,500 or LESS/year that year. Those numbers are fairly close to what I quoted, and it may be that my SSA stats were a year or two older (before the uptick in 2014).

            Let’s look at another source. According to the Bureau of Labor (in 2014), they said 62% of American jobs pay $20/hour or less. That’s $41,600/year. 81 million jobs (out of 130 million) pay less than $20/hour. 27 million jobs pay between $20-$30/hour (roughly $40k-$60k/year). Only 10% of American jobs pay between $60k-$85k/year. 10%!!! And yet, judging by the way you hear the media talk, everybody is loaded in this country with money to burn.

            Then, in 2016, according to a report, it was found that 63% of Americans don’t have enough savings to pay for a $500 car repair, or a $1000 emergency room bill. Only 37% of Americans could afford to do this! In 2016, The Fed Reserve found that close to 50% of Americans would be very challenged to come up with $400 in an emergency situation.

            All of these stats point to a consistent theme. Most Americans are broke, and are living literally paycheck to paycheck. What smooths everything over on the surface and allows us to keep buying $700 cell phones and $150 Nikes, and driving the average vehicle price up to around $30,000 these days? The credit markets, of course. With financing everything is possible. Even that expensive Mercedes over there in the sales lot. Just take out a 7 or 8 year loan. No problem. Don’t even get me started on debt. As a dual Canadian/American who spent the first almost 30 years of my life in Canada, I still pay attention to what goes on there. Currently, for every $1 the typical Canadian makes, they spend $1.60. Not kidding! Is that sustainable over the long term? You tell me…

            As Americans, we love to talk a big game. But, the reality is most people have pretty thin wallets these days.

    • Hank

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

      • kgal1298

        Doesn’t seem that way anymore, but if you use basic statistics it’s still way higher than lower income. The issue here is middle class is kind of disappearing.

    • 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.

      • jon nielsen

        Relating this to quantum mechanics is strait retarded yo… unless you travel to parallel universes to increase your wage. Then you may be on to something.

      • Jonathan Banks

        There will be some quantum mechanics happening soon when the poor really start colliding with the rich.

    • Mark Joseph

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

      • Manny38

        $20k earnings for an entire family? That’s way below the poverty level.

      • kgal1298

        20K for one person is what they consider. I actually worked my way up from that amount and when I was under 30K in LA I qualified for a lot of assistance, but not as much as I did under 20K. I think a lot of it depends on location as well.

    • Nikolean

      I think you have to consider that while $50K is the median for the United States, in major metropolitan areas like DC and NYC the average income is $90K+ which is significantly higher than other areas of the country.

    • kgal1298

      They’re target demo isn’t usually for families with a split income in that manner. They’re trying to sell a service here as well so typically they look for people who can and will diversify their portfolio. It sucks, but there are plenty of blogs out there of people with those similar situations that help. I like these two guys here though they’re clearly doing alright at 45, but also not explaining debt to income ratio. I’m 30 with no kids and at 55K a year and bring in an income on the side as well. The fact is this information didn’t help me out much either, this seems to be for people who really think they’ll live to see 80 and let’s be honest not everyone will.

  • 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

        • focused.lo

          I’m not a business owner, I am a sales guy and part of the organizations revenue stream. I absolutely agree with your statement! Meanwhile in the real world… if you are not happy with your wage, do something about it, but don’t complain. I’m an audio engineer by degree and now I’m in logistics/transportation – a broker essentially. When my field and “job” wasn’t cutting it financially, I had to make changes not ask for more money, I had to get it. I’m a 31 single dad and have increased my pay 20k plus YOY because I created value and profits. No one hands you better pay, and if your field is operationally an expense rather than a source of revenue/profits – then learn something that is and making the income you desire, just takes some hard work and determination!

        • jon nielsen

          You’re assuming the manager isn’t a complete fucktard.

  • 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!

      • Linda

        Yr1 55
        Yr2 70
        Im also in tech, aged 25. I think as most are mentioning, its all about marketing your transferable skills and ensuring that the company can quantify your value to the organization. Ask questions, work hard, and dont fear negotiation based on your experience and stats of the role/postiion you hold. Most companies underpay your worth regardless. I consider myself an investment therefore, I expect my worth to be accomodated.
        Just as the person above, @ 25, I definitely should be saving more! 401K is great, but a nice emergency cushion is REQUIRED.

      • Linda

        Can you please advise me on your stock decisions! The jump in your overall compensatoin package from YR7-Yr10 in unbelievable.

      • jon nielsen

        Must be a VP.

        • kgal1298

          The exec retainer should be a giveaway to that.

      • aoptic

        Yr1 48
        Yr2 50
        Systems Analyst
        Yr3 45 (Company Merge and pay cuts)
        Yr4 0 (Left since pay was less than dis-arable)
        IT Networking
        Yr5 69k
        IT Consulting
        Yr6 72k (+ 8% bonus + 10% Travel Rewards )
        Yr7 83k (+ 12% bonus + 25% Travel Rewards )
        Yr8 93k (+ 4% bonus + 10% Travel Rewards ))
        Yr9 100k (+ 5% bonus + 8% Travel Rewards ))
        Yr10 122k (+14% bonus + 23% Travel Rewards)

        Current Age 32

        Over 100k in savings but 200k in student loan debt and 100K mortgage hope to pay off in the next 3-4 years

        Net worth (w/o House) : -133,000
        Net worth (with House Equity): -33,000

        Hope by next year to be closer to 0 net worth and start building more assets to get to FI by the time I am 45-48

    • Stef


  • 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!

  • Zack

    If your a hard worker and I mean the reason you work 7 days a week isn’t for the extra money, it’s too be better than the next guy and perfect your skills than you can be successful. I have no college, I left home a week after high school and never looked back. I did various jobs driver, landscaping, carpentry, and didn’t see much of a future so much in fact that I seriously considered the military. Then I started doing plumbing. At first I dreaded it from working in crawl spaces, freezing cold or hot weather on job sites, along with back breaking labor. But I wanted money so I worked late everyday, every weekend, and I was the first one in the door every morning while living 1hr 15min Away. Because I was a hard worker I became the owner’s helper and he really took the time to teach me alot within a year and a half I went from no experience or skills to having my own work truck, a helper, full benefits, making about 60k. By the time I was 24 I was making 90k a year. There are tons of guys with more experience than me so to set myself apart I would or work anyone around me. Because of this I always had ( and still do) at least 5 job offers at any given time during a bad economy even in different fields just because work ethic is hard to find. So when I was 26 I got a job offer in a completely different field that I would make less my first year but I get commission so there was potential to make good money after I learn the craft. It’s a big company with great benefits, truck, gas, and a lot of other perks so I took the job offer. I now fix wheels, interiors, and paint on cars at car dealers. Because they give me the freedom to make My own schedule and do what i want I’ve been successful when most of the employees take advantage of the freedom and work half the day, I would work until I run out of work. My first year with the company I made 60k which is very good for a first year. I’m now 28 and have been with the Company for a little over 2 years and make 120k a year. I know this is not normal but I worked extremely hard to build up my customers and because I get paid a commission I’m about at the top of what I can earn because I will only slow down the older I get. I will probably end up eventually running a company for someone or owning my own because I want to keep moving forward. I truly believe if you work as hard as you possibly can you will succeed. If I worked at Mc Donalds I would sweep the floors and clean the bathrooms better than anyone else until I made management, then come in on my days off unpaid for being in salary to cover employees that called out and be happy doing it until I reach regional manager and so on. It may take years before you get noticed or get discouraged that the ass kisser got promoted even though they were lazy but that’s life and you can’t give up. Not everyone gets the same opportunities and I understand that completely but when guys I work with say they wish they make what I do and then go home at 2 and I’m there until midnight then that’s on them, they didn’t take the opportunity in front of them. I had no help or support, in fact the once every 2 years my mom calls me it’s for money. I came from nothing and I’m determined to make it into something for my wife and kids to have a better life. I get slammed in taxes, I drive older vehicles, and you can see the steel toe that’s worn through on my boots that way any progress I make I can use it to capitalize in the next opportunity that comes my way. Like I said don’t give up because you know what that will get you. The most valuable thing I have to offer is an extremely good work ethic that’s all you need to out hustle the guy next to you because skills can always be learned.

    • Stef


  • youthinkyourecute

    Is it bad so say..I am a single woman making 32k a year at 36 years old? I started my career over about 9 months ago in the hotel industry at the front desk. The industry doesn’t pay well, especially at the front desk. I’m trying to get into hotel sales within a year or two years. I was a real estate agent that went back to school to finish college a few years ago, so I had no choice but to start over. What should someone make at my age?

    • Nikolean

      If you have real estate experience and are now working at the hotel property level, I would suggest that you leverage this to move into commercial real estate specifically the lodging industry. Take some real estate finance courses at your local university and move into that realm of the industry or create a plan to get a position at the corporate level. Moving into sales at the property level is not an easy journey and requires significant time paying your dues. Another option would be to look for an Executive Assistant position at the property level which tends to pay much higher than the front desk and offers better hours. There are too many unknown factors to determine what your salary SHOULD be at your age including location, experience, education, years in the workforce, etc.

  • Atoms4Peace1

    The rule of thumb for engineering is $1 hr* age*C where C is a cost of living multiplier. Usually C is 1 for south, 1.25 for Midwest and 1.5 for CA, NY and the north east.

  • http://carotidartistry.wordpress.com/ C.A.

    Well, those of us in the arts and/or non-profits world are screwed. (And no, salary isn’t the most important part of why I do what I do, of course. Still, I do sometimes sigh about the dream of making a material living. And here’s a shout-out to my brothers and sisters in the teaching and service industries.) But there are important things to be done outside of offices, too. It would be nice to get advice on how to better make it under non-white collar circumstances.

  • Michele

    This article ignores the cultural preference among many (though not all) women to work as a means of extra support for the household rather than the primary support. Some women still prefer to have a strong home-life to teach and care for their children while their husband is the main bread-winner so to speak. If going purely off statistics, it makes perfect sense that most womens’ salaries would top off around age 30. That is typically when mothers devote more of their interest in their kids (rather than daycare/hiring someone else to raise their kids). So I’m just saying the numbers might have less to do with sexism and more to do with choice. Where is the evidence that women who WANT to devote their lives towards making money can’t earn as much as men?