It’s Ok to Care about the Money

Is work about money or meaning? Ideally, both. But if I had to choose one, I’d choose the money. So should you. Yes, even as an academic.

Money Discourse

Academic Discomfort with Money

Academics seem particularly prone to an affliction endemic among high-status professionals outside the business sector, in which one is supposed to pretend that one’s job isn’t really about money. We say that “Academia is a calling,” not just a job or degree program. When we discuss how maybe, perhaps, it would be kind of nice if we made enough to pay rent and feed our children within an hour’s commute from our university’s location, we talk about it like the issue is something other than money: that it’s about respect, or enabling us to focus on doing the job as well as possible, or equity, or a hundred other things.

All those things are great. But the money itself is better. It’s how you meet your body’s needs as well as many of your mind’s. It’s how you reduce and eventually eliminate your dependence on a job to support yourself. It’s how you provide your children with opportunities and nurture their development. It’s how you make great memories and support causes you believe in. It’s a tool that helps you make the most of your limited time in your single life on this earth.

Whether you want to hoard it like Smaug, give it away to cost-effective charities, retire early, leave it all to your kids, or just live a quiet life as the millionaire next door with minimal financial stress, money matters.

But many academics don’t want to acknowledge this. Here’s some anecdata: Recently I discussed with my colleague my current university’s frustrating recent history of offering well below-inflation “raises” when they offered any increase at all. As a result, my salary’s purchasing power, and presumably that of my colleagues, has been substantially eroded. I was talking about the money itself, but my colleague interjected to say they understood that I was saying that fair salary adjustments “are about respect,” which wasn’t remotely what I was saying. For many of us, it’s hard to let straightforward statements about money lie.

Social Status and Money Discourse

One lesson of social science is that, often, where you stand depends on where you sit. Which is to say, you tend to do and say a lot of the same things that others in a similar position do. This certainly seems true when it comes to money. One useful oversimplification when thinking about this is Bourdieu’s Field Theory invitation to imagine the world as a scatterplot of economic capital against cultural capital. Tenure-track professors as a unit inhabit the top-left quadrant of this graph but further to the left than top — in other words, they are high on both forms of capital, but are higher on cultural than economic capital.

(Source for original graphic)

I suspect this has a few consequences for how academics talk about money:

  1. Academia (perhaps outside of economics and business schools) disproportionately attracts individuals who attach lower value to money than to other factors such as occupational prestige, authority, control over one’s own time, etc.
  2. Due to its prestige (and the fact that undergraduates can see us teach and imagine themselves doing the same more readily than they can probably imagine many other occupations), the industry attracts more supplicants for precious tenure-track positions at prestigious universities than are likely to be available. Those of us who land these positions often just feel lucky to be there, and know they are far better off than their teaching faculty and adjunct faculty colleagues.
  3. The most important financial years of our lives (our 20s and early 30s) are spent clearing hoops that don’t lead immediately to greater financial success: completing our Ph.D., then our postdoc(s), then if we’re lucky the tenure track. Even on a pretty direct course from undergrad to tenure, you’re likely in your mid-30s before you feel you have the time and wherewithal to lift your head and see what else you should have been working on. Even when tenured, many of us will have young children by this time and may still not feel they have the capacity to work to understand our financial situation and how we might improve it, and accordingly treat financial questions as beyond the scope of our attention.
  4. This location cements tenure track professors at reasonably prestigious institutions as members of the upper-middle class (socially, if not economically). With this class location comes a number of cultural expectations related to money: mainly, not to acknowledge that you have it beyond what’s needed to support a ‘reasonable’ lifestyle, to deny any economic privilege that you do have, and to treat open efforts to increase the amount of economic resources you do have as grubby and gauche.

Aside: Yes, Money is a Social Construct and Tool of Privilege and Oppression

This is where as a certified social scientist I should note that this all takes place within the bounds bounds of a capitalistic social, economic, and political system that equates financial worth with social worth, erects systems of unequal access to financial opportunities that are self-perpetuating and self-justifying mechanisms of systemic oppression, that devalues human activity that is not profit-generating or wage-earning and thus eviscerates essential social infrastructure and traditional sources of meaning-making, and that when the revolution comes it will usher in a utopia of equality and love that will make these issues seem as horrifyingly antiquated as medieval torture devices.

But until that revolution arrives, it is reasonable, as Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin argue in their (highly recommended) book Your Money or Your Life, to treat your salary and wages as the price of a high percentage of your finite life force. You may enjoy many aspects of your work, but how much of it would you do for free in your down time if you had an unrelated job? Probably <25%, if any. Every hour of your life you spend on your job is one you will never get back that you could have spent in the company of friends, pursuing your unpaid hobbies and interests, taking care of your body, raising your children, nurturing your relationship with your partner, meditating on the meaning and beauty of life, writing a blog nobody reads about personal finance for academics (for some dumb reason), or 1000 other things that matter for long-term happiness much more than whether you get one more paper published this year or make a marginally cooler graph for your lecture that half your students will snooze through (if they come to class at all).

The Social Meaning of Money

Symbolism vs Instrumentalism

I’d like to do a deeper dive in the future, but for now let’s just briefly touch on one influential treatment of the social meanings of money. In a highly-cited paper, Mitchell and Mickel (1999) argue that money has instrumental (store of value, medium of exchange, means of accounting), affective (object of individual emotions), and symbolic (standing in for other important social messages) meanings. We’ll focus here on the symbolism vs instrumentalism distinction.

Symbolism Matters

I’m about to argue below that money’s instrumental functions are the most important thing, but let me stop a moment first and acknowledge its symbolic functions matter quite a lot too. Most symbolic functions of money are likely defined in relative terms; it matters less how much money you have absolutely than how much you have compared to relevant others — in your department, family, neighborhood, etc. In a capitalistic society, to some degree social status is bundled with each dollar you earn or own, and your status relative to those around you matters quite a lot psychologically, for your job satisfaction, and for your health.

But you don’t need research to tell you this. How would you feel if your similarly-accomplished, same-rank colleague doing the same job were making twice as much as you with no reasonable justification? Or if your peer institutions substantially raised their salaries but your university refused to do so? Or if your neighbor got a grape while you only get a cucumber? You’re not going to like it, not only because it violates our sense of fairness, but because your institution is sending the signal that your value is substantially less than your peers’. That feels bad. The symbolism of money 100% matters.

But Instrumentality Matters More

It just doesn’t matter as much as its instrumental value. In a society where these things are far from guaranteed, your ability to secure adequate shelter, nutrition, medical care, and opportunities to thrive for yourself and your family is of far greater importance than any other meaning you can attach to money. I think it’s ok to say admit that. In exchange for the 60,000+ hours you’ll likely spend in your career on top of your years of training performing a valuable service to your institution and society, you should be able to expect a comfortable standard of living. And if the opportunity arises to achieve a more comfortable standard of living while conforming to ethical and professional norms, you should pursue that, too.

My Advice

Know Yourself

I admit that openly making work about money’s instrumental value may not make you the most popular professor at the faculty meeting. Others feel more comfortable when those around them follow the understood rules of the game, including those in charge of negotiating your compensation and other job perks. So if I’ve persuaded you to adopt this materialist orientation, you can keep it to yourself — I don’t mind. Just don’t equate the social rules of the game with the thing itself.

Taking this advice seriously means fully reckoning with the value you assign to your limited time on Earth. How much future consumption would you need to not do the thing you most want to do right now? Ideally, probably more than you’re getting now. Whatever your money and career goals, it’s perfectly reasonable to do what you ethically and professionally can to increase your compensation for the work you’re doing. If you aren’t appropriately compensated and have no good avenues to change that, it’s also perfectly reasonable to look outside academia to find a better balance.

Help Others

There’s also a lot you can do to support others. If you work in an institution where faculty salaries aren’t publicly-available information and job ads don’t clearly state salary ranges, look for opportunities to convey this information to job applicants and current faculty to help them know where the boundaries lie. These discussions may be slightly uncomfortable (and you shouldn’t press anyone to share their compensation if they don’t want to), but universities benefit enormously from informational asymmetries where they know the true feasible salary range but their potential/current employees do not. This situation allows them to disproportionately dictate the terms of negotiation, often well below what they would be when the full range of possible compensations were known by all parties. Having a slightly-uncomfortable conversation with your colleagues could make enormous differences for your colleagues’ long-term financial well-being.

You could also unionize. Faculty as a whole have far more power to negotiate effectively with their institution when they do so together, pooling their information and willpower to coordinate for an optimal possible resolution. Personally, I don’t plan to push for a faculty union for tenure-track professors at my institution, as we are generally well-compensated and receive good benefits. As a major research university, many of my colleagues have established, international reputations and would be able to leave to greener pastures if treated too poorly. However, this is often not the case for faculty at lower-tier public and private schools, or faculty without long-term job security. Unionization would likely benefit these faculty immensely, and would probably take a lot of the guessing game of job negotiation off the table.

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