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Management Think your six-figure salary is normal? Get a reality check

Like many human-resource professionals, we talk salaries. We hear about them from others. We negotiate them, analyze them and have pointed conversations about how much someone should be making given their job, level of education and local market conditions. It becomes a common conversation.

Offline, we have other conversations about the “normal” salary: the one everyone feels she or he must make in order to survive in this world. Alas, normal to many people is not normal to others.

As I sit with my friends sipping $13 cocktails, we talk about how someone we know who is making a $125,000 base salary (not including benefits, bonuses, vacation etc.) wants that number to change because she needs more than that to live. As others agree with her, I pipe up with, “You do know that the median household income in Canada is $70,000, right?”

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As we order another round, all anyone asks is surely not in a city such as Calgary? In fact, Calgary’s median household income for 2016 according to Statistics Canada was $99,583 in constant 2015 dollars before tax, compared with Edmonton’s $94,447 or Toronto’s $78,373 for the same year. Vancouver’s median was $72,662 and Montreal’s was $61,790, with Halifax coming in at $69,522 and St. John’s at $79,750.

The answer is straightforward: We make different choices about how we spend or live. Likely, households at or less than the median income level are not choosing $13 cocktails. They are having drinks at home, on their patio, if they have one.

The median total income of Canadian households, according to the Statscan 2016 census is $70,366, which was a 10-per-cent increase from 2005. This means that half of Canadian households – not individual Canadians – make less than $70,000. This also takes into account the entire house, regardless of how many people work or how many dependants live in the house. It is safe to say, however, that if even half of these homes have two incomes, they each are earning less than $40,000 a year.

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For even more context, the 2011 Statscan National Household Survey found that the top 10 per cent of Canadians make more than $80,400 and the top 5 per cent make more than $120,300. So, if you make more than $120,000 a year, more than 95 per cent of Canadians make less. This does not make your six-figure salary all that “normal.”

The argument that comes back to me is that it’s all relative. We base our lifestyles on what we earn, so in order to sustain, or improve, we need more money. That is true, but to complain that it is impossible to live on less than a six-figure income is grossly inaccurate and does a disservice to those who make much less.

Living-wage calculations for various major cities across Canada would tell us otherwise as these are based on a family of four with full-time income, including the cost of living for transportation, food, rental housing and normal family expenses. According to Living Wage Canada’s calculations, for cities such as Calgary or Toronto, meeting the living wage threshold for a four-person family means an annual income of just over $66,000 annually.

We are caught in a world that confuses needs and wants. Retailers thrive on this, as the majority of the things we buy are wants. Beyond what’s included in living-wage calculations, the rest are basically wants that we have turned into “needs” through trying to keep up with the neighbours. Most of us do not need two cars, especially when we are living in a major urban centre with good transit. Even one car is a convenience that many could live without if needed or if they so choose. Same with eating out, vacations and every other discretionary item on which we choose to spend our money.

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Fuelling this perception is the fuzzy, ill-defined concept of the “middle class” that everyone assumes applies to them, whether they’re a $50,000- or $500,000-a-year household. It’s time to change the conversation. It’s fine to gripe about your six-figure pay and want more: Just don’t paint it as a struggle. The struggle is really around maintaining your choices and being happy with the result.

Before you go on complaining about your $125,000 income, think about the vast majority who earn substantially less. They would see you as fortunate. You may want to consider seeing yourself that way as well.

Eileen Dooley is a principal and executive coach in the leadership practice of Odgers Berndtson, global executive search and leadership advisory firm.

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