Act your wage: How young workers are responding to stagnant pay

The economy isn’t doing too great and hasn’t been for the last decade. What looked like a strong housing market priced young urban dwellers out of their chance at affordable home ownership. Meanwhile, rent keeps increasing, tossing more money into equity for living spaces they’ll never own.

And then there’s the job market.

In 2023, layoffs in America more than doubled those of previous years, reaching millions. Gig work, initially touted as a side hustle, has become a career path for more and more people who can’t find stable employment. Groceries keep going up. Gas never goes down. A Big Mac combo costs more than a whole pizza, yet wages have remained suspiciously stagnant.

Millennials and Gen Z have front-row seats to the disappearance of the American middle class, but are they doing anything about it? Well, maybe.

Nobody wants to pay workers anymore

“Act your wage” is the generational response to “nobody wants to work anymore.” It started as a TikTok trend urging workers to give the effort they’re paid to give at work, and its manifestations are myriad.

If you earn minimum wage, for example, acting your wage looks like showing up on time and leaving right when your schedule says to leave. Only come in early or leave late when you’re paid to.

If layoffs saddled you with more work for the same pay, acting your wage looks like completing the same workload you had before and letting your boss know you don’t have time to do the rest.

Other traits of “act your wage” include:

  • Refusing work-related calls or texts outside working hours
  • Protecting job knowledge by only sharing ideas in exchange for compensation
  • Forwarding work requests to a supervisor when they fall outside your responsibility

People who earn more may be responsible for doing more, but low or minimum-wage earners are responsible for doing only low or bare minimum work. That’s what it means to act your wage.

What’s the problem?

Employers are understandably frustrated by “act your wage.” Before the 1980s, minimum wage provided enough income not only to cover the cost of living but also to put some savings aside and enjoy the occasional vacation.

Today, a salary of around $70,000 is needed to achieve the same standard. That number keeps rising, and most small businesses simply can’t afford it.

Workers need pay that keeps up with inflation; otherwise, they end up paying their employers to work instead of paying them the other way around. Unfortunately, this desire for adequate pay is at odds with investor returns, resulting in a culture war to protect those returns.

For decades, the corporate sector warned that a minimum wage hike would force businesses to jack up prices and lay off staff. The warning was effective—minimum wage never went up—but the consequences materialized anyway. Today, for example, fast food prices are double what they were in 2020 despite the federal minimum wage never budging.

Young people got the message: keeping wages down isn’t about the economy; it’s about giving investors more money—workers’ money.

Acting your wage is a kind of protest comprising small, quiet pivots away from employer-centric workplace culture—the decline in job loyalty, the explosion of side hustle culture, and a growing sense that the working world isn’t what our parents/Dave Ramsey said it’d be. After all, what good are your boss’s good graces when you only earn minimum wage?

Some other changes include:

  • Openly sharing salary information with co-workers
  • Using up more sick and vacation days
  • Not tolerating harassment or abuse from management
  • Asking for inflation raises in addition to performance raises

Workplace behaviors aren’t the only thing that’s changed—job hunting and raise requests are also dramatically different.

Quiet quitting for better pay

The abundance of profits hasn’t made them any more accessible for C-suiters to part with. While some forward-thinking companies embrace inflation pay, others see scheduled raises as a dangerous precedent tying employee satisfaction to wages that rise like everything else.

However, employees still need raises, and employers unwilling to grant them are seeing more turnover via “quiet quitting,” a trend where employees obtain raises by taking a new job. People who quiet quit don’t negotiate with their boss (they probably tried), and their two weeks’ notice comes as a surprise.

Quiet quitting is also a generational response, this one targeting the lack of compensation such as:

  • Pensions
  • Stock options
  • Scheduled raises
  • Insurance coverage

These benefits have all but disappeared. Base salary is one of the few bargaining chips companies hold anymore, and workers are learning to negotiate in kind.

Note: “The Great Resignation” was a similar movement, taking place in 2021 when COVID-19 stipends gave people the financial freedom to step back and ask what they wanted out of life. They chose a better work-life balance.

Blocking time for work

Remote work is probably the most significant difference from the COVID-19 pandemic. Mandatory work-from-home policies put time management in the hands of workers, and while they remained just as productive, they were more challenging for their managers to monitor.

Despite this newfound freedom, there’s still the issue of pay. Working from home is only a perk if you don’t need a second job to pay the bills, which is why some act their wage by supplementing subpar pay with a whole ‘nother job.

These clever folks spend a wage-appropriate amount of time on one job and then switch to another. String enough low-work/low-pay jobs together, you suddenly have a livable wage.

Creating worker community

Perhaps the most significant impact of “act your wage” has been increased worker solidarity. Company loyalty as a career strategy is giving way to doing what’s best for everyone. Foregoing short-term gains in favor of long-term welfare are becoming more popular.

“Act your wage” marks a cultural shift toward well-being and away from relentless hustle. It challenges the traditional notion that employees should constantly exceed expectations in order to prove themselves. It highlights the gap between what employees are expected to do versus how they’re compensated for it.

Companies that fail to do right by employees may find themselves being torn apart on social media communities like r/Antiwork or TikTok with @saraisthreads.

Employers grapple with the ‘act your wage’ movement changing the workplace

Supporting employee well-being is critical for employers. The best chance employers have of staying ahead of the curve is to take the side of employees.

Some companies disagree, however, and have responded by:

  • Hiding salary information on job postings
  • Banning discussions of pay in the workplace
  • Enforcing return to office policies
  • Using keystroke and activity monitoring software
  • Launching campaigns against unionizing

Is this an effective long-term strategy? It seems unlikely. Employees who would instead earn less than give up autonomy are resisting the push for a return to office. Employees easily sidestep activity monitoring software by using a separate computer. People on social media relentlessly heckle anti-union programs that show up there.

Avoiding the fallout of “act your wage” starts with creating a supportive workplace culture:

  • Encourage open communication: Let management and employees communicate easily via regular check-ins, feedback sessions, and an open-door policy
  • Set realistic workload expectations: Understand the capabilities and limitations of your employees, and ensure that tasks are manageable within a given time frame
  • Provide professional development opportunities: Careers are important to young workers, and companies are more desirable when they foster professional growth and development
  • Recognize and reward effort: Recognition programs work better than verbal/written warnings for getting employees to work hard and do more

Most of these are already best practices. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that companies are more profitable when their employees are more productive, and employees are more productive when employers respect them.

The future of work and “Act Your Wage”

Gen Z and Millennials prioritize a work-life balance. In a chaotic job market, they put their well-being above the uncertain promises of career advancement.

“Act your wage” is already making waves in corporate policies. Many companies offer remote and flexible work arrangements and encourage people to log off when the workday ends. Mental health programs are more and more common, including days off with no questions asked and initiatives to keep workers from burning out.

The long-term impacts of “act your wage” are also likely to be profound:

  • More employee satisfaction and retention: Old-fashioned job loyalty may return as companies respect employee boundaries and prioritize their well-being
  • Shift in employer-employee dynamics: Employer dominance may give way to a more balanced relationship where employees are valued and have a more significant cultural impact
  • Productivity over hours worked: Working hours may begin to decrease as quality and efficiency earn more value than total hours worked
  • Shift in work expectations: The idea of always being available and overextending oneself may become outdated and replaced by a more balanced approach to work

This isn’t your mom and dad’s job market—it’s a rapidly changing landscape enmeshed in social media and pop culture. Employers have an unprecedented chance to attract top talent by offering respect and a reasonable workload.

For many years, employees have felt that being part of a work family isn’t always good, especially if you’re always asked to make sacrifices. “Act your wage” breaks that bond altogether by calling a spade a spade: “I work to make money. If you want more work, I want more money.”

Employers who value their teams will see higher output, while those who pay minimum wage get what they pay for.

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