Is “six figure” culture income-shaming ordinary earners into depression?

Is is time for five figure earners to rally around a hashtag to show their pride?

Lots of dollars. Like it? Source: Pixy

I think it’s fair to say that my attempt to throw some cold water on the claimed income of Fiverr star Alex Fasulo struck a nerve with the general public.

My piece has (at the time of writing) received more than 600 claps, 8,000 views, and — unusual for Medium — the average reading time is more than six minutes.

I’ve been dealing, all week, with messages and DMs from the public who have — mostly — reached out to share some kind words about the article. People are actually engaging with the content and encouraging me to write more of it. So — when I can — I’ll keep doing so.

I think that one of the reasons my pushback is having the effect that it is is that it takes a pretty direct swipe at the “six figure” culture that seems so oddly pervasive in American society.

It’s a toxic culture that I believe is income-shaming ordinary income earners like me — squarely in the five figure club — into feeling needlessly bad about how much bread we put on our tables.

Here’s why I think that the obsession many have with “earning six figures” is damaging and unhealthy.

I’ll finish the piece with a suggestion for a couple of small steps we can take to normalize earning average incomes as a means of pushing back against the braggarts and fake millionaires increasingly dominating the spotlight in the online world.

Why Is America Obsessed With “Making Six Figures”?

Over the five years I’ve been working as a freelance writer and marketing consultant, I’ve interacted on several online writing communities.

Online communities — at least those that are English-speaking — sometimes seem to be dominated by American voices.

Think Reddit. Quora. Facebook groups.

And just about any other nook and cranny of the internet where English-speakers congregate to discuss everything from freelancing to landscape gardening.

As I participate mostly in professionally-oriented online communities I have been baffled (and sometimes repulsed) by what seems like a mostly American obsession with earning “six figures.”

Just running a title-based search limited to this domain yields more than 150 results.

Six figure articles on Medium

Running an “exact match” search for “how to make six figures” yields more than 167,000 results and even dredges up some websites that are explicitly designed to provide “mentoring” (guess what? not for free) to help those broach this imaginary dividing line.

A screenshot from TheSixFigureMentors.com taken on the date of publication. Student Access is free but those who want the higher membership tiers need to fork out.

At times, I have asked American participants why their culture seems so obsessed with surpassing an arbitrary income level in order to prove one’s worth or acceptability into the ranks of those who are deemed, by society, to have “made it” as successes.

I was born in Ireland and now live in Israel. To the best of my knowledge, neither culture fetishizes “six figure” incomes to the same extents, nor places the same level of emphasis upon achieving the equivalent salary in our local equivalents (Euro and NIS respectively).

I am told that many jobs in the US do not pay this amount, but, in the US, disproportionately many do, and that “six figures” is therefore viewed as a sort of litmus test of excellence — a yardstick which only those who are reasonably success can achieve.

In other words, it separates the actual successful people from the pretenders to the throne. To which I say: that sounds like an awful lot of rubbish.

But Here’s A Truth: The Only Meaningful Income Is The One You Need To Make

I’m not a licensed financial advisor, but I do have one thing to say in response to this. I’m confident enough in the accuracy of this that I’m happy prepending it with “this I know to be true”:

Everybody has a different level of income they need to make in order to meet their financial objectives.

You. The guy who collects rubbish in the morning. And the investment banker who drives a Ferrari to work. Irrespective of how much money you actually earn, you all have differing levels of money that you need to earn in order to be not go into the red and meet reasonable objectives.

That level will vary widely from person to person because it depends upon quite a number of variables, including:

  • The level of one’s expenses
  • The cost of living in one’s area
  • The pace at which one needs to save money or contribute to a retirement fund
  • One’s current financial obligations

“Six figures” has become a personal finance meme that crowds out credible personal finance objectives for ordinary people by furthering a myth that everybody needs to make more than $100,000 (or one hundred thousand units of your local currency) in order to be considered successful.

But six figure culture has another more pernicious effect. And this is the one that I’d like to draw attention towards.

How And When Did A Five Figure Income Become Shameful?

The unfortunate corollary of six figures becoming entrenched in the minds of many as a (thoroughly flawed) surrogate marker for success is that anything short of that (lofty) target income level appears to be viewed as a hallmark of failure.

If we, as societies, buy into the notion that only those who earn six figures can be considered truly successful, we lend credence to the notion that those who don’t are not deserving of that accolade.

This:

  • Is totally unfair to the many earning five figures (or less) who are meeting or exceeding their personal financial objectives
  • Pegs one’s worth as a human to their income. A pernicious fallacy that it’s extremely easy to buy into (disclaimer: I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and depression from time to time when I reflect upon how much less I earn than some of my friends)

I’m sorry to say that I’m as guilty as anybody else of buying into this pernicious narrative.

Six figure culture — and the egregious flaunting of wealth on visually rich media like Instagram and Tik Tok — contributes in no small measure to a pervasive and harmful dynamic of income-shaming that is making countless people around the world feel needlessly bad about earning normal and respectable sums of money keeping themselves and their families afloat.

It tells those making ordinary five figure incomes (note: I’ve never made more than “six figures” in a year, at least in USD) that they’re incomes are small, unworthy of celebration, and, frankly, not good enough. Don’t share on Medium about earning five figures, the dynamic coyly suggests.

And in doing so it wreaks havoc upon the mental health of everybody that foolishly buys into such a notion, particularly those that are most susceptible to the type of harmful inner thinking that the idea promotes.

So let me be the contrarian:

There’s nothing wrong with earning a five figure income.

If you’re meeting or exceeding your financial obligations — no matter what you do for a living or where you are based — then please take it from me that you’re doing okay or even great.

There are those who would regard this as an endorsement for failure.

They can have their mindset. And I’ll have mine. I reckon I’ll be happier for it.

Want To Take Action? Tweet — Or Share — Your Pride In Making Five Figures

If you want to do your (little online) bit to combat the spread of income-shaming and six figure income aggrandizement, then consider tweeting or sharing on the social network of your choice a message announcing your pride — and refusal to be shamed — for earning five figures (or less).

Some hashtag suggestions:

#5figuresandproud

#proudlyearning5figures

Thought leadership ghostwriter for technology clients and non-fiction books. Site: DSRGhostwriting.com. Book: amzn.to/2C3jkZS

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store