The most recent post from the very good “District Measured” blog (which is written by the DC Office of Revenue Analysis) highlighted the surprising wage gap in DC marriages; according to the latest tax data, in almost half of all married couples, one member made at least 50% more than the other member, which basically means that one person is bringing home the bacon, while the other is sitting on the sofa eating that bacon while still wearing a bathrobe at 3:45 in the afternoon. This kind of disparity strikes us as antiquated, but as these stats show, it’s not all that uncommon.
But what’s it like, you may be thinking. Is it a big deal? Is it stressful? Does the low earner feel guilty? Does the high earner feel resentful? Well, I’ve been on both sides of this wage gap – more of a wage chasm, really – so I have a little expertise in this area.
THE SELL OUT
My first experience with the wage chasm was when I inexplicably decided to get a “real job” and somehow lied my way into an embarrassingly large salary at a now-defunct internet startup. In retrospect, I have no idea why I did this. I think it was because that’s what you’re “supposed to do” after college, which I now know is the absolute worst reason to do anything. I was living with a girl at the time who worked part-time at a bookstore, so suddenly I was making eight times as much as she was. We both agreed that I couldn’t possibly deserve all the money they were paying me, so we treated the cash with contempt and threw it away on nonsense like $300 cat playhouses and top-of-the-line marijuana vaporizers, which she used with the strippers next door while I was at work. (No seriously though, Shaw used to be kinda sorta cool.) It wasn’t the money that came between us, but the lifestyle difference; she’d get up around the time I was sending out my last work emails, and by the time the weekends came around, all I wanted to do was catch up on sleep. (I once came home on Friday night, went to bed at 8:30PM, and didn’t get up until Saturday afternoon at 3.) She thought my anecdotes about meetings and bagels were boring (they were) and I was insanely jealous that she got to get high with strippers all day while I was doing spreadsheets in Herndon. We were doomed.
THE LOTTERY TICKET
Then came the perfect reversal of the previous situation; after spending the previous several years on unemployment, I was writing a book and subsisting on intermittent freelance wages. My girlfriend at the time had a prestigious well-paying job that she nevertheless wanted to quit. So why, you ask, was she with someone so utterly poverty-stricken? Well, because she had gotten the idea that my book was going to be a runaway bestseller on the scale of “The DaVinci Code,” and earn me (us) millions. She even started referring to me at social gatherings as her “lottery ticket.” Which made sense, sort of; if you date, say, a banker, his salary is going to follow a very predictable upward curve. Consistent, but limited. Whereas if my book turned out to be the Official Summer Beach Read, I could make billions. You just never know, and isn’t the uncertainty part of the thrill of gambling? The problem is, most lottery tickets are losers. Part of what made her horrible coworkers and high-stress workplace bearable was the idea that someday in the near to moderately near future, she would (probably/maybe) be able to retire to a life of leisure financed by my bestseller. But, well, that didn’t happen. I’ll never forget her expression when she first read the draft of my book. “But Oprah would never endorse this!” I guess it had never occurred to her lottery ticket wouldn’t be a winner. And for my part, I had gotten tired of being referred to as “the lottery ticket.” Note to people in relationships: referring to your partner as an inanimate object – especially one that’s characterized by being potentially valuable in the future, but essentially worthless in the present – is probably not a good idea. In fact, looking back, it’s possible I wrote a dour, antisocial book just to spite her expectations.
THE RICH COUPLE
This isn’t one of my personal experiences, but one from my circle of friends, and-not to get all tinfoil hat-ish on you – one that points out the essential manipulatability of statistics. After all, if one person in a couple makes $200K a year, and the other makes $400K, they still fall into the wage gap category. Thing is, they don’t, not really, and it’s the biggest possible social faux pas for them to pretend they do. I was friends with a couple who made the above salaries, and they would always joke about how his salary was just “walking around money” or “beer money” or “petty cash” et cetera, and then laugh and laugh. Then when they’d leave the party, we’d all discuss poisoning them both at the next party. Not to get our hands on their money or anything – just because they were annoying. So in this case, I guess the wage gap didn’t ruin their relationship, it just ruined their relationships with everyone else. Although they have no idea that this happened, since we’re all still pretending to be their friends so they’ll invite us to their house in the Hamptons this summer.
THE STAY-AT-HOME PARENT
There are still plenty of people who are doing it “the old-fashioned way” – one person earning all the money, the other staying home to raise the kids. And that’s fine! That’s totally fine. But society has progressed to the point that this is no longer the default expectation, so when people do go with the “one income, two parents” model, they tend, in my experience, to get a little defensive about it. Actually, they tend to get extremely defensive about it. I have a friend who’s staying home to raise her and her husband’s kids, and if you ask how her day was, she’s like, “WHAT, YOU THINK I JUST WATCH SOAP OPERAS AND EAT OREOS ALL DAY?! YOU TRY CHASING AROUND TWO TODDLERS!” Then she throws an armful of diapers and and gummy fruit snacks in your face and storms off. You literally can’t talk to her about anything child-related. “Wow, Chase is such a well-behaved little kid.” “YEAH THAT’S BECAUSE WE DON’T PAY STRANGERS TO RAISE OUR KIDS, WE DO IT THE RIGHT WAY!!!! WOULD YOU LIKE TO APOLOGIZE NOW FOR SMIRKING BEHIND MY BACK WHEN I TOLD YOU I WAS QUITTING MY JOB????” (I swear I never smirked.) There’s a lot of social pressure nowadays to be “productive” and have a job-type job; some people can’t handle what they may perceive as disapproval for not working. Too bad, I think being a stay-at-home parent would be great, I’d just watch soap operas and eat Oreos all day.