According to a disconcerting bit of financial folklore, as a successful person you should be earning your age. That is, if you're 27 you should be making $27,000 a year; if you're 42 your income should be at least $42,000. This is a severe standard, especially under present economic conditions.
There was as a time, when life was simpler, that merely making your hat size would provide for a delightful existence. Today, fewer people wear hats, and even earning your coat size won't pay for that summer place on the beach. The best year I ever had, I made my inseam. However, the following year I suffered some reverses and didn't even earn my sleeve. The best week I ever had -- if you average it out over a full year -- I made the temperature, but it was in February, a particularly cold February. For 1980, I've tried to set realistic goals for a recession year: fI'll be happy to make the average relative humidity of Phoenix.
It's just another aspect of American life that favors the young. Is your grandmother going to come up with a job that pays $87,000? Not likely, granny! There's no way to crochet that kind of cash. But all a toddler must do is find an ordinary minimum-wage job, $3.10 an hour, and everyone says, "Now there's a successful baby!" and invites the kid to join their club.
Youth has held this advantage throughout history. As a small boy touring the capitals of Europe, Mozart regularly made his age, and that was when the florin was really worth something. On the other hand, the mature Beethoven -- that great genius -- never earned his age. Of course, if he'd converted his groschen to ducats or kronen or even drachmas, he'd have been in much better shape, but most music historians agree that he received terrible investment tips. Recently discovered manuscripts indicate that Beethoven's broker put him heavily into peat.
To save us all from the arduous demands of the present economic order, it may be wise to institute a system of age and price controls. For the next five years, prices will be stabilized, and no one will get any older. New federal regulations will link wages and ages. If you're 55 you'll receive $5.50 an hour. Not only will this system slow inflation, but it will create a national seniority system, rewarding those who've contributed the most years of service.
There are a few risks to this program: It might discourage our young entrepreneurs, causing stagnation. The kids (and other members of the youth cult) won't want to earn a lot of money -- it will make them look old. People won't just lie about their age; they'll lie about their wage.
Ultimately we may have to abandon the age/income correlation, not out of compassion but due to inflation. The increase in people earning over $100,000 a year is not being matched by an increase in centenarians. Unless we can dramatically extend life expectancy or totally eliminate inflation -- achievements that seem equally unlikely in our present circumstances -- we will have to create a new rule of thumb.
As an eager and ambitious MBA graduate, you could be worth your weight in inflated dollars. If you top out at 150 pounds, you must strive to take home $150,000 a year. "She's really worth her waist in gold," your boss will boast. If this success-indicator becomes generally accepted, a new sort of health spa will appear, offering to help you put pounds on to give you the portly power-look of the super-rich. "She really swings a lot of weight around her shop," they'll say.
For middle-level management, the guideline could be: earn your height in inches. At 5'4 that's 64 inches, hence $64,000. This figure can be seasonally adjusted to account for variations in heel height. If inflation continues unabated, we can go metric: earn your height in centimeters. Or we could base our guidelines on another currency. Earn your age, but in cruzeiros or escudos, in riyals or pesetas.
Fiscal affairs can be altered so people earn the population of their town. Those who can crave a relaxed, rural way of life can get by on, say $3,200. Those who yearn for city life will need big incomes. Those who want New York City life will need enormous incomes just to make the rent.
These sorts of correlations could be turned to the national interest. For example, the president could link the salaries of auto executives to the mileage of their cars. If the cars manufactured by General Motors average 18 miles to the gallon, then GM management makes $18,000. If the GM fleet gets 27 mpg, then the GM brass gets $27,000. This could be the most direct route to the 100-mpg automobile.
But the president won't do any such thing, which could be less a reflection on the quality of this plan than on the competence of today's politicians. Indeed, there's a theory that we stopped getting first-rate chief executives when their income began to exceed their age. Washington, remember, was willing to serve without pay. Today, the president receives a salary of $200,000 plus an expense budget of $50,000 plus a travel allowance of $100,000. To be fair, it's true that Washington was very tall and had bad teeth.
While some people resent the tyranny of external criteria like the age/income scale, I find it comforting. When times get tough, I say to myself, "You're not getting poorer, you're getting younger."