Contribution to Society vs. Salary

Every job helps our society to function, but do some occupations contribute more to our overall well-being than others? Find out which jobs Americans’ value most and how much they think various occupations should earn.

Exploring Employees' Salaries and Contributions to Society

Hardly a week goes by where we don't hear about a CEO, professional athlete, or celebrity who's scored a multimillion-dollar salary or bonus. Maybe their talent or skill set is worthy of a hefty paycheck, but considering the small amounts paid to teachers, soldiers, and first responders, it makes us wonder if we are underpaying those who perform outside the spotlight.

Do you believe your annual earnings are representative of your skill set, effort, and how much you help others?

To discover how Americans compare varying occupations' paychecks with the perceived benefit each offers society, we surveyed 1,013 people of different generations and political ideologies. We believe you'll find their thoughts insightful and intriguing.

Those who serve our country in the armed services such as the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marines, topped our list of the most underpaid occupations given how much Americans believe they contribute to our society.

Do you think teachers receive enough pay for their efforts? Most of us feel they are woefully underpaid because the average teacher's salary is in the neighborhood of $38,000.

The same goes for first responders, like firefighters and police officers.

Undervalued and Underpaid

The average income for military personnel is around $40,000, but those surveyed felt theses employees should receive about $92,000 annually. That's a huge difference considering soldiers, sailors, and airmen place their lives on the line for us each day.

Underpaid Occupations

What about the delicious salad or burger you recently enjoyed? A farmer or rancher may have toiled many hours without overtime pay to produce that tasty item.

Those surveyed undoubtedly appreciate the agriculture producers responsible for our food and feel around $70,000 per year is a fair income. In reality, they average just over $21,000. That's a difference of about $49,000 – more than twice what they actually earn.

As the name implies, "first responders" are occupations such as law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians. They are essential to society as they usually are the first to arrive in an emergency situation. Are they well-compensated for their efforts? Most people believe they are sorely underpaid.

For example, respondents felt around $72,000 was what a paramedic should earn. That's significantly less than the $40,000 pay they average annually.

And what about the hardworking men and women who clean our offices and stores? Janitors and cleaning professionals only bring home an average of $18,512 per year, but we think their contributions are worth $42,898.

So, Your Congressperson Is Overpaid?

Given our volatile political climate, can you guess which occupation our respondents felt was the most overpaid? You are correct if you guessed the men and women we elect to Congress.

Overpaid Occupations

Have you ever seen the classic movie, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"? It's about a young naive man with no political experience thrust into a corrupt political environment. Everyone rallied around this novice politician, but those we elect today aren't nearly as revered. In 2017, Congress' approval rating dipped to a low 16%.

In 2009, the salary for Congress members was set at $174,000, but those surveyed believed these legislators should only bring home $53,651, less than a third of their actual take.

Do you believe it's possible to value a profession and still think it pays too much? That's the case with physicians. The average annual salary for physicians, professionals Americans valued highly, is just under $200,000. Yet, survey participants thought $122,263 was a more appropriate amount.

And what's the deal with those high-paid CEOs we read about in the business journals? It's definitely a high-stress gig with considerable expectations to deliver enormous profits to the bottom line. And in the largest and most competitive companies, the chief executive's salary is highly competitive too. In 2016, CEOs at the 350 largest firms in the U.S. earned an average salary of $15.6 million.

In 2017, Hock E. Tan, the CEO of Broadcom, was the nation's highest-paid CEO of a public company, earning $103.2 million. That could make the average CEO's salary of $140,060 seem quite modest, yet those surveyed felt it was still too high. People believed $114,746 was a completely sufficient salary for the average chief executive.

To put things into perspective, and if we bring things down to an hourly wage based on a 40-hour workweek, Mr. Tan makes $49,615 per hour. The average doctor might earn about $59 per hour, with teachers averaging just over $18 per hour.

Finally, there are the tax collectors, like those who work for the Internal Revenue Service. Although this role is key to keeping our government running, they may be disliked if people don't understand or agree with where taxes go. According to our survey, their popularity hasn't grown among Americans: Their annual average salary is $47,686, but our respondents thought just north of $37,000 was sufficient enough.

Are You Over- or Undervalued?

Just because Americans value an occupation doesn't mean it pays a hefty salary. Once again, we see first responders and health care professionals at the top of the appreciation list.

Perceived Contribution to Society vs. Salary

By Occupation

Contribution RankingOccupationWhat Americans Think They Should EarnWhat They Actually Earn
1Emergency medical technicians and paramedics$71,765$39,675
2Nurses$78,889$54,773
3Physicians$122,263$199,826
4Firefighters$77,430$61,566
5Teachers$70,248$38,181
6Farmers/ranchers$70,101$21,076
7Scientists$105,956$70,510
8Police officers$70,408$59,879
9Engineers$91,515$83,666
10Military$92,033$40,217
11Social workers$55,546$38,933
12Counselors$55,805$33,823
13Water treatment plant workers$53,274$42,895
14Trash and recycling collectors$50,436$22,885
15Electricians$59,005$43,280
16Lawyers and judges$80,101$123,738
17Construction laborers$52,003$22,610
18Pipeworkers/plumbers$53,318$39,485
19Postal Service mail carriers$49,918$41,485
20Carpenters$53,279$24,934
21Janitors and building cleaners$42,898$18,512
22Morticians, undertakers, and funeral directors$51,551$44,876
23Legislators/elected officials$53,651$174,000
24Journalists/reporters$45,569$48,698
25Clergy$38,453$37,377
26Artists$48,028$31,338
27Web developers$53,327$46,286
28Customer service representatives$36,141$25,894
29Transportation security screeners$40,404$38,300
30Chief executives$114,746$140,060
31Waiters and waitresses$39,658$13,424
32Taxi drivers and chauffeurs$37,434$16,388
33Recreation and fitness workers$36,284$14,286
34Flight attendants$41,790$40,647
35Athletes, coaches, or umpires$44,513$22,690
36Tax collectors$37,140$47,686
37Bartenders$33,555$21,133
Contribution to Society Ranking and Ideal Salary Data: Survey of 1,013 People
Actual Salary Data: 2016 IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota, ipums.org; U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery

Based on how much they increase the well-being of communities, Americans believe EMTs and paramedics offer the greatest contributions to society, yet they earn more than $32,000 less than what we think they should.

While some bristle at the amount physicians earn, they also rank high in terms of how we perceive their value to society. Nurses are also admired, taking the second spot just ahead of doctors.

Behind medical professionals, firefighters, farmers, teachers, scientists, police officers, engineers, and the military rounded out the top 10 occupations most contributing to society's overall well-being.

You may ask what occupations Americans believed contributed the least to society. The top honor in that category went to bartenders.

One of America's greatest pastimes is cheering on our favorite athletes and teams, but at the same time, Americans didn't think athletes, coaches, or umpires added much value to our society. That obviously didn't keep LeBron James, the wildly successful NBA star, from securing a huge contract as a free agent with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Other jobs at the bottom of the list were flight attendants, recreation and fitness workers, and transportation security officers, like those who pat-down passengers before boarding a flight.

Also near the bottom of the pile were customer service representatives. Sometimes, we're more than a little frustrated when we call customer service numbers, but we should at least give these helpful people a little credit for being both underappreciated and undercompensated.

Earning Your Keep

Our survey participants' opinions may vary when it comes to perceived earnings or value to society, but they do recognize and appreciate the effort of the many important occupations.

Money Well-Earned

Average Ideal Salary vs. Perceived Contribution to Society, by Occupation

Average Contribution Score (3.64)
Average Ideal Salary ($59,687)
(1 = contributes nothing ←—–→ 5 = contributes a great deal)Contribution to Society Ranking and Ideal Salary Data: Survey of 1,013 People
Actual Salary Data: 2016 IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota, ipums.org; U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery

To show the relationship between annual pay and perceived value to society, we plotted all of the occupations we studied on the graph above. To see how their contributions to society compare to what Americans think they should be making, simply scroll over the points on the chart.

Americans believed that physicians should earn over $122,000 per year on average, which was the highest of all in our study. Similarly, physicians scored a 4.53 out of five for their contributions to society, which was the third highest score.

You may be picking up on a general trend surrounding what our respondents see as the value of a particular occupation compared to the job's average salary. In other words, the higher the value assigned to a job, the higher the pay. Just because you should earn a high average salary doesn't mean participants feel you substantially add "value" to society.

Not to pick on CEOs but given their sizeable average salary, they scored poorly with a 3.09 for their contribution to society.

Interestingly, journalists and members of the clergy didn't rank well either. They were only slightly higher than customer service reps, at 3.32 and 3.30 respectively.

Perceptions and Political Parties

What would you say if you learned Republicans and Democrats have different views on how they perceive the value of occupations? Given the differences they have on most other issues, it shouldn't come as a surprise they don't see eye to eye on this subject either.

Worthwhile Work, by Political Affiliation

Republicans tended to highly value the military more often than Democrats. Those surveyed who identified themselves as Republicans felt members of our military contributed much to society at 88.8%, compared to Democrats at 67.7%

Right-leaning participants were also more inclined to say police, clergy, transportation security, and CEOs contributed more than their left-leaning counterparts.

Overall, teachers are highly respected and valued, and 92.3% of Democrats thought they contributed a lot to society versus 83.8% of Republicans.

A couple of other differences that stood out were how both sides viewed journalists.

Republicans often criticize a "left-leaning" media in print, online, and televised news sources. Their opinions might have filtered over to our survey as well since just over 58% of Democrats valued a journalist's contributions to society versus a much smaller 32.1% of Republicans.

Surprisingly, both parties had similar feelings for legislators with 51.6% of Democrats and 49.3% of Republicans saying they valued the contributions of elected officials.

Salaries and Political Affiliation

Placing a value on a particular occupation is one thing, but assigning a salary to a role is another. It probably doesn't come as a surprise that our respondents on both sides of the aisle had varying opinions.

Crowdsourcing Salaries, by Political Affiliation

We've already discussed many people believe our military personnel deserve more money, and if it were up to Republicans, they would pay service members an average of $94,082 annually. Democrats came in much lower at $74,028.

Keeping with the GOP's pro-business platform, our more conservative friends believed $129,780 was a fair salary for CEOs, whereby their more liberal counterparts come in just under six figures at $99,923.

Don't think Democrats are stingy with the checkbook, though: If they could, they'd write larger payroll checks for several occupations such as teachers, scientists, journalists, and social workers.

Democrats favor giving scientists $109,513, a higher amount than the $84,730 Republicans were willing to pay. Teachers would receive more from both parties, with Democrats paying $73,174 to Republicans $63,718.

Given the volatile political climate today, you might think Republicans and Democrats can't agree on a single issue. However, the love-hate relationship both parties appear to have with Congress is evidenced by the smaller salary of around $56,000 each side thought their representatives should earn.

CEOs and Journalists: Prove Yourselves to Millennials

If millennials determined the salaries of CEOs and journalists, both might have to hustle for extra side gigs because their perceived value wasn't that great with the millennials surveyed.

Worthwhile Work, by Generation

Only 30.6% of millennials felt CEOs positively contributed to society, compared to 32.5% of Gen Xers and almost 40% of baby boomers. Journalists fared better under Gen Xers at 47.2%, followed by baby boomers at 45.9% and millennials at 42.8%.

One reason millennials may have for giving business leaders such a low score is trust.

The most recent Deloitte Millennial Survey uncovered younger generations, including Gen Zers (those younger than millennials), question the ethics and loyalty of today's business leaders.

In the Deloitte study, only 48% of millennials believed businesses behave ethically, compared to 65% the previous year. That's certainly a dramatic shift.

Just over 90% of baby boomers thought police officers contributed a lot to society, far above the 75.4% of millennials. Gen Xers were in the middle at 87.2%.

Millennials' lower view of police officers may be a contributing factor to the difficulty of recruiting new candidates. Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall cited the difficulty in attracting millennials.

"We have night, weekends, and holidays – not attractive to millennials who want all days off and to be the chief in six months," Hall said. "We recognize that is a challenge."

Clergy members were valued by more baby boomers than Gen Xers or millennials as well.

Gen Xers and CEOs Share Commonalities

Our results show baby boomers thought CEOs should earn around $207,000. Can you guess what the average age for CEOs is in the U.S.? The answer is 50, which means Gen Xers are solidly at the top of many corporate org charts.

However, baby boomers thought CEOs deserved to earn around $90,000 more per year than Gen Xers did.

Crowdsourcing Salaries, by Generation

Although the average CEO is a Gen Xer now, many believe it will look much different in the coming decades. One company predicted the CEO of the future will be female, given 60% of U.S. college students and 40% of MBA students are women.

If baby boomers decided the size of a paycheck, our military ranks would also be handsomely rewarded with an annual salary of $164,221, more than twice what Gen Xers or millennials would pay them.

On the lower end of the pay scale, teachers and social workers would earn far more than their average pay under all three generations, with millennials giving teachers $70,492 and social workers $56,751.

Gen Xers hold tighter to their purse strings since there isn't a single profession they would pay more than millennials or baby boomers. In fact, the middle generation would pay legislators and military personnel less than the others.

Perception, Reality, and Value Vary by Profession and Generation

People from all walks of life tend to appreciate and value first responders, our military, and teachers while agreeing they should earn higher wages.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for CEOs and members of Congress: occupations compensated at high levels but with low ratings on their contribution to society.

Regardless of your occupation or generation, we hope you recognize it takes many people performing all kinds of tasks to make our world run smoothly.

Methodology

We surveyed 1,013 Americans using Amazon's Mechanical Turk service. 57.3% were millennials (born between 1981 and 1997). 26.9% were Generation Xers (born between 1965 and 1980), and 13.4% were baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964). The remaining 2.4% of participants were from Generation Z (born after 1998) or the silent generation (born 1928 to 1945). 43.3% of participants were affiliated with the Democratic party. 23.3% identified as Republicans. 28.3% were Independents, and the remaining 5% of participants identified with another political ideology or none at all.

We did not have a validated measure of value of contribution to society available to us, so we created one on our own. On a 1 to 5 scale, survey participants were asked to rate how 37 different occupations contribute to the overall well-being of society, 1 meaning "contributes nothing", 2 meaning "doesn't contribute much", 3 meaning "contributes some", 4 meaning "contributes a moderate amount" and 5 meaning "contributes a great deal".

These responses were averaged to create a contribution "score" between 1 and 5. Based on these scores, we created a ranking of occupations that were seen to contribute most to society. For example, emergency medical technicians had an average score of 4.6, which was the highest of all occupations we included in our survey. Therefore, this occupation ranked first in contribution to society's well-being.

Survey data was weighted based on generation, gender, state, and political affiliation based on the 2016 U.S. census.

We compared our survey findings with occupation and income data from the 2016 American Community Survey (ACS) through the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) maintained by the University of Minnesota. With this information, we were able to compare the perceived value of different occupations from our survey participants to the average income earned in those occupations in the United States. The 2016 ACS is a 1-in-100 national random sample of the population. The data include persons in group quarters. The sample data is weighted so that it is representative of the United States population. The salary we used for legislators/elected officials came from the U.S. House of Representatives Press Gallery for the current salary for members of Congress ($174,000 annually).

The occupations in the survey were directly compared to the occupation titles used in the ACS. We grouped some specific ACS occupations to create broader job categories. Our groupings are as follows:

ACS CodeACS Occupation TitleSurvey Occupation Title
1320Aerospace EngineersEngineers
1340Biomedical and agricultural engineersEngineers
1350Chemical EngineersEngineers
1360Civil EngineersEngineers
1400Computer Hardware EngineersEngineers
1410Electrical and Electronics EngineersEngineers
1420Environmental EngineersEngineers
1430Industrial Engineers, including Health and SafetyEngineers
1440Marine Engineers and Naval ArchitectsEngineers
1450Materials EngineersEngineers
1460Mechanical EngineersEngineers
1520Petroleum, mining and geological engineers, including mining safety engineersEngineers
1530Miscellaneous engineers including nuclear engineersEngineers
2200Postsecondary TeachersTeachers
2300Preschool and Kindergarten TeachersTeachers
2310Elementary and Middle School TeachersTeachers
2320Secondary School TeachersTeachers
2330Special Education TeachersTeachers
2340Other Teachers and InstructorsTeachers
2600Artists and Related WorkersArtists
2630DesignersArtists
2700ActorsArtists
2740Dancers and ChoreographersArtists
2750Musicians, Singers, and Related WorkersArtists
2760Entertainers and Performers, Sports and Related Workers, All OtherArtists
2850Writers and AuthorsArtists
2910PhotographersArtists
1600Agricultural and Food ScientistsScientists
1610Biological ScientistsScientists
1640Conservation Scientists and ForestersScientists
1650Medical Scientists, and Life Scientists, All OthersScientists
1700Astronomers and PhysicistsScientists
1710Atmospheric and Space ScientistsScientists
1720Chemists and Materials ScientistsScientists
1740Environmental Scientists and GeoscientistsScientists
1760Physical Scientists, All OtherScientists
9800Military Officer Special and Tactical Operations LeadersMilitary
9810First-Line Enlisted Military SupervisorsMilitary
9820Military Enlisted Tactical Operations and Air/Weapons Specialists and Crew MembersMilitary
9830Military, Rank Not SpecifiedMilitary

Limitations

None of the data in this project was statistically tested, so our findings are based on means alone. Although we found a relationship between the perceived value of contribution to society and ideal salary amounts for different occupations, further research is warranted to investigate this topic in greater detail, including the application of more rigorous statistical methods.

Sources

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