Capitalist Survivor's Guilt

Recently, I got a new job, with an impossible to ignore raise attached to it. My net compensation about doubled, and I was not exactly uncomfortable before. And after the intial jubilant feeling had worn off, I was left feeling… guilty. And ashamed. And I was very confused as to why.

I grew up rather poor. My mom, being the force of nature she is, raised me while working, on a blue collar salary. I was sent to eat with my grandparents frequently towards the end of the month, in the early years. This was one of many sources of family-internal politicking that made sure I knew that a lot of things were always conditional and anything nice would also be held against you later. This got better later, and we ended up being relatively comfortable. Food was stable, small luxuries possible, the grandparents removed from the picture.

To name numbers, my total compensation–this being local to Germany–went from 65.000€ gross per year, to 125.000€-131.000€ gross per year, depending on what the stock grant evaluates to at any given time. If I exclude stock grant and bonus, and merely use the fixed salary I am paid (85.000€ gross per year), according to a study I found, this puts me in the 96th percentile in Germany, and removes me more than 250% from the median German income, according to this calculator. My salary raise, despite being only half of my total raise, ended up being more than I pay for rent and utilties per month, despite living in a 2 bedroom, new construction apartment in Berlin. If I do pull in stock grant and bonus, I’m a 1-percenter. It comes out to an absurd 6.864€ per month, net. I have reason to believe that this is nowhere close to the top of the ladder, and that my income will grow further, from ridiculous to obscene. There’s entire levels above me in the career ladder, and I started barely in the middle.

I have barely got my first paycheque and the effects are already tangible. I have been able to shortcut the strained public mental health system in Berlin by self-paying for the private system, and just eating the costs of 100€ per session. Given what we know about the modern precariat and how tightly most people live these days, that’s an absurd luxury. I went to visit friends in Ireland this weekend, on a whim. We ate out for every meal, picking restaurants and activities based on what seemed interesting at the time. Two days before leaving we decided to spend the first night in a hotel in Dublin, so we also booked that. All this did was about half the amount of money I can save this month.

I’m proud of where I am now, I did this not by some stroke of luck that has nothing to do with me, but by being good at what I do and good at marketing myself for what I do. I want to be seen as successful, as good at what I do, I seek status as a social animal. But in achieving this, I’m facing problems and questions I don’t know how to get the answer to. Yet, this is very complicated to talk about. One only needs to turn to the recent QC twitter drama that even reached regular news sites to know that complaining about wealth and its effects are considered an impressive failure of empathy. And, I understand that. I was there myself. Someone complaining about the negative effects of wealth when I was visiting my grandparents three times per week for meals would have seemed utterly absurd. So, let’s talk about the downsides and quandries I’m facing.

Every single norm of what I knew that counted as a luxury growing up, minor or major, is completely unmoored now. Eating out used to be a treat, something that happened for birthdays and occasions. I can now order food or eat out twice per week without needing to re-allocate money. The jubilant feeling of not needing to cook has vanished completely. What constitutes a luxury now? I’m not sure. I think its replacement will be travel, like my Ireland trip. This comes with its own implications of the ethics of travel in the time of global warming and the growing awareness that we are in Finding Out Century makes this feel tainted in a sense, and not something I want to grow accustomed to.

Growing up poor gives you a sense of acceptable conduct, of what is good and polite. This set of norms is completely irrelevant now. Previously, I would never have had a long-standing social debt, like someone inviting me to dinner. The costs would have been precisely accounted for and split equally, or with minor bias for effort. Money was tight for everyone, being unable to recoup expenditures from people delaying paying you back threw everything out of balance. Now, nobody keeps precise track. Expenses are accounted for in a rough, “You invited me last time so this tab is mine” sense of equality. While I may have grokked that bit, everything else in terms of conduct has become irrelevant, I have no idea where to re-learn. How do you learn the standards of a new socioeconomic class, if not for painful and embarrassing trial and error? How do you not constantly betray being nouveau-riche?

Previously, my ambitions were reducible to money, the things I wanted and needed most, I could buy. That is still sort of the case (for example, an owned home instead of renting), but for the most part, this has also become irrelevant. I have climbed a rung in Maslow’s hierachy. What do I replace my previous ambitions with? I don’t know yet. I haven’t found out yet. I’m not sure how I’m going to find out, given that the entire idea of having desires is still relatively new to me for a variety of reasons.

I could run away from all of these problems. Live in the same way I did before, and squirrel away most of my money. Change nothing, buy a house, continue to change little, retire comfortably. This is likely a stronger version of what I will do. Take care of myself, take care of those I love. Try to not have everything change in a few years. I have enough change to feel tired about, enough new things to discover about myself. But it also would be nice to learn literacy in a new class of people I could now make friends with, learning how to deal with people that grew up here, and while I will never be one of them, I’d like to not feel alienated.

I feel guilty about writing this. Everything in this post sounds braggadocious to me. It’s gauche to speak about money, it’s more gauche to complain about having it. I know what it’s like to not have it, I should be more grateful than I am. Yet, the feeling of alienation and unmooring of where I grew up in is hard to shake. I’m tired, and feel alone. In a sense, I understand where QC is coming from.