When Charlie dropped out of university, it took him a few years to find a job. He took badly paid agency work, did bar shifts at football matches and even registered for out-of-work benefits. One day, broke, he noticed cards arriving through the door addressed to one of his housemates. Which was strange, Charlie thought, because his housemate’s birthday wasn’t for a few months. The cards – it turned out – were congratulating him on a promotion at his job in the finance sector. Oh, and for now earning more than £100,000 a year.
“I knew that he earned a lot doing what he did,” Charlie says, “but up until that point, I didn't realise that it was actually quite a lot of money.”
Whether we like to admit it or not, money impacts our friendships. From dinner plans where no one wants to be the person who objects to splitting the bill, to group holidays abroad or even just picking up a round of drinks, the amount of money we do (or don’t) have influences how we spend time with our mates. Statistically, millennials are financially worse off than every generation before them, meaning that if one friend earns loads while others don’t, the disparity is pronounced. And that’s not to mention the moral value a capitalist society associates with wealth, and the British obsession with social class. As a result, those earning loads are usually seen to be more successful, even if their job brings them no joy or is ethically questionable.
Millennials may not experience the same intensity of discrimination as previous generations, thanks to improved equality legislation, but many factors can affect your wage – other than simply the job you have or your skill level. Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities in the UK are likely to experience as much as a 17 percent gap in earnings after university, and last year’s gender pay gap data collection found that men are paid more than women in 7,795 out of 10,016 companies and public bodies in Britain. It’s disheartening if your mate earns more than you, but it’s doubly painful to know that it’s because our society places more value on the work of white men.
For Charlie, who had lived with his friend previously in a shared house of five (“Even then, I knew he was earning more than the rest of us put together,” he says), money continued to cause problems. “I remember there was one time when I was really broke and he was going on a business trip to New York the next day,” he says. “He came back from work and just whacked this envelope on the table in the front room and was like, ‘Guess what's in there,’ and I was like, 'I dunno, what?’ He goes, ‘It's a thousand dollars, my boss just gave it to me and said, ‘I know you're going to New York tomorrow, I don't want to see any of that when I get back!’”
“I was like, ‘Oh, right,’” Charlie adds. “That was one time where I did think, ‘C’mon mate, have a bit of awareness.’”
Even if you don’t live with a rich mate, money can still create tension in friendship groups. Ellen*, 30, estimates that at least half of her friends earn almost six-figure salaries, with one friend earning five or six times her wage.
“There have been issues,” she tells me over the phone. “I actually really hate going for dinner with [a certain friend] because she'll always order loads of sides and loads of wine, and she'll always want to split the bill and it's uncomfortable to say, ‘Can we not do that?’ That happened the last time we went out and I probably ended up spending £10 more than I should have.”
However, Ellen has found that being open about her financial situation means that she can hang out with friends without the stress of having to fork out more than she can afford. It also saves her from worrying about the uncertainty of not knowing how much a dinner or activity is going to cost.
“I think the issues arise when you're trying to keep up with them,” she says. “If you want to do expensive things with your friends, and they can't afford it, just offer to pay for them in a nice, non-patronising way. There was a period where I went from earning OK money to earning £18,000 a year. That year, my friends paid for me to do a tonne of stuff.”
Clearly, Ellen has supportive mates. But for some, it's hard to feel comfortable having your friends pay for you. Calum, who lives in London, decided to study for a Masters in journalism after graduating from uni, while many of his closest friends pursued jobs in finance and tech.
“I wanted to socialise with my friends, but it's like, ‘I can get two drinks tonight if we go to places where we don't have to pay to get in.’ Sometimes I couldn't drink anymore or would have to go home,” he tells me. “I can't keep up because I can't keep buying rounds, I can't join in and that's all part of a boys group and a boys camaraderie. I want to be part of that but I can't afford it, so one of them has to buy my drinks on the night, but it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
While Calum says that this hasn’t caused disagreements with his friends, it has led him to question his choices. “I question what I’m doing with my life; I question if I’m doing the right thing,” he says. “Am I selling myself short? It makes me doubt myself. I never want to hold people back.”
But what about when it’s the other way around? Earning less than your mates can suck, but being the highest earner in a group of friends comes with its own awkwardness. For Abdul, who grew up in the north of England, getting a job in finance that paid 40k more than what his siblings or childhood friends earned resulted in arguments and bitterness.
“I decided to be a bit more career-focused [than my family], so there can be a reluctance for me to talk about any of the small successes I have if it's financial or I’ve passed an exam or done something at work,” Abdul says. “I feel reluctant to tell them. It can make them feel insecure or a bit envious.”
When Abdul decided to move to London for work, his family asked him to continue contributing to the rent of their home. This led to an argument. “I feel kind of used,” Abdul says. “I've obviously worked hard to be where I am, so just to be expected to pay for someone else, it's almost like they're having a free ride. It fills you with resentment.”
Alongside the issues with his family, Abdul's increased earnings have made him feel distanced from old friends. “Some of them haven’t really grown up and haven’t made that shift to being an adult, so when you meet up, they sort of want to do the same [things] all the time,” he explains. “There’s never an inclination to do more fun experiences, like eat out somewhere different or go away somewhere. Even topics of conversation are just similar things, like gossip or football, rather than topical conversations.”
In a capitalist society structured to reward those with cash and demean those without, financial differences between friends can feel impossible to navigate. As millennials, we are pressured to love every part of our shitty job (“do what you love”) and find ways to monetise our personal brand. Despite heightened pressure to turn every waking moment into a source of income, there’s no guarantee we’ll ever be able afford a home or even retire. It’s impossible to not feel a personal failure, or an inflated sense of worth, depending on how much cash falls into your bank account each month compared to your mates.
Despite earning less than most of her friends, Ellen considers herself to be in a better position. “I look at my friends and I don't particularly want their lives,” she says. “Most of them don't like their jobs at all, and most of them are pretty unhappy professionally.’
“That's the decision they made [and] I get why they made it,” she adds. “But having been in a corporate job, I also know what that's like to do and how shit it is. And I don't want that.”