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Making It: What Is Success? [2020 Study]

Have you ever asked yourself what career success really means? Does it involve salary, position, or legacy? Do you think your definition of success matches that of other people?

Maciej Duszyński, CPRW
Career Expert
Making It: What Is Success? [2020 Study]

what is success

We took the time to ask over 1,000 people these questions and more to learn what they would need to feel successful in their careers. As it turns out, generations disagreed, and certain indicators of success left some respondents less than satisfied. Continue reading to see if your own version of career success is relatable. 

what is success

In strictly financial terms, most respondents believed you had to make at least £79,781 each year, on average, to consider yourself successful. This may seem like relatively high standards for “making it” when you consider the average U.S. income currently hovers around £48,000, but respondents insisted that people needed even more if they wanted to call their careers a success: You would need more than £88,000 in your savings, in addition to over £325,000 sitting in your 401(k). 

But this steadfast focus on finances shouldn’t be all-consuming. Most respondents who labelled themselves “successful” said they maintain an equal focus on work and home. Those who didn’t consider their careers to be successful were more likely to just focus on work. 

Top Success Indicators

Successful respondents weren’t the only ones to recognise the importance of an ideal work-life balance. A majority of respondents (both identifying as successful and unsuccessful) understood the need to have a work-life balance to be considered successful. Being respected in your industry, however, was ranked second. This sense of respect really mattered to baby boomers, who chose it as their No. 1 indicator of career success. More than half of respondents also mentioned job security and mobility in their respective fields as a key component of a successful career. 

what is success

What most separated successful from unsuccessful respondents, however, was their attitude toward their 401(k). More than 58% of unsuccessful people thought their 401(k) was a key component of success, compared to just 43.2% of successful people. 

Not all respondents felt they measured up to their own definitions of success, however: 14% of millennials felt unsuccessful in their careers. While we could chalk this up to age, even more Gen Xers felt unsuccessful.

Owning the Achievement

A healthy work-life balance (which experts say reduces chronic stress) was the top indicator of success that our respondents felt they had achieved. This was also more likely as respondents got older, so balance may be something learned with experience rather than relegated to any specific job or industry. More than a third of respondents also achieved industry respect. 

what is success

Underachieving, however, was incredibly common when we asked participants to consider their salaries. Less than 28% had managed to increase their salaries by 50%, and only 13% had earned an annual salary of six figures or higher. Despite these “shortcomings” as respondents defined them, participants of all ages were still hopeful the amounts they’d contribute to their savings and 401(k)s would represent success. 

Forty-two percent of millennials felt certain they would one day have what they needed in their retirement accounts. Where savings were concerned, baby boomers thought people would need an average of 19 years to save a truly “successful” amount. This ideal amount was clung to by respondents of all ages, however. In fact, an ideal amount in savings was the most common achievement respondents thought would happen. In comparison, only 17% thought they would ever reach a milestone like recognition in their industry. 

Money Milestones

Salary was the most important indicator of career success for our respondents. Investments and stake in the company paled in comparison. With nearly 80% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck, it may be time for respondents and the country at large to reevaluate the emphasis on paychecks over investments and long-term growth opportunities

The men surveyed were much more likely than women to believe in investments. Even Albert Einstein called compound interest (associated with investing) “the most powerful force in the universe.” Only 10% of millennials seemed to agree that investments were the most important, however. 

what is success

Next, we asked each respondent how much money they would need in investments, savings, salary, and 401(k) to feel successful. Gen Xers had the highest standards for 401(k)s and investments, needing a minimum of £302,351 and £367,384, respectively, to deem themselves successful. 

Gen Xers tend to carry more debt than their older and younger counterparts, which may explain the additional monetary need from these participants. That said, baby boomers needed the most in their savings to feel successful. 

Key to Satisfaction

Whereas only 20% of unsuccessful respondents felt satisfied with their jobs, 83% of successful respondents reported the same. 

what is success

When we broke down components of job satisfaction, another interesting trend surfaced. When asked whether they would prefer working for a company that had a positive impact on society or one that helped them reach success quicker, respondents were pretty split: 45.3% chose the positive impact on society, and 54.7% chose the growth opportunity. This means that nearly half of respondents valued society’s success over their own. 

Maybe Forbes is right, and the “impact revolution” really is here. And despite millennial consumers’ willingness to pay more for conscious consumerism, they were the least likely to choose societal impact over personal impact at work. 

We posed a second would-you-rather question to respondents: Would you rather make your ideal salary at a job you hate or experience a salary drop for a job you love? Although respondents were split again, we did see a heavier leaning toward a job that people loved, with 63.6% choosing this answer. Once again, though, millennials were more likely to opt for salary over satisfaction. 

Career Advice

We also wanted to give respondents the chance to tell us, in their own words, how to achieve success without having to sacrifice values or happiness. 

what is success

One 40-year-old man with 10 to 15 years of working experience remarked how important it is to maintain a steady mindset. In his words, “Bad days come and go. Just keep steady on the path, and you will find light at the end of any tunnel you find yourself in.” A woman of the same age shared that it’s important for people to pick a path early, explaining, “Decide what is important to you early on and focus on that. No amount of money in the world is worth it if you are stressed and miserable all the time.” Many other quotes left us feeling equally inspired. 

Making Your Own Success

What you won’t find in these responses, however, is a one-size-fits-all approach to success. The data may have revealed some larger trends, but it also proved a fair amount of leeway in what ultimately brings employees satisfaction and happiness. 

If you are currently less than happy in your position or would like to see the many paths your career can take, head to ResumeLab. At ResumeLab, we’re happy to help customers achieve their own versions of success with perfectly tailored CVs that speak to each person’s strengths. Cover letters, career advice, and even motivation can be found in this expert resource as well.

Methodology and Limitations 

To gain the data shown in the above study, a survey was run using two different platforms. A total of 1,081 responses were gathered. The first was Amazon Mechanical Turk, and the second was Prolific. Using these platforms, the responses included 174 baby boomers (margin of error 7%), 366 Gen Xers (margin of error 5%), 385 millennials (margin of error 5%), and 156 from Generation Z (margin of error 8%). 

To qualify for this survey, respondents (other than those in Generation Z on Prolific) had to be currently employed full time. All data shown above rely on self-reporting, which can come with issues such as telescoping and exaggeration. An attention-check question was used to ensure only those paying full attention were allowed to be included in the final data. 

Fair Use Statement 

Feel empowered to share a new definition of success? You’re welcome to use the data behind this study to back your claims, but you must link back to this page and be sure your purposes are noncommercial.

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Maciej Duszyński, CPRW
Experienced in the education management industry, Maciej shares his knowledge for every step of your job hunt, from landing an internship to moving to an executive position. Maciej has helped job candidates at all stages of their career paths, from interns to directors to C-suite members, to thrive in their job. His mission is to help you find the right opportunity and create a job application that gets you the career you deserve. Maciej holds a Master’s degree in English with a specialization in communication and education management.

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