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At Which Age Should You Work the Hardest?

To set yourself up for a worry-free retirement, should you give your 20s, 30s or 40s to your corporate overlords?

Five years ago, 21-year-old Bank of America intern Moritz Erhardt died in his shower after working for 72 hours straight. It was subsequently revealed Erhardt died from an epileptic seizure, which are triggered by lack of sleep. His tragic death prompted Goldman Sachs to institute a measly 17-hour per day cap on intern’s hours.

Working this much probably seems psychotically self-destructive to anyone outside of the high-pressure world of investment banking, where 100+ hour weeks are the norm and 17 hours is considered a light work day. But it’s the price finance professionals are willing to pay for the chance to live like the Wolf of Wall Street. They’re making a simple calculation: Sacrificing their 20s — at considerable risk to their physical and mental health — for the chance of accumulating a life-changing amount of wealth in their 30s and 40s, and coasting to an early retirement.

But is it worth it?

And at what point in your career, if any, does it make the most sense to put your head down and strive to earn as many promotions, raises and accolades as possible?

I posed the latter question to Sean Carney, founder of L.A.-based executive coaching firm Loocidity, and Jay Finkelman, head of the Business Psychology Department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Their short answer is that, from a strictly monetary point-of-view, your hardest-working years should be during your 20s or 30s.

But the longer, more convoluted answer is that it all depends on how you value your time, money and freedom.

The Case for Working Hard in Your 20s

From a strictly financial point-of-view, you’re best off following the finance bro route and working your hardest in your 20s. It’s just math, really. A high salary allows you to negotiate for an even higher salary at your next job. And that new figure becomes your baseline for your next salary negotiation. The sooner you can get a high salary, the more time you have to reap the benefits of that compounding growth. (This is why it’s so important to negotiate your salary; a poor salary will haunt your for the rest of your career/life.)

“A person’s salary growth tends to stagnant in their 40s and 50s,” Carney says. “And it plateaus from there. But if you play the game right — by earning and saving a lot from the start of your career — you’ll have more financial freedom later in your career. So that’s one train of thought: I can put my nose to the grindstone and essentially not have a life in my 20s, and when I pop back up when I’m 32, everything will be excellent.

The Case for Working Hard in Your 30s

The reality is most people, especially millennials, spend their 20s shuffling between jobs and industries in an attempt to find one that suits them, Finkelman says. And that capriciousness doesn’t lend itself to much upward mobility.

That’s why Finkelman says a person’s 30s are their chief career advancement years. “In your 20s, you’re typically trying to prove yourself and working first jobs that, more often than not, won’t end up being your career,” he explains. “Your 30s, however, that’s when it counts. Those are your hunker-down years, the decade when you should be doing the most work-wise — getting raises, promotions and better job titles.”

Finkelman cautions that this advice only applies to your desk job, and that things obviously vary by industry. Professions such as law, academia and health care, for example, are exceptions in that the greatest salary gains occur during a person’s 30s and 40s, when they’re working to become partner, gain tenure or climb the administrative ranks of their hospital.

Not that your 20s are pointless. Even if you do spend your 20s experimenting with different careers, you can still make use of your time by growing your network, Carney says. Those contacts might be indispensable later in life when job searching or trying to move up in within a company. The important thing is that you’ve made some kind of substantial impact by the end of your 30s, Finkelman says. “There would be the perception of, This guy isn’t a hotshot because he didn’t move up the corporate ladder in 30s. We can’t count on this individual.”

The Case for Never Sacrificing That Much for Work

All of this can seem rather bleak for someone who’s in their mid-30s and feels as though they haven’t left an indelible mark on their industry. But Carney assures those people that working maniacally hard often comes at the expense of a person’s happiness. Yes, money allows people the freedom to pursue personal interests when they reach retirement age. But the downside is having wasted their lives as young adults on work they found unfulfilling. “A lot of the work I do is with people who climbed the corporate ladder and woke up one day at 45 and said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done with my life?’”

Which is why Carney suggest a more “strategic approach,” where people do some serious introspection about what matters most to them, and work accordingly. For most people, that means working solidly and steadily, saving for retirement along the way, but never killing themselves at the office (figuratively or literally).