I'm referring to this result the latest SO developer survey revealed:

Stack Overflow Developer Survey 2015: The Results

Given that socioeconomic parameters and standards of living are fairly equal among the two, this seems surprising.

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    Some interesting chatter on Reddit about this - reddit.com/r/programming/comments/31r1et/…
    – JMK
    Apr 9, 2015 at 9:19
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    I can't answer the question but its worth pointing out that salary isn't the same as disposable income. Taxation rates differ. The cost of living differs. And here the the UK our healthcare is included in our taxes (via the NHS) whereas its not in the USA.
    – Paul
    Apr 9, 2015 at 9:25
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    I think Rob is correct. The whole compansation part for western europe must be flawed by ~10% only because of to the heavy changes in exchange rates at that time. The survey was conducted February this year. You should better look at the Big Mac Index numbers . :-)
    – s1lv3r
    Apr 9, 2015 at 12:02
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    Health care costs, less vacation, 40hr work weeks, tax differences, less benefits, little employee rights etc. all factor in. I have worked in both US and Europe and while my US salary is higher, my overall standard of living is about the same. Apr 9, 2015 at 12:42
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    If you have a look further down on the same page you can see the "Compensation by Purchasing Power" table demonstrates what most of the answers are saying. Ukraine's salary is 1/3 that of the US, but goes 1/6 further when counted in Big Macs Apr 9, 2015 at 17:13

5 Answers 5


Having lived in both the US and Western Europe, working as a software developer....comparing salary is difficult.

Eur Vs. USD chart

First - you have an exchange rate. In Western Europe, outside of the UK, you'll (probably) be paid in Euro (depending on how you define western Europe...but this applies for any currency, although as far as I know, the euro has had the largest swings lately). The value of a Euro relative to a Dollar is in a state of constant flux. Less than a year ago, one euro was worth as much as 1.38 dollars now it is worth about 1.07 dollars. It's non-trivial to determine how much someone in the EU makes in dollars and judging from my US tax filings the amount I make each year in Euros fluctuates dramatically from year to year when converted to dollars. The Euro is currently at/near something like a 10 year low. For someone living in the Eurozone, they're unlikely to notice though, as all of their bills are paid in Euro. But when comparing to the dollar, it looks pretty bleak.

Second - you have completely different compensation packages. This is true of comparing any two jobs, but it's even more so when different countries are involved. In the US, typically, your salary is just your salary. Your health insurance and related benefits (including a 401k) come out of your salary (usually pre-tax). So, if you want to contribute 5% to your 401k and be on the companies insurance plan that reduces your salary. In the EU (or at least in my experience), your pension contributions are NOT included in your salary, nor would you typically pay for health insurance from your salary. And, in my experience the pension contributions are a lot more significant than the 401k - (15% of my salary verse up to a 5% matching contribution). Also, what is considered a typical amount of vacation time in the US would be very low in Western Europe. Sick time is generally handled quite differently as well, though I believe this varies quite a bit depending on the country and company. In the US I would routinely have 2-3 weeks of vacation + X days of sick time. In the EU I have 7 weeks of vacation and an unlimited amount of sick time, along with quite a bit more maternity/paternity benefits.

Third, cost of living has a large impact on salaries. Earning 65k in a small midwestern suburb might afford you a lifestyle that would take 90k in a big city or 100k in Palo Alto. Some European cities do have high cost of living, but I would imagine when you look at all of the developers in Western Europe participating in the survey, the median cost of living is lower than that of the US developers. But that's just speculation on my part.

So maybe (US salary - 401k contributions - Health care) will more closely equal (EU salary + pension contributions + employer paid health care + 3-4 weeks salary in exchange for extra vacation). And if the dollar drops unexpectedly and we were to hit a 10 year high, throw on another 25-30% to the EU salaries.

For what it's worth, personally, I didn't feel like I took a paycut at all when I moved to the EU, even though my current salary, converted to dollars is less than I made in the US when I left. In fact, I save more and travel more now than before.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Apr 9, 2015 at 16:14
  • "Your health insurance and related benefits (including a 401k come out of your salary (usually pre-tax))." - Too small for me to suggest an edit, but one of those close brackets needs to be moved to after '401k' to produce: "Your health insurance and related benefits (including a 401k) come out of your salary (usually pre-tax)." Apr 10, 2015 at 5:57

The question surprised me, because to me it approaches the situation from a false assumption: that the salaries should be similar. Why should they? You have two separate markets for labor. It would be a very strange coincidence if they happened to end up at the same equilibrium price. It's like asking "Why is Everest so much higher than Mont Blanc", it's just not possible to reduce it to a few obvious facts from common knowledge.

If you think that a price is something which is inherent in the good being traded, then this is a false assumption. The price is determined by the market, and separated markets end up with separate prices. The American and the European labor markets are mostly separated. If a programmer in Europe gets offered 60 000 Euro and considers whether to take the offer, he is unlikely to have a high preference for the alternative of "emigrate to America, where I'll easily get a 90 000 USD offer". So the price setting in Europe happens independently.

While the factors Rob P. and Pavel Petrman mentioned do exist in reality, they are not really "the reason", or not the main reason. Even if the vacation, health insurance and other monetary-equivalent benefits were equal, most programmers would still be reluctant to emigrate to the USA for a higher salary, due to both personal and regulatory reasons. So employers could still offer a 60 000 Euro job in Europe and know that, if the candidate does not take it, the reason is not because he decided to go to the USA instead. The price is still determined by local factors, with the price in the connected market having a noticeable but small influence.

You can easily see this if you compare other countries. A programmer in Bulgaria or Romania gets a much lower salary than a programmer in Germany, even if you compare PPP and not nominal salaries. And the nonmonetary benefits outlined in the other answers are also worse in Bulgaria and Romania than in Germany. Despite there being no regulatory barriers whatsoever (no work visas required), the salary levels in the three markets don't move closer to each other, and there is no mass emigration towards Germany. While the emigration flow is obviously turned towards Western Europe, the majority of the population, including the programmers, chooses to stay home and work for the salary offered in their local labor market. This disproves a simple model in which the "salary plus benefits" combination is equal across markets, even if you add real wages to your model.

The explanation of how a market arrives at a certain equilibrium and not another is fascinating, but way too long for an answer on a Stack Exchange site. In fact, even a degree in economics only gives you an incomplete picture. I realize that my answer amounts to "they are different because they have no reason to be the same", which is quite unsatisfying on many levels, but it is the only valid answer which can be given in a few paragraphs.

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    You're completely correct of course but you won't get much love here.The guy who thinks EU salaries are quoted post-tax already has more upvotes than you. Apr 10, 2015 at 0:59
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    I may have a bit of a bias in my answer, because I'm just the guy who moved to Germany for a programmer job, and there are plenty of people from for example Poland, Hungary, or, for that matter, Mexico who did just the same. Every member of my family has studied or worked abroad at least at some point. So, I guess, there are more valid reasons, no single one of them being the reason.
    – Pavel
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:05

TL;DR: About a half of the money you make in Europe is subject to redistribution - appears invisible but is there somewhere.

Adding a bit to a brilliant answer by Rob P.

There is about a third to two thirds of every person's money totally invisible, yet make a huge difference, as Rob P. nicely explains in his answer. Put simply, health insurance, holidays, sickdays, education, you name it - everything is a public matter in Europe and subject to wealth redistribution.

Example with anecdotal evidence:

I happened to hear a rant from a Continental (the rubber company) who paid huge sum to get his education in the US and then moved to Europe for (seemingly) low-paid job. This man's salary was actually pretty high given local standards of a hi-tech German city, yet still percieved low by him.

To get a university degree in Europe can be* virtually free of charge compared to the US, and for example computer-related MSc's usually don't have to pay back a huge student loan - and companies don't have to ramp up their package offerings accordingly.

(* Situation varies hugely in both space and time. Europe is and old lady with many quirks.)

EDIT (to clarify some points mentioned in comments): Although compensation in Europe is usually quoted pre-tax, the situation is often complicated to such an extent, that simple calculation pre-tax to post-tax is vitually impossible. It is, for example, not unusual (as Rob P. says in his answer), that even though you, as an employee, have to subtract 20% of your pre-tax quoted compensations for taxes, the company pays another 20% to 30% from their pocket, making their pre-tax figure (saying what you cost the company in salary) considerably different from what the employee perspective shows.

For example (as @200_success commented), in Germany, you can get a company car (or one of dozen possible retirement saving plans or subsidied lunches and holidays in the Czech Republic, the list goes on) which saves you some money on one side but can have a huge impact on your tax rates, possible tax returns, mandatory retirement fund fees, the so called social insurance, the list goes on. Altough these 'tax and transfers' are usually well understood throughout a particular country, these can differ wildly from country to country which makes it difficult to compare salaries even between two European countries.

Reference: I come from the Czech Republic and currently work in Germany. I happen to have many friends working or having studied and worked throughout Europe and worldwide.

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    As a result of taxation policies, European companies are more likely to offer perks such as a company car in lieu of salary. Apr 9, 2015 at 20:07
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    @200_success Very true and those are often related to the "hidden costs" in salary. A net pay increase of 100 EUR is likely to cost the company triple that while those kinds of benefits (largely) avoid that.
    – Lilienthal
    Apr 10, 2015 at 7:59

Adding to the answers from Rob P. and Pavel Petrman, I think a major reason for this difference is that in the US when we think of our salary, we count our take home pay + our income tax that is withheld by our employer.

In Europe, it is my understanding that when they are quoted a salary, say in a job offer, they are being told the amount they will take home after taxes (and pension contributions, healthcare, etc).

Add in the differences in sick leave and paid vacation, our European friends are probably making more (on average), than we do in the US. If they answered the survey including all of the taxes paid because of/for them, then I imagine the survey would look very different.

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    I'm not so sure this is correct - certainly here in Ireland (and the UK) the salary offered for a job is salary before tax, not after. And you can have situations where two people on the same salary take home different amounts due to one having less tax-free allowance (for various reasons) Apr 9, 2015 at 23:51
  • as a further complication the cost to the employer is always greater than the salary, in the us the employer is taxed at the same rate as the employee effectively doubling income tax. add unemployment insurance and other costs and the costs to the company are about five times you make here.
    – hildred
    Apr 10, 2015 at 4:17
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    In Germany, the salary commonly quoted is before taxes, and before (mandatory) social insurance payments, but does not include the additional social insurance payments payable by the employer (in Germany, the cost of social insurance is split roughly 50/50 between employee and employer).
    – sleske
    Apr 10, 2015 at 7:32
  • I guess the source of my information was incorrect. Could it be that this is true for some countries and not others? Does anyone know about France? Or the rest of Europe?
    – jcbrou
    Apr 10, 2015 at 13:23
  • @jcbrou: TBH, your post reads like you are mistaking the european countries with the US states. Our countries are independent, just like the USA, Canada and Mexico are independent.
    – phresnel
    Apr 13, 2015 at 7:58


e.g. In Germany you have to plan with your employer when you quit your job to ensure a smooth transition or else you loose a lot of your entitlements.

In the US you can quit at any moment, for any reason, without such repercussions (legal, professional, or social). Market economics now works both ways - companies sell goods at what the market will bear and employees charge in salary what employers will bear. The US then makes it much easier, relative to Europe, for a person to start a business. New businesses that grow have to hire new people. This is why even at the federal level there is always such focus on small and medium businesses. They are the "new wood" being put on the fire whereas Europe focuses on the coals.

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    The flip-side is that an employee can be sacked without reason or warning (in at-will states). Not all people would see that as a good thing.
    – dave
    Apr 10, 2015 at 6:14
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    There so many questions on this site where people feel the need to give (two weeks) non contractual notice on this site? The discussion on these questions suggests there are repercussions. Also, you can still be a contractor in Europe. I find this answer unconvincing. Apr 10, 2015 at 6:53

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