Home > The Economy, Uncategorized > Fathers’ versus sons’ wage rates in the USA (2 graphs)

Fathers’ versus sons’ wage rates in the USA (2 graphs)

from David Ruccio

As part of his analysis of changing household structure in the United States, Steven Ruggles [pdf] presents the two charts above summarizing data about the relative income of young men.*

What Ruggles finds is that, when comparing the wages of 25-29 year olds to the wage rates of their fathers 25 years earlier (when the fathers were 25-29), relative income peaked in 1958, when young men made about four times as much as their fathers had a quarter-century before. In the 1960s and 1970s, young men’s relative income collapsed, and since the mid-1980s young men have been making less than their fathers had at the same age.



Ruggles also presents a second measure of relative income: comparing current income to an ideal based on the affluent, for example, the income of young men relative to the income of the top 1 percent. As it turns out, this measure peaked in 1970, when 25-29 year old men were making about 13 percent as much as the average income of the top 1 percent; by 2012, it was down to 2.3 percent.

By both measures, then, the rising relative fortunes of young men in the postwar period—a key premise of the American Dream—was short-lived. It quickly and dramatically dropped (during the 1960s and 1970s) and has stagnated (beginning in the early-1980s) ever since.

As Stephanie Coontz explains,

If we want to revive and achieve the American Dream, we need to change a situation in which the people whose hard work makes this country run cannot earn a living wage, while bankers, speculators and corporate elites – the real “takers” in today’s society – skim off far more than their fair share.


*Ruggles’s argument (echoing that of V. K. Oppenheimer) is that “the spectacular decline in the position of young men is the most obvious driver of the decline of marriage since the 1960s.” Unfortunately, Ruggles focuses on the decline of marriage rather than on changes in the structure of households—as if the decline in marriage rates is itself a negative trend. One alternative is that, as a consequence of the declining fortunes of young men (along with the stagnation in the incomes of young women), men and women are inventing new household structures, new ways of living alone and together, that do not share the premises of traditional (postwar) marriages

  1. Ken Zimmerman
    January 8, 2015 at 3:00 am

    An old trend. As Woody Guthrie pointed out in 1939, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, And some with a fountain pen.” This situation has only gotten worse since 1939.

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