Laura A Harvey & James Rockey, 2020. “The declining fortunes of (most) American workers,” University of East Anglia School of Economics Working Paper Series 2020-04, School of Economics, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK.


While real US GDP per capita has increased around 80% since 1980, median incomes have remained roughly constant. However, as this paper documents, this stagnation masks an important decline. Male median real incomes have been lower than that of their forebears, at every age, for the last 30 years. We show that this is true across the life cycle and across the wage distribution. Moreover, younger generations have also had to wait longer to reach peak earnings. Further analysis shows that this decline is particularly concentrated on high school graduates. The same pattern is found for female high school graduates yet, African American and Hispanic American women are an important exception. Variance decompositions suggest that these intergenerational differences are quantitatively important. While reductions in hours worked cannot explain the decline, substantial decreases in the labour share are consistent with decreasing incomes in the face of productivity growth. Calculations suggest that hedonic improvements in the quality of goods and services would have to have been equivalent to 30% of younger cohorts’ lifetime consumption for their consumption levels to match those of their predecessors