Have Wages Stagnated?

The common claim that wages and living standards have stagnated in the U.S. has been disputed before, but The Washington Post recently reported on a new San Francisco Fed study that suggests the claim is based on a “statistical fluke”:

Workers continuously employed in full-time jobs received wage increases higher than inflation from 2002 to 2015. Last year, the gain was a 3.5 percent increase after inflation, up from 1.2 percent in 2010.

Typically, the median wage — the wage exactly in the middle of all wages — is cited as evidence of stagnation. Indeed, the Fed study confirms this. Median wage increases have fluctuated around 2 percent, unadjusted for inflation. But the median wage is misleading, the report argues, because it’s heavily driven by demographic changes: an influx of young and part-time workers whose relatively low wages drag down the median; and the retirement of baby-boom workers whose relatively higher pay no longer lifts up the median.

This should hopefully calm some of the public hyperventilation that has taken place over the supposed stagnation of wages.

The larger implication is that the study compromises the prevailing economic narrative, which emphasizes the stagnation of wages and living standards. Clearly, millions of households — especially the recently unemployed — have suffered large losses, and the gains of many others are underwhelming. But the impression that most people in the middle class are slipping backward seems overwrought. The anxiety about the future is real, but its causes must be more complicated than commonly thought.