The Productivity–Pay Gap
Updated October 2017
Most Americans believe that a rising tide should lift all boats—that as the economy expands, everybody should reap the rewards. And for two-and-a-half decades beginning in the late 1940s, this was how our economy worked. Over this period, the pay (wages and benefits) of typical workers rose in tandem with productivity (how much workers produce per hour). In other words, as the economy became more efficient and expanded, everyday Americans benefitted correspondingly through better pay. But in the 1970s, this started to change.
The gap between productivity and a typical worker’s compensation has increased dramatically since 1973: Productivity growth and hourly compensation growth, 1948–2016
Note: Data are for compensation (wages and benefits) of production/nonsupervisory workers in the private sector and net productivity of the total economy. "Net productivity" is the growth of output of goods and services less depreciation per hour worked.
Source: EPI analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics and Bureau of Economic Analysis data
Updated from Figure A in Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge
Source: EPI analysis of unpublished Total Economy Productivity data from Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Labor Productivity and Costs program, wage data from the BLS Current Employment Statistics, BLS Employment Cost Trends, BLS Consumer Price Index, and Bureau of Economic Analysis National Income and Product Accounts
Updated from: Figure A in Raising America’s Pay: Why It’s Our Central Economic Policy Challenge, by Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, Lawrence Mishel, and Heidi Shierholz, Economic Policy Institute, 2014.
Productivity has grown 5.9x more than pay
Since 1973, pay and productivity have diverged.
From 1973 to 2016, net productivity rose 73.7 percent, while the hourly pay of typical workers essentially stagnated—increasing only 12.5 percent over 43 years (after adjusting for inflation). This means that although Americans are working more productively than ever, the fruits of their labors have primarily accrued to those at the top and to corporate profits, especially in recent years.
Why this happened—and how we can fix it
Rising productivity provides the potential for substantial growth in the pay for the vast majority. However, this potential has been squandered in recent decades. The income, wages, and wealth generated over the last four decades have failed to “trickle down” to the vast majority largely because policy choices made on behalf of those with the most income, wealth, and power have exacerbated inequality. In essence, rising inequality has prevented potential pay growth from translating into actual pay growth for most workers. The result has been wage stagnation.
For future productivity gains to lead to robust wage growth and widely shared prosperity, we need to institute policies that reconnect pay and productivity, such as those in EPI’s Agenda to Raise America’s Pay. Without such policies, efforts to spur economic growth or increase productivity (the largest factor driving growth) will fail to lift typical workers’ wages.
Wage inequality continued its 35-year rise in 2015 | March 10, 2016
Although inflation-adjusted wages grew across the board in 2015 (due to a sharp dip in inflation), the trend of rising wage inequality continued unabated. This paper begins by detailing the most up-to-date hourly wage trends through 2015 and examines the continued growth in inequality that began in the late 1970s.
This paper provides an updated analysis of the productivity–pay disconnect and the factors behind it, and explains the measurement choices and data sources used to calculate the gap.
Broad-based wage growth is the key to reversing the rise of income inequality, enhancing social mobility, reducing poverty, boosting middle-class incomes, and aiding asset-building and retirement security.
How to Raise Wages: Policies That Work and Policies That Don’t | March 19, 2015
Wage stagnation is not inevitable. It is the direct result of public policy choices on behalf of those with the most power and wealth that have suppressed wage growth for the vast majority in recent decades. Thus, because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be alleviated by policy.
2014 Continues a 35-Year Trend of Broad-Based Wage Stagnation | February 19, 2015
2014 was yet another year of poor wage growth for American workers. With few exceptions, real (inflation-adjusted) hourly wages fell or stagnated for workers across the wage spectrum between 2013 and 2014—even for those with a bachelor’s or advanced degree. Of course, as EPI has documented for nearly three decades, this is not a new story.