The Great Recession ended more than nine years ago, in June 2009. The US unemployment rate declined slowly after that, but it has now been below 5.0% every month for more than two years, since September 2015. Thus, an ongoing mystery for the US economy is: Why haven't wages started to rise more quickly as the labor market conditions improved? Jay Shambaugh, Ryan Nunn, Patrick Liu, and Greg Nantz provide some factual background to address this question in "Thirteen Facts about Wage Growth," written for the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution (September 2017). The second part of the report addresses the question: "How Strong Has Wage Growth Been since the Great Recession?"
For me, one surprising insight from the report is that real wage growth--that is, wage growth adjusted for inflation--has actually not been particularly slow during the most recent upswing. The upper panel of this figure shows real wage growth since the early 1980s. The horizontal lines show the growth of wages after each recession. The real wage growth in the last few years is actually higher. The bottom panel shows nominal wage growth, with inflation included. By that measure, wage growth in recent years is lower than after the last few recessions. Thus, I suspect that one reason behind the perception of slow wage growth is that many people are focused on nominal rather than on real wages.
Government statistics offer a lot of ways of measuring wage growth. The graphs above are wage growth for "real average hourly earnings for production and nonsupervisory workers," which is about 100 million of the 150 million workers.
An alternative and broader approach looks what is called the Employment Cost Index, which is based on a National Compensation Survey of employers. To adjust for inflation, I use the measure of inflation called the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index, which is the inflation just for the personal consumption part of the economy that is presumably most relevant to workers. I also use the version of this index that strips out jumps in energy and food prices. This is the measure of the inflation rate that the Federal Reserve actually focuses on.
Economists using these measures were pointing out a couple of years ago that real wages seemed to be on the rise. The blue line shows the annual change in wages and salaries for all civilian workers, using the ECI, while the redline shows the PCE measure of inflation. The gap between the two is the real gain in wages, which you can see started to emerge in 2015.
Not only has the recovery in US real wages been a bit higher than usual for the last few decades, and especially prominent in the last couple of years, but there is good reason to believe that the wage statistics since the Great Recession may be picking up a change in the composition of the workforce that tends to make wage growth look slower. Shambaugh, Nunn, Liu, and Nantz explain (citations and footnotes omitted):
"In normal times, entrants to full-time employment have lower wages than those exiting, which tends to depress measured wage growth. During the Great Recession this effect diminished substantially when an unusual number of low-wage workers exited full-time employment and few were entering. After the Great Recession ended, the recovering economy began to pull workers back into full-time employment from part-time employment ... and nonemployment, while higher-paid, older workers left the labor force. Wage growth in the middle and later parts of the recovery fell short of the growth experienced by continuously employed workers, reflecting both the retirements of relatively high-wage workers and the reentry of workers with relatively low wages. In 2017 the effect of this shifting composition of employment remains large, at more than 1.5 percentage points. If and when growth in full-time employment slows, we can expect this effect to diminish somewhat, providing a boost to measured wage growth."
The baby boomer generation is hitting retirement and leaving the labor force, as relatively highly-paid workers at the end of their careers. New workers entering the labor force, together with low-skilled workers being drawn back into the labor force, tend to have lower wages and salaries. This makes wage growth look low--but what's happening is in part a shift in types of workers.
One other fact from Shambaugh, Nunn, Liu, and Nantz is that wage growth has been strong at the bottom and the top of the wage distribution, but slower in the middle. This figure splits the wage distribution into five quintiles, and shows the wage growth for production and nonsupervisory workers in each.
Taking these factors together, the "mystery" of why wages haven't recovered more strongly since the end of the Great Recession appears to be resolved. However, a bigger mystery remains. Why have wages and salaries for production and nonsupervisory workers done so poorly not in the last few years, but over the last few decades?
There's a long list of potential reasons: slow productivity growth, rising inequality, dislocations from globalization and new technology, a slowdown in the rate of start-up firms, weakness of unions and collective bargaining, less geographic mobility by workers, and others. These factors have been discussed here before, and will be again, but not today. Shambaugh, Nunn, Liu, and Nantz provide some background figures and discussion of these longer-term factors, too.
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.