From The 1960s To Today: How American Wages Have Changed

In 1964, as various social movements took off in America, folk singer/songwriter Bob Dylan got it right when he mused that “the times they are a-changin’.” So much has changed in the world over since the early 60s: we landed on the Moon, the Cold War ended, the internet took off, etc. But recently, another thing has changed: income distribution in the American job market.

When people talk about the money that the “average” American worker makes, they typically reference a “median” or “mean” income statistic. While this can be useful, these numbers can also be pretty limited. Ultimately, there’s a wide range of incomes for one specific industry, so the average might not reflect the reality. Somebody in the tech field, for example, could be at the bottom of a startup and living paycheck-to-paycheck, but they could also be a billionaire on the level of Steve Jobs or Sergey Brin.

To view income distribution through a wider lens, data visualization expert Nathan Yau created an interactive chart breaking down data points to just 50 dots per industry. These dots are visualized on a scale from $0 to $200k+. Here’s a snapshot of what various industries looked like 57 years ago:

photo credit: http://www.visualcapitalist.com/shifting-income-distribution-american-jobs/

Many of the ranges, at least on the lower side, tend to have data points clustered around the “middle” of each distribution. While there are decent-sized gaps in income in some fields, such as technology and healthcare, overall incomes in each industry are pretty evenly distributed.

Now let’s look at 2014. You’ll see that each one of these brackets has expanded from the previous clusters:

photo credit: http://www.visualcapitalist.com/shifting-income-distribution-american-jobs/

Many of these workers, as you can see, are making more money, which is good for the economy. That sounds like a good thing, right? Yes, but there are some notable downsides as well. One of the most notable when you first look at this chart is the higher level of inequality. For many of these industries, such as protective services and education, there are massive gaps in income between the highest-paid people and everyone else. Not only that, but many of the jobs being created are on the lower end of the income spectrum, especially when compared to 1960.

Top-earning lawyers, engineers, and managers are able to make far more than the vast majority of the workforce, yet workers in other industries aren’t so lucky. Making middle-class income in many of these sectors is a difficult task, and many people are bringing in less than $25,000 a year. Yet, many of these sectors are where we’re seeing the majority of “new jobs.”

Income inequality is a big problem, and when you look at something like this, it goes without saying that fighting income inequality is going to be an uphill battle.

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