The median male earner–the top line overstates progress

Has the median man made progress economically since 1980?  Not really.  While male median income rose (in 2017 $) from $35,589 to $40,396, or 13.5 percent,  this modest increase masks the fact that the share of men in their peak earnings years has increased, and that earnings at the median within peak earnings years categories have decreased.

Share
in Age Category
Median
Earnings (2017 $)
1980 2017 1980 2017
15-24 0.216 0.120  $13,057  $13,734
25-34 0.232 0.183  $44,252  $40,575
35-44 0.161 0.167  $56,911  $52,403
45-54 0.136 0.169  $56,732  $53,985
55-64 0.127 0.165  $45,200  $48,863
65+ 0.127 0.196  $20,845  $32,654

Note that population share for 35-64, prime earnings years, rose from 1980 to 2017; earnings fell for every population group between 25 and 54.  The median 30 year old is making less than their counterpart from 27 years earlier, as is the median 40 year old, as is the median 50 year old.

Had income within each age category remained constant at 1980 levels, current median income for men could be $40,306, or almost exactly where it us now.  On an age adjusted basis, there was no median income growth.  But that probably overstates economic well being at the middle–the one category where income has risen rapidly is the 65+ group, which may reflect the fact that 65 year olds no longer feel that they can retire.  So when current generations think they are not keeping up with the past, they are on to something.

Some notes: (1) I use 1980 as the base year, because how median income was measured changed that year, and so previous years are not as comparable.  (2) I look only at men, because the labor force participation rate among women has changed so much that 1980 and 2017 data are not comparable (although it is no doubt the case that women are far more economically independent now than in 1980). 

Source: US Census Bureau: Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Population Supplements.  Table P8.