Growing Productivity, Stagnating Compensation

Crossposted at The Street Light.

Yesterday Ezra Klein had a chart (from a paper by Larry Mishel and Heidi Shierholz at EPI) showing that both private sector and public sector wages have been stagnating for the past several years, and have certainly not kept up with productivity growth. I think it’s useful to look at the relationship between productivity and compensation over a longer time horizon.

The following chart shows labor productivity and real hourly compensation since 1950. (Data from the BLS.) Two things strike me particularly about this graph. The first is how closely the two series track each other between 1950 and 1980. During those 30 years labor productivity in the nonfarm business sector of the US economy rose by 92%; real hourly compensation paid to workers rose by a nearly identical 87%. Classical economic theory says that is exactly what we would expect – as workers become more valuable to firms by producing more output with every hour of labor, firms should compete with each other to employ them, driving up wages by an equal amount.


The second striking feature of this picture is, of course, how much the two series have diverged since the early 1980s. Output per hour of work in 2010 was 87% higher than in 1980, while real hourly compensation was only 38% higher.

The table below shows changes in labor productivity and hourly compensation by decade. Again, let me draw your attention to two features. First, this data confirms that the “great productivity slowdown” of the 1970s and 80s seems to have been vanquished; over the past 15 to 20 years US businesses have been improving productivity at rates as high as during the 1950s and 60s. Yet more evidence that Tyler Cowen’s “Great Stagnation” is not a productivity story.


The second remarkable feature of this table is that the vast majority of the gap between productivity and hourly compensation comes from the 1980s and 2000s, while during the 1990s workers shared in productivity gains nearly as fully as they did in the 1960s. And that, of course, leads us directly to the $64,000 question: what was it about the 1980s and 2000s that made it so difficult for workers to reap the fruits of their more productive labor?

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