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Examining Lifetime Earnings in the US Over Six Decades

The United States has seen stagnation of average earnings and income inequality rise since the 1970s. The charts below help shed light on this issue using data from US Social Security Administration (SSA) records over 57 years.

Since the 1970s, stagnating average earnings and rising earnings inequality in US labor markets have spurred academic research and fired policy debates. Despite this interest, existing research has provided little insight into trends in lifetime earnings, offering only point-in-time analysis of annual incomes.

In a first-of-its-kind study, UChicago’s Greg Kaplan and co-authors addresses this gap by constructing measures of lifetime earnings for millions of individuals. The authors’ lifetime earnings measure is based on 31 potential working years between ages 25 and 55, which allows them to construct lifetime earnings statistics for 27 year-of-birth cohorts. The authors examine how lifetime earnings of the median male worker changed from the first cohort (1957) to the last (1983). They also examine changes in women’s roles in the labor market over this period.

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At a Glance