Essay: Stagnant Wages

The observation that wages have stagnated since the 1970s–when, coincidentally enough, large numbers of women began to enter the workforce, thus affecting the supply of labor–tells us something about the cash flow of workers but nothing about their quality of life.

For example, I’m a college professor–not exactly a blue collar laborer but a worker nevertheless. Right now, I’ve got a mobile phone in my pocket. The phone cost me roughly half of what I earn in a single day. It’s a phone, so I can make calls on the go, but it’s also a Rolodex, a daily calendar and reminder, a voice- and text-messaging service, a memo pad, a voice memo recorder. As long as it’s in my pocket, I’m carrying around half the books in my library and all the songs I like; I can use it to program my video recorder and to surf the web, and it contains a web browser, so I’ve also got an encyclopedia in my pocket. I can read and write documents on it, locate myself anywhere in the world, get driving directions as I’m en route. Oh, and it’s also a flashlight. I’ve got that in my pocket, for half my daily salary. What comparable device could a college professor, or anyone else, have acquired for half his yearly salary in 1970?

The fact that I can now afford to carry this thing in my pocket affects any judgment about my quality of life in comparison with the quality of life of an average college professor in 1970 . . . even if our inflation-adjusted salaries are the same.