Magazine article Economic Trends

Behind the Slow Pace of Wage Growth

Magazine article Economic Trends

Behind the Slow Pace of Wage Growth

Article excerpt

Despite continued progress in the labor market, wages have been rising slowly. In 2014, total nonfarm payroll employment rose by 3.1 million and the unemployment rate declined by 1.1 percentage points to 5.6 percent, indicating that the labor market was improving. Meanwhile, average hourly earnings and compensation per hour rose only by 1.8 percent and by 2.5 percent, respectively, a smaller increase than one might expect after 5 years of economic recovery. In this article, we look at some factors behind the slow pace of wage growth, including slow productivity growth and labor's declining share of income.

One reason wages have been rising slowly is that prices have been rising slowly. Low inflation, however, does not explain the trend in wages completely. Even after subtracting the effect of inflation, wages have been rising slowly. In 2014, real average hourly earnings and real compensation per hour rose, respectively, by only 1.2 percent and 1.3 percent.

In fact, real wages have been rising slowly for several years. Measuring from the end of the Great Recession, real wages have barely risen--real compensation per hour has risen only by 0.5 percent, much less than at this point in past recoveries. The lack of strong wage growth has been one factor that has held down the growth of income, consumer spending, and the recovery.

Some temporary factors may explain, in part, weak real wage growth during the recovery. For instance, Daly and Hobijn (2015) suggest that many firms were not able to reduce wages during the Great Recession, so they compensated by not raising wages as fast during the recovery. This factor, however, became less and less important over time as the recovery continued to progress.

Another factor that may have held down wage growth during the recovery is a change in the composition of jobs and hours--a relative increase in lower-paid jobs and hours may have depressed the average wage. Data, however, suggests that a change in the composition of occupations did not have a strong effect on the average wage: The employment cost index for total compensation--an index that tracks the cost of labor for a fixed composition of occupations--has risen by 11.5 percent during the recovery, which is similar to the growth in average hourly earnings and compensation per hour, which have risen, respectively, by 11.3 percent and by 11.5 percent. Also, Elvery and Vecchio (2015 , Table 2) find that the effect of the change in the mix of occupations on the change in the average wage between 2010 and 2013 was small (and actually positive). …

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