wages, payment received by an employee in exchange for labor. It may be in goods or services but is customarily in money. The term in a broad sense refers to what is received in any way for labor, but wages usually refer to payments to workers who are paid by the hour, in contrast to a salary, which implies a more fixed and permanent form of income (e.g., payment by the month rather than by the hour). In economic theory, wages reckoned in money are called nominal wages, as distinguished from real wages, i.e., the amount of goods and services that the money will buy. Real wages depend on the price level, as well as on the nominal or money wages.
In the United States, wages increased fivefold between 1860 and 1960. Adjusted for inflation and expressed in 1982 dollars, the typical weekly wage of a U.S. worker increased from $262 in 1960 to $298 in 1970, but increased foreign competition and slower U.S. economic growth forced weekly wages down to $274 in 1980 and $255 in 1991. In the 1990s, U.S. wages grew very slowly, to $270 in 1998, despite record economic growth. In the United States and elsewhere, a "gender gap" often exists, in which women are paid less than men for comparable positions.
See also minimum wage.
Economic Theories about Wages
Many theories have been advanced to explain the nature of wages. The first of them was the subsistence theory of wages, also called the "iron law of wages," of which David Ricardo was one of the main exponents. The theory maintains that wages cluster around the bare subsistence level of workers. A wage rate much above the subsistence level causes an increase in the number of workers; competition will then lead to a depression of wages back toward the cost of subsistence. Wages that are below subsistence reduce the size of the working population; in that case competition will raise wages, but only up to the subsistence level again.
In the surplus-value theory as propounded by Karl Marx, the value produced by the worker in excess of what is paid in wages is called surplus value. The surplus value, exacted from the worker, constitutes the capitalist's profit. The wage-fund theory is that wages are advanced out of a fixed fund of capital, from which an excess withdrawal, either through legislation or through union pressure, will ultimately reduce the amount available for other workers. Any increase in wages would also have to be taken out of profits, and their reduction would cause a decline in savings, which provide the capital from which the wage fund is derived.
The marginal-productivity theory maintains that employers will only pay a wage that is, at most, equal to the amount of extra value added to the total product by one additional worker. The bargaining theory modifies the marginal-productivity theory by taking into consideration other factors (e.g., laws and social and political changes) that might affect the determination of wage levels and by acknowledging that certain basic assumptions (equal bargaining power of employer and employee, free competition between the two, and mobility of labor) that characterize the marginal-productivity theory do not hold in our present economic system.
See A. Rees and D. P. Jacobs, Real Wages in Manufacturing, 1890–1914 (1961); E. H. P. Brown, A Century of Pay (1968); J. W. Wright, The American Almanac of Jobs and Salaries (serial).