Economic historian Angus Maddison, at the University of Groningen, spent his adult life estimating gross domestic product (GDP) figures for the world over the past two millennia. According to Maddison’s calculations, the average global income per person per year stood at $800 in year 1 of the Common Era (2011 U.S. dollars). That’s where it remained for the next thousand years. This income stagnation does not mean that economic growth never happened. Growth did occur, but it was low, localized, and episodic. In the end, economic gains always petered out.
In 1800, average global income stood at roughly $1,140 per person per year. Put differently, over the course of the 18 centuries that separated the birth of Christ and the election of Thomas Jefferson to the U.S. presidency, income rose by about 40 percent.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century changed everything. Between 1800 and 1900, GDP per person per year rose from $1,140 to $2,180. In other words, humanity made over twice as much progress in 100 years as it did in the previous 1,800 years.
In 2008, the last year in Maddison’s final estimates, average global income per person per year stood at $13,172. That means that the real standard of living rose by more than tenfold between 1800 and 2008.
Maddison died in 2010, but a group of his colleagues continues his work. The latest edition of the GDP estimates came out in 2018. Although Maddison’s original numbers changed slightly, the long-term trend in income growth remained almost identical. The Maddison Project’s 2018 estimates show that in 1900, GDP per person per year amounted to $2,021 (as opposed to Maddison’s $2,180). By 2016, income had risen to $14,574 per person per year. That amounts to a 621 percent increase since 1900.
Finally, the Maddison Project’s 2018 estimates show that average global income per person per year rose at a compound annual rate of 1.72 percent between 1900 and 2016. If that trend continues, average global income will reach an inflation-adjusted $60,955 per person per year in 2100 (all figures are in 2011 U.S. dollars).