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Concerns about the welfare of workers dominate American politics, but are they really doing so poorly? A recent report from economists at the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan think tank focused on unlocking American dynamism, paints a more optimistic picture.

According to their research, American workers now enjoy…

  • More education: the share of prime-age workers with a bachelor’s degree has more than doubled since 1980.
  • Shorter workweeks: the average production and nonsupervisory employee now works less than 34 hours per week, down from 40 hours in the 1960s.
  • Safer workplaces: the rate of on-the-job injuries and illnesses is now less than a third of what it was in 1980.
  • Better benefits and flexibility: access to paid sick leave, paid family leave, and remote work is at an all-time high (excluding the mid-pandemic peak).
  • Higher wages: median inflation-adjusted hourly income has grown 36 percent for all workers since 1980, and 60 percent for women.
  • Better lives for their children: each generation is earning more per hour than the previous one.

The report also challenges some popular but misguided narratives. For example, American workers are not being forced into precarious employment—the share of workers with multiple jobs has actually fallen since the 1990s. And, the authors note that while wage growth has fallen significantly during the last half century, most of that stagnation occurred before NAFTA, increased trade with China, and the rapid drop in manufacturing employment.

What does explain the slowdown? The authors blame anemic productivity growth, low labor mobility, the additional competition from more women entering the labor market, and a rising cost of living caused by burdensome restrictions on supply. They conclude that American workers have not, in general, been “left behind,” but they were robbed of an even more prosperous present. However, the culprit was not too much change and innovation, but too little.

Malcolm Cochran, Digital Communications Manager

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