I had planned to call this post “Wage Suppression,” but that sounded so lame and depressing. Who wants to read a blog with that title? Even I don’t want to read it, though I am writing it right now. I would rather go over and read posts by women academic bloggers on the trending topic of . . . wait for it . . . Za Baybeeeee.
I like to read blogs by other women post/academics quite a lot, which means I get sucked into those long and wrenching debates that are, alas, as inevitable as the dawn. Should I have a baby? Do I want to have a baby? Woops, I already did have a baby or two, and now I need to finish my dissertation/get tenure. How will I do these things? What if I never do them? Will I regret Za Baybee? No, Za Baybee is all worth it!
I don’t mind Za Baybees in small doses. I even vaguely considered having Za Baybee myself at one point, until I remembered that they come out of your vagina!
I don’t understand why post/academic blogs written by women must eventually turn to this subject, lighting up the comment boxes. Is it some kind of requirement? I confess befuddlement. Have a baby. Don’t have a baby. In 100 years you’ll be dead, and it won’t matter either way. There’s comfort!
Time to get back to the real subject of this horribly misnamed post. Wage suppression. Sure, there is plenty of evidence that people make less money now than they used to, back when stuff was cheaper. Krugman’s always good for a despair-inducing chart or two.
And, the NYT says that “according to Census figures, the median annual income for a male full-time, year-round worker in 2010 — $47,715 — was virtually unchanged from its level in 1973, when the level was $49,065, in 2010 dollars.”
The difference: in ’73, you could buy a house with 47 grand. Now? You might get some high-quality lawn furniture.
The brute fact of wage suppression was revealed to me a bit more concretely today. A brief history . . .
When I was around 19 years old, back in the 1990s, I worked as a host in a restaurant. My wage was $6.00/hour. This was NOT in New York City.
Today, almost 20 years later, in the land of post-academia, I have been offered an interview at a large, corporate establishment that sells rectangular-shaped items, which is weird because you can get many of these same items electronically on your magic mirror for (usually) less. But some people still prefer the bulky versions. This job, though not in a restaurant, is not dissimilar to the hosting gig I had at nineteen.
The wage I would earn today, if I am hired and accept the job, is $7.75/hour. (And this job is in NYC, where everything costs more.)
According to this handy inflation calculator, then, the $6.00 I earned in the 1990s has the same buying power as $9.11 does today. This means that I would have to be earning about $1.25 more per hour at the rectangular box store in order for my wage to keep pace with inflation, which it obviously hasn’t. ($9.11 is still a near poverty-level wage in NYC.)
So, let me sum things up: I started out, as a spirited 19-year old with my whole life ahead of me and the wind at my back. I got a $6.00/hour job to help pay my way though school. School was where I would find my profession and maybe, if the myths of education were to be believed, I would even find myself. Signing up for a few student loans along the way seemed like small price to pay to find my true calling – and a middle-class salary.
Now, all these years later, I have a PhD from a prestigious department where I studied in a field that I loved. Plus, I now have other attributes that should rank high on the employability scale, such as maturity and all-around good sense (the earning of the Humanities PhD notwithstanding). And yet I could, as soon as next week, be earning less than I made back in the salad days of the 90s.
It’s almost like I never left 1993! Could it be that something has gone terribly wrong in the American economy and that the massive productivity achieved by American workers over the last few decades has been siphoned off, all mysterious-like, straight into the pockets of the already ultra rich one percenters? Or, maybe there is another, more plausible explanation.
Maybe it is still 1993! Kurt Cobain, are you still alive? Are you hiding somewhere, perhaps in the subway tunnel that you have made your home, sucking the drippings from the ceiling and waiting to reveal yourself and sing that song about living under a bridge where “the animals I’ve trapped have all become my pets.”
Play that tune again, Kurt.