In his TED talk "Why are there still so many jobs?", David Autor stated:

The average worker in 2015 wanting to attain the average living standard in 1915 could do so by working just 17 weeks a year, one third of the time.

What proves this (or disproves it)?

  • "average living standard" might be a little subjective. Perhaps he means when 1915 dollars are inflation adjusted, the average "living wage" in 1915 is equal to 17 weeks of work for someone with average "living wage" in 2015. If that's what he means, it should be easy to check.
    – user11643
    Dec 22, 2016 at 0:09
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    I sent an email to Professor Autor to clarify the exact meaning of the claim. If there's any response, i'll update the question
    – user5341
    Dec 22, 2016 at 0:45
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    OK, got the clarification from Prof Autor. The claim is merely about wages, not anything more in-depth. Douglas (1930; reproduced in US Bureau of the Census 1949) reports average annual earnings across all sectors in 1915 at $633. Inflating this to 2015 dollars using the US Bureau of Labor Statistics historical Consumer Price Index calculator yields a current dollar equivalent of $14,711. The BLS employment report from April 2015 reports mean weekly private nonfarm earnings of $858. Thus, it would take 17 weeks of work at the average US weekly wage to earn a full-time annual 1915 income
    – user5341
    Dec 22, 2016 at 3:16
  • Source: Journal of Economic Perspectives—Volume 29, Number 3—Summer 2015—Pages 3–30; Why Are There Still So Many Jobs? The History and Future of Workplace Automation
    – user5341
    Dec 22, 2016 at 3:18

1 Answer 1


It's true in the USA in the sense of the article A Glimpse of Your Expenses from 100 Years Ago:

Take-home pay in 2015 vs. 1915. Census Bureau data show that the median household income, measured from 2009 to 2013 (the most recent data available), is $53,046. Back in 1915, two years after income tax came on the scene, you were doing about average if you were making $687 a year, according to the Census.


Today, that $687 would be comparable to earning $16,063 a year, according to an inflation calculator on the Bureau of Labor Statistics' website. So Americans' buying power has improved considerably in the last century.

See also the US Bureau of Labor Statistics article The life of American workers in 1915

  • 5
    The quote uses a non sequitur. Income is only half the equation of "buying power". Expenses should also be considered.
    – user11643
    Dec 22, 2016 at 3:12
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    Interesting... so workers nowadays make around 3x more money than they did 100 years ago. What sucks is that prices have gone up way more than that for many things... Litre of milk, for example, used to be ~$0.10, now it's closer to $1. We make comparatively more, but we need to spend even more on daily essentials.
    – Dungarth
    Dec 22, 2016 at 3:13
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    @Dungarth That three times is after inflation. Before inflation it went up over 700 times from $687 to $53,046. I.e. they already accounted for prices increasing.
    – Brythan
    Dec 22, 2016 at 3:34
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    @Dungarth: Some things have gone up, but the price of many other things has gone down. How about the price of a telephone in 1915? Or a car, a bicycle, a music player, fruit & vegetables out of season? That's why you can't really compare living standards: because life is different.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 22, 2016 at 4:08
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    @jamesqf, "you can't really compare living standards", except that people do, all the time, saying how people were better off 40/60 years ago.
    – Benjol
    Dec 22, 2016 at 12:32

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