Middle-Class Hourly Wages as of February 2023

This article was originally written by Doug Short. From 2016-2022, it was improved upon and updated by Jill Mislinski. Starting in January 2023, AP Charts pages will be maintained by Jennifer Nash at Advisor Perspectives/VettaFi.


I've updated this series to include the February release of the consumer price index as the deflator and the monthly employment update. The latest hypothetical real (inflation-adjusted) annual earnings are at $48,172, down 8.2% from 50 years ago. Hourly earnings are below their all-time high after adjusting for inflation.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has been collecting data on this workforce cohort since 1964. The government numbers provide some excellent insights on the income history of what we might think of as the private middle-class wage earner.

The first snapshot shows the growth of average hourly earnings. The nominal data exhibits a relatively smooth upward trend. The COVID pandemic caused a temporary rise in earnings likely due to demand for temporary work. Hourly earnings in February were at $28.42, up from $28.29 in January.

Hourly Earnings

There are, however, two critical pieces of information that dramatically alter the nominal series: the average hours per week and inflation.

The average hours per week has trended in quite a different direction, from around 39 hours per week in the mid-1960s to a low of 33 hours at the end of the great recession (2009). During the COVID crisis, weekly hours were at 34. In 2021, weekly hours reached levels last seen in the mid-90s before dropping back to around the 34 hour mark we currently sit at. More specifically, weekly hours in February were at 33.9 hours, down from 34.1 in January.

Weekly Hours