Yes, Your Parents’ Standard of Living Was Better

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Ugh. We’re so much poorer than our parents!

Yes, your parents’ standard of living was better, so what are you going to do about it?

When I was growing up in the 1970s, most [maybe 80%?] of my friends had a mom who stayed home and didn’t work.

Over the last 40 years the proportion of single income households seems to have flipped so that it seems to be only about 20%.

So what’s wrong with this graph over there?

There’s a huge increase in the number of families with more than one income source in the last 40 years, but median family income has gone up less than 10%. [Median just means that 50% of the population makes more than that around and 50% makes less.]

If this freaks you out as much as it freaks me out, think about the implications:

  1. Even though this chart adjusts for inflation, families are earning just barely more than they did 40 years ago, which means that all the extra hundreds and thousands of hours of work that family members put in every year HAVE DONE NOTHING to significantly improve our families’ standard of living.
  2. All the productivity gains that workers have made in our society have led to increased wealth in society. That wealth has led to less than a 10% increase in median family income DESPITE the hundreds and thousands of hours of extra work family members put in every year.
  3. Who is pocketing the value from all that extra work? It’s not workers. That would the rich, the 1%, the capitalist class..however you want to describe it.
  4. And “whereas Conservatives are focusing more on ‘Hey, look, net worth is going up,'” we need to remember that net worth pays attention to assets, not annual income. Since the poor and middle class are worth less and less as real family incomes decline and consumer debt increase, the rich are hoarding more wealth. PLUS, if net worth is going up nationally, that means the rich are hoarding EVEN MORE to offset the declines in net worth from poorer Canadians.
  5. But what’s also telling is that the analysis of the above graph on the CBC webpage fails to strongly point out that there has been this drastic increase the number of families with more income sources. A better comment here about that shift would have helped add the most significant weight to the chart and how it shows massively increasing income disparity. Instead, it was just this, which is too bad:

    Canadians who consider themselves middle class have been saying they feel stretched economically, and he says “that’s what the evidence shows.” Real incomes have been rising, but very slowly, “and certainly very slowly relative to the generation I grew up in.” … But those incomes have been going up at a cost, he says, “of more people having to spend more time earning their income.”

The rich ARE getting richer and the poor–us!–ARE getting poorer.

This, by the way, was what the Occupy Movement was/is all about.

This is why I like workplace democracy, and unions, and co-ops, and workers who get climate breakdown, and living wage campaigns and poverty reduction strategies and all those other things that help address the massive rip-off that the rich are exacting from us. They’re winning, and they are starting to whine about us pointing that out.

And if you wonder why you feel so tired, it’s not because you are weak or lazy or stupid. It’s because as a society we are working harder for less than 10% more real income than our parents did. It’s a rip-off, alright.

And if you think that’s fair, vote for the 1% and don’t come back to this website.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist. at Politics, Re-Spun
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, professor, speaker, consultant, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website,

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3 thoughts on “Yes, Your Parents’ Standard of Living Was Better”

  1. You never seem to see a chart showing median individual income per hour. A ridiculously simplistic back-of-envelope calculation: If households averaged 1.2 FTE then and 1.8 FTE now, that 10% increase in household income represents an actual individual full-time median wage only 73% as much as it was in 1976.
    This may overstate the change in income sources per household–not all households, then or now, were nuclear families; there were single people and so forth. But it may not . . . I believe average hours of work for individual workers have increased as well, for one thing.

    Meanwhile, I don’t really trust the 10% in the first place. I am not confident in the inflation rates used, either in what is measured (especially if we’ve followed US approaches to inflation; have we?) or in what may not be (“non-core” things like property prices, which have risen more than general inflation in this time period, as well as things that may not be considered at all in inflation calculations, such as increased expenses caused by the retreat of government eg user fees, tuition etc, longer average commutes dictating increased fuel spending even if prices hadn’t risen, entirely new expenses such as internet access). A better accounting for inflation might find median household income flatlining at best.
    After all, if households are really better off, I’m wondering why they’re so much more indebted than they used to be.

    Another way to look at the change of income might be to account for the value previously produced by stay-at-home parents (child care, food production and value-add, security etc) and now purchased by households in the form of professional child care services, more expensive/less nutritious ready-to-eat meals and so on, or not produced at all (less secure neighbourhoods, requiring children to be constantly escorted). The product of stay-at-home parents has been marketized and now costs money. Wouldn’t be surprised if it added up to more than the 10% increase.

    So I think there are a number of reasons to think even households are actually in effect making less now than they were in 1976, let alone individuals.

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