Wages Through the Ages: Men Earn Less Than Fathers at Same Age

Why are men today earning less money than their fathers did 30 years ago?

May 25, 2007 — -- A new report finds that men in their 30s make less money than their fathers did at the same age, raising questions about deeply held notions of social mobility and the realities of the American Dream.

It's not just because they're typical Generation X slackers either.

In 2004, the median income for a man in his 30s was $35,010, the study found. Adjusted for inflation, that's 12 percent less than what men the same age were making in 1974.

The study, "Economic Mobility: Is the American Dream Alive and Well?," conducted by economists at the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Brookings Institute and several other think tanks, found that absolute mobility -- or the economic growth rate that allows a generation to improve relative to a previous generation -- has fallen.

Despite the downturn in men's wages, family incomes for most of the past 30 years have risen.

"The big picture here is that over a 30-year period, from 1974 to 2004, the median income of men in their 30 fell 12 percent," John Morton of the Pew Charitable Trusts and one of the report's primary authors told ABC News. "But there are several other substories. One of those is that family incomes -- families with men in their 30s -- in the same period rose by 9 percent. … The picture may be gloomy for men but it's generally positive for families."

In the 1990s, median income for men in their 30s was $32,901, 5 percent more than three decades earlier. Since 2000, and in one of the few instances since World War II, family incomes have lagged behind productivity growth, the report said.

The authors of the report were reluctant to speculate as to why men's wages are weaker today, but suggested the decline might be attributed to more women in the work force, a generally weaker economy and men working less hard than they did a generation ago.

"We don't know all the reasons for the decline," Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institute and a principal author, told ABC News. "It could be because economic growth has slowed in the U.S., despite all the talk about how rapidly the economy grew in the 90s."

The report used the data to examine the current reality of the American Dream, or as Morton put it: "The popular belief that there is an economic meritocracy."

"We try to make the case that the American Dream, the idea that successive generations will do better based on hard work and skill actually requires absolute mobility -- strong economic growth -- and relative mobility, movement from being poor to being rich," he said.

Michael Scotto, a 34-year-old mover from Queens, N.Y., said he thought he probably earned more than his father did as a bricklayer in the 1970s. Scotto wouldn't say how much he earned but said there was little difference in his class now and when he was growing up.

"I still live in the same middle class neighborhood I grew up in," Scotto told ABC News. "But when my father was a kid, he had nothing. His parents were immigrants and he worked to make something of himself."

"I might make more than he did at 34, but he was the real American Dream," he said. "You have to be an immigrant or the children of an immigrant to get that for real."

According to Sawhill, "Each generation expects to be better off than previous generations."

"In a growing economy everyone is on an up escalator, and that's one reason children do better than parents, but the elevator may not be working as well," she said.