In my last post, I tried to make sense of what might account for a recent discussion in social media about payment for work in contemporary academia. There, I focused on the way some forms of payment for work are coupled to specific politics of visibility that, because of their inherent focus on individuals and prestige, go against the grain of professional solidarity.
There is another important point to this discussion: could it, perhaps, reflect collective anxieties around academics being a ‘downwardly mobile’ professional group? When we read about previous generations of academics, it seems their lives were much more affluent than ours. For one, labor stability existed, and the forms of precarious employment we see in higher education today were ostensibly less common (it was, of course, a much more homogeneous world).
I decided to look into this a bit more, so I consulted the Bureau of Labor Statistics to see whether and how the wages of post-secondary professors have shifted over time. What I found initially surprised me: against a longstanding discourse of stagnant wages, I found that sociologists, at least, are making more today on average than in 1997. Indeed, sociologists employed as professors in post-secondary education are making a whopping $9,000 more today than in 1997.
|Year||Average Wage||Average Wage 2020 dollars|
What explains the sense of downward mobility? The problem aren’t wages primarily but, rather, that the upper middle class experience once associated to a professional occupation like a post-secondary teacher is now, well, much more expensive. Sure, there’s IKEA and Mint, but the big-ticket purchases in life (housing, healthcare, and education) are now much more expensive in relative terms than before.
To put this in context, we can see how average wages for sociologists compare with other critical expenses (housing and education).
|Year||Average Wage||Average Wage |
In San Diego, for example, the cost of a typical home is about 9 times the salary of an average sociologist, compared with just 4 times in 1997. That’s quite a bit of a difference in disposable income. Meanwhile, the debt burden for education that is carried by faculty joining the ranks is at least twice as high (I lack information on exact levels of debt but know, anecdotally, that paying student loans is an increasing problem for faculty recruitment and retention).
Who haven’t experienced this wage compression?
To an extent, our colleagues in economics haven’t lost nearly as much ground. Their salaries have increased by about 50% in real terms since 1997, and their housing/wage ratio in a city like San Diego is a much lower 5.6.
This downward compression isn’t something we can resolve by gigifying our profession and is a pressure that affects most workers in the new economy. The solution must be collective: making these large life expenses (housing, healthcare and education) less burdensome on everyone.
Update: so what might explain economics’ relative resilience? The forthcoming work by Beth Popp Berman and previous work by Marion Fourcade and other scholars of the sociology of economics would suggest that, in becoming a lingua franca of policy, economists were more competent at preventing the erosion of their wages in higher education. That they have very tight and clearly defined hierarchies of worth (which creates clear barriers of entry and controls who can exercise a role in the profession) also helps considerably.
But this really fascinating work on the socioeconomic backgrounds of economists might also provide some insights: economists are, class-wise, higher in status than other professionals in higher ed. That economists are more tightly coupled with backgrounds of high capital might also explain why they have managed to expand their salaries by 50% since 1997. The problem with this argument is, of course, the humanities (where elite backgrounds also seem over represented) but maybe their relative decline could have been larger, had this coupling not existed.