The Decline Of Upward Mobility In One Chart
For decades, a majority of Americans have been able to climb the economic ladder by earning higher incomes than their parents. These improving conditions are known as upward mobility, and form an important part of the American Dream.
However, each consecutive generation is finding it harder to make this ascent. In this graphic, we illustrate the decline in upward mobility over five decades using data from Opportunity Insights.
Understanding The Chart
This graphic plots the probability that a 30-year-old American has to outearn their parents (vertical axis) depending on their parent’s income percentile (horizontal axis). The 1st percentile represents America’s lowest earners, while the 99th percentile the richest.
As we move from left to right on the chart, the portion of people who outearn their parents takes a steep decline. This suggests that people born into upper class families are less likely to outearn their parents, regardless of generation.
The key takeaway, though, is that the starting point of this downward trend has shifted to the left. In other words, fewer people in the lower- and middle-classes are climbing the economic ladder.
|Decade Born||Chance of Outearning Parents (Bottom Percentile)||Chance of Outearning Parents (50th Percentile)||Chance of Outearning Parents (Top Income Percentile)|
Declines can be seen across the board, but those growing up in the middle-class (50th percentile) have taken the largest hit. Within this bracket, individuals born in 1980 have only a 45% chance of outearning their parents at age 30, compared to 93% for those born in 1940.
Stagnating Wage Growth a Culprit
One factor behind America’s deteriorating upward mobility is the sluggish pace at which wages have grown. For example, the average hourly wage in 1964, when converted to 2018 dollars, is $20.27. Compare this to $22.65, the average hourly wage in 2018. That represents a mere 11.7% increase over a span of 54 years.
However, this may not be as bad as it sounds. While the prices of some goods and services have risen over time, others have actually become more affordable. Since January 1998, for example, the prices of electronic goods such as TVs and cellphones have actually decreased. In this way, individuals today are more prosperous than previous generations.
This benefit is likely outweighed by relative increases in other services, though. Whereas inflation since January 1998 totaled 58.8%, the costs of health and education services increased by more than 160% over the same time frame.
While wages have been stagnant as a whole, it doesn’t paint the full picture. Another factor to consider is America’s changing income distribution.
|Income Class||1970 Share of U.S. Aggregate Income||2018 Share of U.S. Aggregate Income|
Source: Pew Research Center
Like the data on upward mobility, the middle class takes the largest hit here, with its share of U.S. aggregate income falling by 19 percentage points. Over the same time frame, the upper class was able to increase its share of total income by 20 percentage points.
Is It All Bad News?
Americans are less likely to earn more than their parents, but this doesn’t mean that upward mobility has completely disappeared—it’s just becoming less accessible. Below, we illustrate the changes in size for different income classes from 1967 to 2016.
The upper middle class has grown significantly, from 6% of the population in 1967 to 33% in 2016. At the same time, the middle class shrank from 47% to 36% and the lower middle class shrank from 31% to 16%.
The data suggests that some middle class Americans are still managing to pull themselves up into the next income bracket—it’s just not an effect that was as broad-based as it’s been in the past.
Does The American Dream Still Exist?
The American Dream is the belief that upward mobility is attainable for everyone through their own actions. This implies that growth will be continuous and widespread, two factors that have seemingly deteriorated in recent decades.
Researchers believe there are numerous complex reasons behind America’s stagnating wages. A decline in union membership, for example, could be eroding employees’ collective bargaining power. Other factors such as technological change may also apply downwards pressure on the wages of less educated workers.
Income inequality, on the other hand, is clearly shown by the data. We can also refer to the Gini-coefficient, a statistical measure of economic inequality. It ranges between 0 and 1, with 0 representing perfect equality and 1 representing perfect inequality (one person holds all the income). The U.S. currently has a Gini-coefficient of 0.434, the highest of any G7 country.
Long story short, the American Dream is still alive—it’s just becoming harder to come by.
Visualizing U.S. GDP by Industry in 2023
Services-producing industries account for the majority of U.S. GDP in 2023, followed by other private industries and the government.
Visualizing U.S. GDP by Industry
The U.S. economy is like a giant machine driven by many different industries, each one akin to an essential cog that moves the whole.
Understanding the breakdown of national gross domestic product (GDP) by industry shows where commercial activity is bustling and how diverse the economy truly is.
The above infographic uses data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis to visualize a breakdown of U.S. GDP by industry in 2023. To show this, we use value added by industry, which reflects the difference between gross output and the cost of intermediate inputs.
The Top 10 U.S. Industries by GDP
As of Q1 2023, the annualized GDP of the U.S. sits at $26.5 trillion.
Of this, 88% or $23.5 trillion comes from private industries. The remaining $3 trillion is government spending at the federal, state, and local levels.
Here’s a look at the largest private industries by economic contribution in the United States:
|Industry||Annualized Nominal GDP |
(as of Q1 2023)
|% of U.S. GDP|
|Professional and business services||$3.5T||13%|
|Real estate, rental, and leasing||$3.3T||12%|
|Educational services, health care, and social assistance||$2.3T||9%|
|Finance and insurance||$2.0T||8%|
|Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services||$1.2T||4%|
|Other private industries||$2.6T||10%|
Like most other developed nations, the U.S. economy is largely based on services.
Service-based industries, including professional and business services, real estate, finance, and health care, make up the bulk (70%) of U.S. GDP. In comparison, goods-producing industries like agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and construction play a smaller role.
Professional and business services is the largest industry with $3.5 trillion in value added. It comprises establishments providing legal, consulting, design, administration, and other services. This is followed by real estate at $3.3 trillion, which has consistently been an integral part of the economy.
Due to outsourcing and other factors, the manufacturing industry’s share of GDP has been declining for decades, but it still remains a significant part of the economy. Manufacturing of durable goods (metals, machines, computers) accounts for $1.6 trillion in value added, alongside nondurable goods (food, petroleum, chemicals) at $1.3 trillion.
The Government’s Contribution to GDP
Just like private industries, the government’s value added to GDP consists of compensation of employees, taxes collected (less subsidies), and gross operating surplus.
|Government||Annualized Nominal GDP |
(as of Q1 2023)
|% of U.S. GDP|
|State and Local||$2.1T||8%|
Figures may not add up to the total due to rounding.
State and local government spending, largely focused on the education and public welfare sectors, accounts for the bulk of value added. The Federal contribution to GDP amounts to roughly $948 billion, with 52% of it attributed to national defense.
The Fastest Growing Industries (2022–2032P)
In the next 10 years, services-producing industries are projected to see the fastest growth in output.
The table below shows the five fastest-growing industries in the U.S. from 2022–2032 in terms of total output, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
|Industry||Sector||Compound Annual Rate of Output Growth (2022–2032P)|
|Computing infrastructure providers, data processing, and related services||Information||3.9%|
|Wireless telecommunications carriers (except satellite)||Information||3.6%|
|Home health care services||Health care and social assistance||3.6%|
|Oil and gas extraction||Mining||3.5%|
Three of the fastest-growing industries are in the information sector, underscoring the growing role of technology and digital infrastructure. Meanwhile, the projected growth of the oil and gas extraction industry highlights the enduring demand for traditional energy sources, despite the energy transition.
Overall, the development of these industries suggests that the U.S. will continue its shift toward a services-oriented economy. But today, it’s also worth noticing how services- and goods-producing industries are increasingly tied together. For example, it’s now common for tech companies to produce devices, and for manufacturers to use software in their operations.
Therefore, the oncoming tide of growth in service-based industries could potentially lift other interconnected sectors of the diverse U.S. economy.
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