If you want to be in the top 1% of income earners by the time you’re 25, you’d better find a job that pays at least $US116,000. If that seems unreachable and you want to be in the 1% by the time you’re 35, well … it doesn’t get much easier.
The top 1% of earners at 35 make $US291,000.
This data, which comes from the US Census and American Community Survey, is telling when you compare each income to national averages. For 25-year-olds, the median income is $US31,000. For 35-year-olds, it’s $US45,000. And for all adults, the median is $US56,516.
In one sense, a difference of $US14,000 in the middle (a 45% increase) compared to $US185,000 at the tippy-top (a 160% increase) illustrates the compounding effects of being a high wage-earner.
Having more disposable income enables people to save and invest more than if they have significantly less. As a result, the rich tend to get richer while people toward the middle tend to coast by on their salaries alone.
But another way to interpret the difference is that top-1% incomes rising so sharply over a short period indicates income inequality is widening. If incomes were more equal, in other words, both the median and top-1% incomes would rise along similar trajectories.
Economists have implicated steep tax breaks as one reason the top 1% sees their income grow disproportionately relative to the middle class. The close relationships between business executives and board members are another, as Business Insider’s Pedro da Costa has noted, since these close ties enable executives to earn big salaries outside what market forces would dictate.
The difference between 25-year-olds and 35-year-olds is only part of the story of income inequality, because there’s also a startling gap between the rich and the superrich. Income gains have disproportionately gone to those in the top 0.01% and 0.001% compared to the top 20%, economists have noted.
Over time, this has led to staggering wealth inequality. Consider that the world’s eight richest people have as much wealth as half of the world’s population. In the US, the rich-poor gap has created a widespread perception of lack: The proportion of people identifying as “have-nots” versus “haves” has more than doubled since 1988.
There is one bright spot. On a global scale, the world is becoming far more equal than it’s ever been. Projections for 2035 predict income inequality will continue to fall, with a distribution hardly resembling its former self.