No, the Average College Grad Wasn't Making $100,000 in the 1980s
Not only is that claim factually incorrect, but it's also wrong to be so pessimistic about young people's economic future.
On Monday, a TikTok video showing a startling decline in the average income of young college graduates since the 1980s went viral. In the video, a young woman compares the supposed average salaries of recent college grads in 1982 and 2022. She claims that "the average college grad in 2022 is making $55,260," while "in 1982, the average college grad was making $102,200" in today's dollars. She adds, "This sentiment being held by boomers of, 'Oh, well, they're just expecting too much,' I just don't think they know what numbers they're talking about."
However, her claims are simply wrong. Not only does the average college graduate today earn more than their 1980s counterparts, but they're also graduating into the most robust labor market in decades.
It's not clear where exactly the young woman sourced her claims about relative college graduate salaries from, though Jeremy Horpedahl, an economics professor at the University of Central Arkansas, suggested on Twitter that it could have come from a 2007 table published by the National Center for Education Statistics.
According to the table, the average recent college graduate in May 1981 earned $15,200 per year—which is just over $51,000 in 2023 dollars. However, the video states that the average recent college graduate actually made $33,700 per year, which she claims amounts to over $100,000 in today's dollars. Her error, it seems, may have come from misreading the table, which lists $33,700 as the May 1981 salary for recent college graduates when adjusted to 2006 dollars.
In fact, rather than finding themselves much poorer than their boomer or Generation X parents, recent college graduates seem to be making more on average than college grads 40 years ago. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average 25- to 34-year-old with a bachelor's degree made $59,600 in 2020. For those right out of college, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that the average starting salary of a 2021 college grad was $58,862.
However, the video's rapid spread indicates more than the gullibility of the average Twitter or TikTok user. It also indicates a pervasive, yet unwarranted pessimism in many young people who seem to think that landing a good entry-level job is all but impossible in today's economy.
"I think boomers just have such a hard time conceptualizing this because they never had to fight for jobs," the young woman in the video says. "They were at the upswing of technology, they were at the upswing of big business, capitalism was booming, and then they look at us and they're thinking…entitled."
But that description actually matches far better to the current economic situation than the one of 40 years ago. Not only is tech innovation booming, but it's also simply much easier to get a job in 2023 than it was in the early '80s. In 2023, the unemployment rate is at a 50-year low—3.6 percent average in 2022 as opposed to an average of 9.7 percent in 1982. For college graduates, the unemployment rate is even lower—just 2.5 percent on average in 2022.
While it can be easy to get bogged down by messages that the economic reality for young people is bleak, the truth is that, at least on the metric of average salary, the world is bright for recent college graduates—and anyone else looking for a job for that matter.