So measured by income, the typical adult between the ages of 22 and 54 really is better off today than four years ago. But that improvement is largely due to the effects of aging—which, in the aggregate, have far more influence over your earning power than do typical fluctuations in the economy.

But the fact that I’m better off today (at 36) than I was four years ago (at 32) begs the question: is the typical 32-year old today better off than the typical 32-year-old in 2000. The answer is, quite clearly, no.

  • For most age ranges, median household income fell substantially from 2000 to 2003, after adjusting for inflation. Only for the 55-64 age range did incomes improve.

    Age Range Change in
    median household
    income, 2000-2003
    15 to 24 Years ($2,693)
    25 to 34 Years ($2,663)
    35 to 44 Years ($2,384)
    45 to 54 Years ($1,330)
    55 to 64 Years $1,304
    65 to 74 Years ($430)
    75 Years and Over ($455)
    Source: U.S. Census

    But that’s a fact you can only understand by looking at tables of numbers. There’s no way to gather that information through casual observation, or by appealing to any individual’s experience. The “median 32 year old”, after all, is entirely a statistical construct.

    But looking at that construct is far more revealing than appealing to the experiences of any individual. So my point, if there is one, is this: the story of how we’re really doing as a society is, as often as not, told by numbers. Using our own experience as a guide simply isn’t good enough.