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Federal Reserve researchers are out with a new report about lifetime earnings growth in the U.S.

It’s sort of scary.

The authors, led by Fatih Guvenen of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve, looked at 200 million pieces of data gathered by the Social Security Administration from 1978 to 2010,

Here are their five main conclusions:

1)  The median worker’s earnings will climb just 38 percent in their lifetimes.

Many earlier studies have suggested your earnings growth would hit 127 percent over the course of your career.


But Guvenen says these are heavily skewed by rich people.

“We have to look all the way above [the 90th percentile] to find an average growth rate of 127%,” he writes.


2)  On average, almost 100 percent of people’s lifetime earnings growth will happen by the time they turn 35.

There is almost zero earnings growth between the ages of 35 and 55 for most workers, and negative growth from 45 to 55. Guvenen told Fusion it is extremely important to invest in what he called “human capital” — basically, yourself — while you’re younger. However, he declined to comment on whether it is worthwhile to take on lots of student debt to do so.

3)  As you get older, the odds are greater that your earnings will go down than up.


A 45 year-old making $80,000 is approximately twice as likely to see a large earnings decline than a large increase. “The older you get, the larger your disaster risk and the smaller your upside potential,” Guvenen told Fusion.

4)  These findings hold throughout the past 60 years.

Even going back to data sets that start in the late ‘50s, when the U.S. economy looked very different, these findings tend hold, Guvenen said. The same kinds of professions with the most upward mobility, like doctors and lawyers (who can eventually move up to partner); and the least, like construction workers, are still with us.


5)  The top percentile of earners are basically immune from most of these findings.

The only group that on average continues to see significant earnings growth after age 35 are workers who by that age have already made it into the top 5 percent. This group can expect to see earnings growth of 230% (again compared with the 38 percent U.S. worker median), while those in the top 1 percent will see earnings growth of 1450%. After age 45, the only groups that are experiencing growth on average are people in the top 2%.

Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.