Forecasting the Rate of Growth of Real Wages (Productivity)

by Christopher Bruce

This article first appeared in the spring 2004 issue of the Expert Witness.

One of the most important determinants of the value of an individual’s lifetime income is the rate
at which that income will grow from one year to the next. The lifetime income of an individual whose earnings grow at 1 percent per year will be dramatically lower than that of an individual whose earnings grow at 5 percent per year. Two major factors determine this growth rate, once the individual has chosen an occupation. First, as workers obtain more experience, their earnings increase due to what is often called
“career progress.” Second, all workers in society tend to benefit equally from the long-term rise in wages across the economy. (If average wages rise by 50 percent over a period two decades, we expect that the wages of labourers and waitresses will increase by 50 percent also, even if the skills required for those two jobs remain unchanged.2)

Furthermore, economy-wide wage increases can be divided into those that are due to changes in the consumer price index – inflationary increases – and those that are due to changes in the “real” purchasing power of wages – real wage increases. (The observed, or “nominal,” rate of increase of wages equals the rate of price inflation plus the rate of increase of real wages.) Unfortunately, despite its importance for the calculation of damages, the forecast of real wage increases proves to be very complex. The purpose of this article will be to report some recent developments in the preparation of that forecast that should prove to be valuable to the courts.


Effectively, an increase in the real wage is an increase in the purchasing power of workers’ earnings. But, in the
long run, the average worker will only be able to consume more goods and services if output per worker has increased. Therefore, one would expect there to be a correlation between the long run rate of growth of real wages and the rate of growth of (real) output per worker, or “labour productivity.”

Depending upon the purpose to which it is to be put, a number of different definitions of labour productivity have been proposed. The definition that is most relevant to the determination of real wages is output per hour worked. Changes in this measure are influenced by three factors: increases in the amount of capital goods (machinery, buildings, computers, etc.) per worker, improvements in the technology “embodied” in capital (technological change), and changes in the productivity of workers (usually attributed to improvements in education).


Because a portion of any change in output per worker is attributable to changes in the quality and quantity of the capital available to workers, some of that increase in output will be paid to the owners of capital. Recently, most economists have come to accept the view that the allocation of gains between capital and labour will be determined in large part by the relative scarcity of those two factors.3 That is, in periods in which labour is in short supply (relative to capital), workers will be able to capture most of the gains from increased productivity and the percentage increase in real wages will equal or exceed the percentage increase in productivity. Conversely, when capital is in short supply relative to labour, it is capital that will capture most of the gains.

One of the attractive features of this theory is that it helps to explain many of the movements in real wages and labour productivity that have been observed over the last five decades. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the economy was growing rapidly and labour was (relatively) in short supply, real wages rose quickly, and at a rate higher than the rate of increase of output per worker. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, when the baby boom generation began to enter the labour market, labour supply increased significantly. Furthermore, because young adults borrow heavily – to purchase homes, cars, furniture, etc. – the influx of young baby boomers drove up interest rates, impeding firms’ ability to borrow for investments in capital. As a result, real wages stagnated even though productivity rose steadily. In the latter half of the 1990s, however, the baby boomers began to approach retirement age. Not only did the supply of labour start to fall, but older workers began to accumulate retirement savings, making funds available for capital investments. The result is that labour has become scarce relative to capital; and economists are now predicting that increases in real wages will begin to match, or exceed, the growth in output per worker.

Empirical evidence

Many economists believe that the reversal in the relative scarcities of labour and capital began in the mid-1990s. Some evidence in support of this conclusion is provided in Table 1. There it is seen that, between 1990 and 1995, the real incomes of Canadian males (25-44 years old, working full-time, full-year) decreased by 0.8 percent per year. (Nominal incomes increased by 1.4 percent per year during that period, while inflation averaged 2.2 percent.) However, between 1995 and 2000, average incomes increased by 3.1 percent while inflation was 1.7 percent, resulting in real income growth of 1.4 percent per year. Table 1 also reports that the real incomes of university graduates grew at 1.7 percent per year in the late 1990s; and that those of high school graduates and holders of trades diplomas and certificates made modest, but positive, gains in that same period.4

Table 1

Most Canadian economists appear to believe that, over the long run, output per worker will increase at between 1.5 and 2.0 percent per year. The 2.0 percent forecast is the consensus prediction of a group of Canada’s leading academic and government economists.5 The lower predictions have been made by forecasting agencies: Global Insight has forecast 1.9 percent per year over 2002-26; Informetrica has forecast 1.6 percent over the same period; and the Conference Board of Canada has forecast 1.46 percent over 2002-15.6Thus, as the model described above suggests that real wages will increase more rapidly than productivity, as the baby boomers age, a conservative estimate would be that real wages will increase by 2 percent per year over the next two decades.


It is important to note that this means that all workers’ real wages will increase by 2 percent per year. Economy-wide productivity gains are like a rising tide, they carry all workers with them equally. Even the individual who remains in the same job, with no personal increase in productivity and no promotions, can expect, on average, to benefit from real wage increases of 2 percent per year. With inflation predicted also to be 2 percent per year, he or she is predicted to benefit from nominal wage increases of approximately 4 percent per year – a 2 percent inflationary increase plus a 2 percent real increase.


1. This discussion is taken from Chapter 5 of Christopher Bruce, Assessment of Personal Injury Damages, 4th Edition, Butterworths, 2004.[back to text of article]

2. Evidence that all wages in the economy rise together, regardless of differences in the rate of increase of productivity among industries, was provided by Christopher Bruce in The Connection Between Labour Productivity and Wages (The Expert Witness Vol. 7, No. 2).[back to text of article]

3. See, especially, J. C. Herbert Emery and Ian Rongve, “Much Ado About Nothing? Demographic Bulges, the Productivity Puzzle, and CPP Reform,” Contemporary Economic Policy, 17 January 1999, 68-78; Henning Bohn, “Will social security and Medicare remain viable as the U.S. population is aging?” Carnegie-Rochester Conference Series on Public Policy 50 1999, 1-53; and William Scarth, “Population Aging, Productivity and Living Standards;” in Andrew Sharpe, France St.-Hilaire, and Keith Banting, eds. The Review of Economic Performance and Social Progress 2002, Institute for Research on Public Policy, Montreal, 2002, 145-156.[ back to text of article]

4. U.S. data also suggest that there was a striking switch to a high productivity growth regime in the mid-1990s. See, for example, James Kahn and Robert Rich, “Tracking the New Economy: Using Growth Theory to Detect Changes in Trend Productivity,” Staff Reports, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, No. 159, January 2003.[ back to text of article]

5. Andrew Sharpe,
“Symposium on Future Productivity Growth in Canada: An Introduction,” International Productivity Monitor, 7, Fall 2003, 44-45.[ back to text of article]

6. These figures are taken from Andrew Sharpe, ibid. pp. 44-45.[ back to text of article]


Christopher Bruce is the President of Economica and a Professor of Economics at the University of Calgary. He is also the author of Assessment of Personal Injury Damages (Butterworths, 2004).