Worker Prosperity in the U.S. and Abroad


Which countries have the most prosperous workers in the world? Where do companies pay the highest salaries? It depends on how you look at the numbers.

One way is to take the total wage bill in each country and divide it by the number of employees in the total economy. That gives you the chart below, which shows the U.S. leading the world with average salaries in the $70,000 range.

The trouble with that statistic is that it includes both minimum wage Americans who earn a few tens of thousands of dollars a year and American CEOs, who are vastly overpaid compared with their counterparts pretty much everywhere else. (Salary.com lists the median CEO salary as $777,000, and other top executives in Corporate America are similarly compensated.) America is the only country in the world where the average company’s chief executive is paid 351 times as much as the typical worker.

Another way to look at comparative salaries is to calculate the average after-tax take-home pay in different countries. By this measure, Switzerland comes out on top, with an average salary of $85,718 and, because of a minuscule tax bite, an average take-home income of $84,006. The U.S. ranks second in take-home pay ($52,344), ahead of Australia ($46,781) and Ireland ($42,322). As you can see from the chart, the people in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands all pay half their salary in one kind of tax or another.

But once again, this is averaging in the rich and the poor, which skews the American numbers because the disparity is so high. What if, instead, we look at the median income—where, if we put everybody’s annual salary in a long list, we select the wage-earner in the exact center? Wouldn’t that be a fairer assessment of each country’s prosperity?

By this measure, Luxembourg leads the world with a median income of $52,493, followed by Norway’s $51,489, Sweden’s $50,514, and Australia’s $45,555. The United States comes in sixth in the ranking ($43,585), right behind Denmark ($44,360) and one notch above Canada ($41,280). South Korea ($40,861), Kuwait ($40,854), and the Netherlands ($39,584) round out the top ten. At the other end of the list, the median Mexican worker earns just $2,900 a year, below Lebanon, Serbia, Iran, Montenegro, and Ukraine. (The average of all the global medians is $8,575 a year.)

Is there anything missing from this picture? Americans are among the highest paid workers in the world, but they also tend to work longer hours and get less time off from their jobs than workers in other nations. Based on statistics compiled by the International Labour Organization, the typical American wage earner will work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than their French counterparts. And the U.S. remains the only industrialized country in the world that has no legally-mandated paid annual leave or paid parental leave benefits. Workers in most countries get at least 20 paid vacation days (30 in France and Finland). A recent graph shows the disparity between U.S. policy toward taking paid time off vs. those of other developed nations.

So you could argue, with statistics to back you up, that America is the most prosperous—or at least one of the most prosperous—nations on the planet. But you also might discover that workers in other countries, despite lower median salaries, wouldn’t volunteer to trade places.

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