Getting real with pay

One of the most enduring characteristics of the macroeconomic environment since the financial crisis of the late 2000s has been its impact on people’s pay. We apply the distinction between nominal and real values to evidence the adverse impact on the typical purchasing power of workers. While we do not consider here the distributional impact on pay, the aggregate picture nonetheless paints a very stark picture of recent patterns in pay and, in turn, the consequences for living standards and wellbeing.

While the distinction between nominal and real values is perhaps best know in relation to GDP and economic growth (see the need to get real with GDP), the distinction is also applied frequently to analyse the movement of one price relative to prices in general. One example is that of movements in pay (earnings) relative to consumer prices.

Pay reflects the price of labour. The value of our actual pay is our nominal pay. If our pay rises more quickly than consumer prices, then our real pay increases. This means that our purchasing power rises and so the volume of goods and services we can afford increases. On the other hand, if our actual pay rises less quickly than consumer prices then our real pay falls. When real pay falls, purchasing power falls and the volume of goods and services we can afford falls.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that in January 2000 regular weekly pay (excluding bonuses and before taxes and other deductions from pay) was £293. By December 2018 this had risen to £495. This is an increase of 69 per cent. Over the same period the consumer prices index known as the CPIH, which, unlike the better-known CPI, includes owner-occupied housing costs and Council Tax, rose by 49 per cent. Therefore, the figures are consistent with a rise both in nominal and real pay between January 2000 to December 2018. However, this masks the fact that in recent times real earnings have fallen.

Chart 1 shows the annual percentage changes in actual (nominal) regular weekly pay and the CPIH since January 2001. Each value is simply the percentage change from 12 months earlier. The period up to June 2008 saw the annual growth of weekly pay outstrip the growth of consumer prices – the blue line in the chart is above the red line. Therefore, the real value of pay rose. However, from June 2008 to August 2014 pay growth consistently fell short of the rate of consumer price inflation – the blue line is below the red line. The result was that average real weekly pay fell. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Chart 2 show the average levels of nominal and real weekly pay. The real series is adjusted for inflation. It is calculated by deflating the nominal pay values by the CPIH. Since the CPIH is a price index whose value averages 100 across 2015, the real pay values are at constant 2015 prices. From the chart, we can see that the real value of weekly pay peaked in March 2008 at £482.01 at 2015 prices. The subsequent period saw rates of pay inflation that were lower than rates of consumer price inflation. This meant that by March 2014 the real value of weekly pay had fallen by 8.8 per cent to £439.56 at 2015 prices. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

Although real (inflation-adjusted) pay recovered a little during 2015 and 2016, 2017 again saw consumer price inflation rates greater than those of pay inflation (see Chart 1). Consequently, the average level of real weekly pay fell by 1 per cent between January and November 2017. Since then, real regular pay has again increased. In December 2018, average real pay weekly pay was £462.18 at 2015 prices: an increase of 1.1 per cent from November 2017. Nonetheless, inflation-adjusted average weekly pay in December 2018 remained 4.1 per cent below its March 2008 level.

Chart 3 shows very clearly the importance of the distinction between real and nominal when analysing the growth of earnings. The sustained period of real pay deflation (negative rates of pay inflation) that followed the financial crisis can be seen much more clearly by plotting growth rates rather than their levels. Since June 2008 the average annual growth of real regular weekly pay has been −0.2 per cent, despite nominal pay increasing at an annual rate of 2 per cent. In the period from January 2001 to May 2008 real regular weekly pay had grown at an annual rate of 2.1 per cent with nominal pay growing at an annual rate of 4.0 per cent. (Click here to download a PowerPoint copy of the chart.)

The distinction between nominal and real helps us to understand better why some argue that patterns in pay, living standards and well-being have been fundamental in characterising the macroeconomic environment since the financial crisis. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to suggest that these patterns have helped to shape macroeconomic debates and broader conversations around the role of government and of public policy and its priorities.



  1. Using the example of GDP and earnings, explain how the distinction between nominal and real relates to the distinction between values and volumes.
  2. In what circumstances would an increase in actual pay translate into a reduction in real pay?
  3. In what circumstances would a decrease in actual pay translate into an increase in real pay?
  4. What factors might explain the reduction in real rates of pay seen in the UK following the financial crisis?
  5. Of what importance might the growth in real rates of pay be for consumption and aggregate demand?
  6. Why is the growth of real pay an indicator of financial well-being? What other indicators might be included in measuring financial well-being?
  7. Assume that you have been asked to undertake a distributional analysis of real earnings since the financial crisis. What might be the focus of your analysis? What information would you therefore need to collect?