What explains the changes in top-earning occupations over the past four decades? Perhaps the most intriguing argument about the current state of income inequality in the English speaking economies that Thomas Piketty makes in his bestseller “Capital in the 21st Century” is this—“the vast majority (60 to 70 percent, depending on what definitions one chooses) of the top 0.1 percent of the income hierarchy in 2000-2010 consists of top managers.” He goes on to argue on page 302 of his book that the rise in labor income “primarily reflects the advent of ‘supermanagers,’ that is, top executives of large firms who have managed to obtain extremely high, historically unprecedented compensation packages for their labor.”


This really begs the question as to how and why these supermanagers came into existence. Nobel Laureate Robert M. Solow points out in The New Republic that this is primarily an American outcome. And Henry Engler at Thomson Reuters Accelelus’ Compliance Complete recently published an excellent piece on Piketty’s supermanagers in the United States and the United Kingdom. Both writers agreed with Piketty that these supermanagers were being vastly overly compensated given their questionable contributions to productivity.

I hope to shed a little more light on this issue by examining the change in professions comprising the top 0.1 percent of tax filers between 1979 and 2005. The purpose: to examine whether the changing composition of this super elite reflects changes in our economy that may explain the link between rising economic inequality and anemic economic growth over this period.

To do so, I used data from the April 2012 white paper “Jobs and Income Growth of Top Earners and the Causes of Changing Income Inequality: Evidence from U.S. Tax Return Data,” by economists Jon Bakija of Williams College, Adam Cole of the Office of Tax Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and Bradley Heim of Indiana University. They used tax data on the top 0.1% of filers to identify the top earning professions. The infographic below tells the tale, charting the change in occupations at the tippy top of the income ladder in 1979 and 2005.

The biggest change in the distribution of top earners is in the types of executives, managers, and supervisors at non-financial firms. In 1979, most of these people worked for large, publicly traded firms but by 2005 more were working in closely held firms. There is not enough information to provide a clearer picture as to who exactly these people are, but chances are they are employed by firms that are owned by private equity firms—the growth in the private equity industry over this period of time was substantial—and because financial professionals saw large gains, too. The share of people in the top 0.1 percent working in finance also increased substantially, to 18 percent in 2005 from 11 percent in 1979.

These findings are consistent with Piketty’s analysis in his new book. But there are alternative explanations. One is presented in George Mason economist Tyler Cowen’s latest book, “Average is Over.” He claims a skill biased-technological change is responsible for the shift in top occupations over roughly the same period. He argues that technology allows top performers to capture more of the market and thus earn substantially more than average performers. He and many other people hypothesize that this is a driver of increased economic inequality.

But if technology were a primary driver of inequality, then one would expect that skilled trades would have larger incomes and would have become a larger share in the top 0.1 percent. While there are slightly more technical types and entertainers among top earners (as can be seen in the data presented in our interactive) the biggest gains in both percentage terms and magnitude were among privately held business professionals.

Thus, the so called “average is over” argument—that that the top performers in each field will capture a bigger share of the pie—may be a driver of inequality, but it does not appear to explain the bulk of the changes in occupations at the top of the income ladder. Instead, the supermanagers appear to be capturing greater share of the wealth as is argued by Piketty and others. More detailed data would be required to assess who these people are and how workplace dynamics changed from 1979 to 2005 that would explain the change in income. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth will be examining this data in more detail in forthcoming publications.