The description of how much a drachma or Athenian Talent is worth is best considered by converting it to how many days labor could be purchased. Determining the silver content and converting that weight of silver to current dollars based on current silver values produces nonsensical answers. So I will try to adjust from a day’s wage 2000 years ago to a day’s wage today.
How to do that? Here is my feeble effort.
By the way, this post is one part of my learning about ancient finances.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides a good frame of reference for skilled construction workers in the May 2015 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates.
The data for Construction and Extraction Occupations category contains a reasonable frame of reference for skilled workers. The BLS data is organized into ‘detail’ categories with a few of those detail level job classifications rolled into a ‘broad’ subtotal, with a group of broad categories rolled into a ‘minor’ and those rolled up into a ‘major’ category.
Construction and Extraction Occupations is a broad category. Construction Trade workers in a minor category. Brickmasons, Blockmasons, and Stonemasons and Construction Equipment Operators within that grouping are broad categories. Carpenters are a detail category.
Here are a few points of reference:
- Annual mean – category – aggregation
- 47,580 – construction and extraction – major
- 46,970 – extraction workers – minor
- 46,290 – construction trades workers – minor
- 50,200 – brickmasons, blockmasons, and stonemasons – broad
- 51,750 – brickmason, blockmason – detail
- 46,780 – carpenters – detail
- 36,550 – construction laborers – detail
- 48,380 – construction equipment operators – broad
- 29,890 – helpers, construction trade – broad
Here again my little brain doesn’t know how to do the comparison. I’m looking at the description of skilled construction worker in 300 BC and thinking of a carpenter or equipment operator in 2015.
Since skilled construction worker in 300 BC is likely near the top of the skill set at the time, perhaps a better comparison would be to computer technicians today.
If IT workers is a better comparison, consider this data:
- Annual mean – category – aggregation
- 86,170 – Computer and Mathematical occupations – major
- 86,090 – Computer occupations – minor
- 90,600 – computer and information analysts – broad
- 97,930 – software developers and programmers – broad
- 102,160 – software developers, applications, detail
- 70,660 – web developers – detail
- 55,980 – computer support specialists – broad
Using comp for IT workers would produce far higher numbers, like into the $90,000 range. I’ll stay with skilled construction workers. That is a comparison I can get.
Compensation package for skilled construction worker
Looks to me like the best frame of reference is the mean wages (that would be arithmetic average) for brickmason of $51,750 and mean for equipment operators of $48,380.
Those categories are reasonable for the comparisons I want to make and I will round off at $50,000.
In ancient times, actually as recently as 100 years ago, compensation packages did not include any coverage for getting hurt on the job. Today we call it workers compensation.
In ancient times you were on your own in terms of setting up with the taxman. Today employers pay part of the load, which we call the Social Security tax.
The final comparison for this analysis is that in ancient times, or even 100 years ago, you were on your own for providing for your health care. Today skilled construction workers would have employer health insurance included in their compensation package.
To compare a days’ wage 2000 years ago to today would require adding in workers comp, employer’s share of Social Security tax, and some guess for health insurance.
I will guess as follows for a skilled construction worker:
- 15% – wild guess for workers comp
- 7.65% – employer’s share of Social Security
- 2.5% – guess for other employment taxes such as federal and state unemployment etc.
- 20% – guess for health insurance – that would be about $10,000 a year which is probably in the range of what typical insurance costs today
- 45.15% – sum of all of my guesses above; this is a point estimate with an unquantified range around it
- 40% – rounding down of all of the above guesses
That means for every $100 wages paid to a skilled construction worker, the employer will pay another $45 for all of the above extra items. I will around that to $40 per $100.
So here is my approximation of current compensation for skilled construction worker:
- $50,000 – approximate compensation today for a skilled construction worker
- $20,000 – approximate cost of workers’ comp, Social Security, unemployment taxes, and health insurance at 45% of comp rounded down to 40%
- $70,000 – approximate total compensation package for a skilled construction worker today.
Because we have become so rich that we can afford paid vacation time and typically 10 or so paid holidays per year, you actually have to hire a worker for 13 or 14 months today to get the same number of hours a worker would put in 2000 years ago. I will not take that into consideration. These comparisons are nowhere near precise enough to consider those factors.
That means I will use $70,000 for a year’s compensation for a skilled worker today.