The Big Mac Index

I’ve often wondered if the early- to mid-Twentieth Century wasn’t the best possible time to be alive despite all the war.

As well as being aesthetically superior to our own cheapo resource-poor moment, you really could live well with less.

Anecdotally, I think of my grandparents whose homespun “waste not want not” philosophy allowed them to shun professional labour for about fifty years. I write about them a little in The Good Life for Wage Slaves, but both of my grandparents had low-responsibility pre-War jobs (rent collector, motorcycle engineer) when they were young that they would eventually look upon fondly. They both had War Effort jobs for three or four years and that was it pretty much it. They rented their little house with pension and odd job money, lived cheerful lives of unambitious pottering and occasional holidays in Tenby in Wales and were seemingly content, even happy.

There’s the story of a penniless Patti Smith (as told in Just Kids) finding 50 cents (two quarters) in Central Park. It was enough money for someone to painlessly lose but it was also enough for Patti to buy breakfast (at least $30 in today’s money) for herself and Robert Mapplethorpe.

And there are fictional accounts such as It’s a Wonderful Life in which the poor migrant Mancini family pay off their mortgage over 4 years, and The Secret Garden in which the money Mary Lennox would have spent on a child’s bucket and spade was enough to feed a family for (I think) a week.

So far so much anecdote. But apparently my suspicions are correct! The phenomenon is called Purchasing Power Decline and there’s something called the Big Mac Index to prove it.

Your basic wage slave of 1980 (the year of The Shining, The Blues Brothers, Raging Bull and The Empire Strikes Back) earned six Big Macs an hour. We, by comparison (in the year whose cultural productions you’ve never heard of and never will) don’t even earn one.

The relationship between work and reward is broken. Depressing? Yes. But on the other hand, there’s never been a more cost-effective time (because you’re not losing anything) to put your feet up. Take it easy, I say, and enjoy the spoils of the last century.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at

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