Career professionals offer endless salary negotiation advice. Job seekers recite annual gross wage figures. Banks examine percentages of monthly income, affixing scores like test grades. All examine microscale finances.

However, an enlightening frame of reference can apply those figures to an anticipated lifetime's work for a startling perspective.

It's called the synthetic work-life earnings (SWE) estimate, and it may even prompt you to realign your career path.

Synthetic Work-Life Earnings

The U.S. Census Bureau has clarified the murky waters of education and occupational choice, applying them in a revealing mix of the SWE. The bureau used a fairly straightforward four-step formula to calculate how much money workers earn over a lifetime:

  • Divide workers into eight 5-year age group intervals.
  • Find the median earnings for each group.
  • Multiply the median earnings by 5 years.
  • Add the totals to account for 40 years of earnings.

The bureau study repeated the process for every education level and occupation and then compared the results. The finished product was titled, "Work-Life Earnings by Field of Degree and Occupation for People With a Bachelor's Degree: 2011." The bureau constantly updates figures, but the analysis remains the same. Educational and occupational choices matter.


Contrasts are expectedly stark when the earnings of an eighth-grade education (once a 19th century standard) are compared with those of a career professional with a doctoral degree. However, even the wage increases that correspond to levels of degrees are marked. From any viewpoint, education is the gatekeeper for lifetime prosperity.

Educational Level:

8th Grade or Less - SWE: $936,000
9th to 12th Grade - SWE: $1,099,000
High School Graduate - SWE: $1,371,000
Some College - SWE: $1,632,000
Associate's Degree - SWE: $1,813,000
Bachelor's Degree - SWE: $2,422,000
Master's Degree - SWE: $2,834,000
Doctorate Degree - SWE: $3,525,000
Professional Degree - SWE: $4,159,000

With a high school diploma worth less than $1.4 million, investment in a bachelor's degree yields an additional $1 million.

Add a master's, and you increase lifetime earnings by almost another half a million. Add a doctorate, and the jump from bachelor's degree is over a million. The most wealth resides with professional degree holders, those licensed to practice a specialty. Bureau of Labor Statistics "Earnings and Unemployment Rates by Educational Attainment" figures for 2014, while citing monthly income, support these figures. Basically, educational degrees allow you to double, triple or even quadruple the worth of your high school diploma. Keep in mind, too, that these averages represent ranges that vary widely by occupational field.

Occupational Focus

Updated figures continue to confirm the results of the Census Bureau's initial study. Career professionals involved in STEM industries – those focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – earn the most significant lifetime wages within every educational level. Using $2.4 million as the reference point average, the study compared wages of workers with bachelor's degrees not only by occupation but also by type of bachelor's degree – essentially Bachelor of Science versus Bachelor of Arts.

The Power Of STEM

The highest lifetime earners were those who: 

  • Possessed a bachelor's degree in a discipline within engineering, computers and mathematics, or the sciences. Science degrees included the physical, biological and social sciences as well as psychology.
  • Worked in the fields of architecture and engineering, computers and mathematics, business and finance, and, in some cases, even sales.

These individuals laid claim to figures well in the high $2 millions and topped out on average at over $4 million at managerial levels. Even with bachelor's degrees typically considered part of the arts, individuals employed within STEM industries boasted highly competitive lifetime earnings in a similar range.

Steady Average

Hovering closer to the $2.4 million mark were workers plying their bachelor's degree within the healthcare, sales, and arts and media fields. However, once again, those with degrees from the STEM fields had significant advantage, with many bachelor's degrees from the arts or education disciplines lagging.

Under The Mark

Once the study crossed into the arenas of arts and media, education, community and legal services, office support, natural resources and production, the bachelor's degree no longer earned holders the average $2.4 million, instead sinking in many cases well below, barely breaking the high school diploma threshold. The only exception was for those with engineering degrees.

Choose Wisely

We live in a global economic environment based on scientific principles and technological advances. Industry and the business world are placing their bets on the STEM disciplines.

Calculating a lifetime's earnings casts the matter of "a few thousand dollars" in a thought-provoking light. You only live once, but if you make wise choices, you can also live well.

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