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Factcheck: Does the average person working full-time in Ireland earn €47,000 a year?

The claim was made by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during Monday night’s debate.

MONDAY’S SEVEN-WAY election debate saw claims, statistics and figures thrown out by participants on housing, pensions, vulture funds and a raft of other issues. 

One of the many claims that caught people’s attention related to the average earnings of a full-time worker in Ireland.

During the RTÉ debate, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said these workers earn, on average, €47,000 a year.

So, is he right?

The Claim

During the debate, Varadkar said: “The average person working full-time in Ireland earns €47,000 a year.”

The Evidence

We asked Fine Gael where the Taoiseach got his figure from. A spokesperson said Varadkar was citing the CSO’s Earnings and Labour Costs figures for 2018 (the most recent available).

The CSO stated in that report: Average annual earnings for full-time employees in 2018 were €47,596 (up 2.6% on 2017).

“The figures for 2019 are not available yet but given the reported wage increases, it’s expected to be over €48,000 at this point,” the Fine Gael spokesperson told TheJournal.ie.

Context

After the debate this week, Aidan Regan, a UCD lecturer in Public Policy, warned of the problem with using “averages” to calculate what the “middle” of income and earnings distribution looks like. 

Writing for TheJournal.ie last year, economist Felim O’Rourke also explained that it was “generally acknowledged that the [mean] average doesn’t tell us what a typical worker earns, while the median [average] is a really good indicator”.

To refresh your memories, in case you don’t remember the difference from school:

  • You get an average when you add up all the numbers and then divide by the total number of numbers 
  • The median is the value that is in the middle of that list of numbers.  

O’Rourke gave the example of a small company in which four employees earn €30,000 and the manager earns €80,000. The average is €40,000, but the majority of workers in this office earn €10,000 below that.

The median is €30,000 (€30,000, €30,000, €30,000, €30,000, €80,000), and in this instance it is clear how this figure is more representative of these workers’ earnings. 

According to the CSO, in terms of income, the median of annual earnings in 2018 was €36,095.

The public sector had total median annual earnings of €47,116 while the private sector median was €31,684. This data includes both full-time and part-time workers (the Taoiseach’s claim related to full-time workers only).  

When asked whether the Taoiseach believes the figure he cited – which, as we’ve established, is based on average earnings – is the best indicator for the earnings of the ‘average worker’, considering experts state the median is more representative, the Fine Gael spokesperson said:

“We do believe that the CSO is an excellent indicator for this.”

Average worker

There is also a distinction between the wording used by the CSO and that of the Taoiseach.

CSO: “Average annual earnings for full time employees in 2018 were €47,596.”

Taoiseach: “The average person working full time in Ireland earns €47,000 a year.”

The OECD defines an average worker as: “An adult-full time worker in the private sector whose wage earnings are equal to the average wage earnings of such workers.”

This definition includes manual and non-manual workers, supervisory workers as well as managerial workers.

Under the OECD definition above, the category of ‘average worker’ excludes public sector workers like nurses, teachers and gardaí (who some voters might consider to be representative of a ‘typical’ worker).

The CSO does not define an average worker in its Earnings and Labour Costs report. Its figures relate to annual earnings of a particular group of workers, in this case full-time workers. 

It should also be noted that, with the inclusion of part-time workers – and remember, the Taoiseach only mentioned full-time workers – average annual earnings in Ireland were €38,871 in 2018, according to the CSO. 

Verdict

The Taoiseach took his figure from the CSO’s official report.

But this figure is the mean average of all earnings of full-time workers in Ireland, rather than an indication of an average (or typical) full-time worker. And if the median – generally acknowledged to be a better indicator – was used, this figure is likely to be lower. 

Is the mean average of all full-time workers’ earnings €47,000? Yes

Does a typical full-time worker in Ireland earn €47,000? No

Verdict: MOSTLY true.

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is close to accurate, but is missing significant details or context. Or, the best available evidence weighs in favour of the claim.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here. 

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