Photographer: Xaume Olleros/Bloomberg

It's Official: Europe's 1% Conform to Stereotype. Almost.

Labor laws, the status of gender equality and history can make big differences to income patterns, according to a new OECD study

If activists chanting "we are the 99 percent" were asked to describe the one-percenters whom they revile, they would probably say they are men, middle aged, well educated and with high-level jobs. By and large, they would be right. 

A recent study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a rich-nations club, analyzed a database of about 10 million employees to draw a portrait of the top 1 percent of earners in Europe. The OECD says this is the first time that such a comprehensive picture of this group's composition has been drawn.

Across the region, the pattern is clear: "The top 1 percent tend to: be in the 40s and 50s; be men; have a tertiary-education degree; work in finance, manufacturing, or wholesale and retail; and be employed as chief executives or in other senior management positions," report author Oliver Denk wrote in the study.

So far, so non-surprising. But delving deeper in the data shows less obvious patterns. 

While top 1 percent of earners are over 40 on average, they are younger in Eastern European countries, most likely as a consequence of social mobility and economic changes after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Denk says. On the other hand, Italy is the country with the oldest top earners, followed by France.

On average, women account for just one out of six of Europe’s best-paid workers. But this number masks large variations between countries, from Germany’s 7.2 percent to the almost 25 percent in countries like Hungary and Poland.

 This is mostly a consequence of the larger share of working women in those countries. In fact, Southern European countries fare relatively well, with women in Spain and Portugal making up 22 and 24 percent of the best-paid employees, respectively.


Data analyzed by Denk also hint at a relationship between labor protections and pay equality. In countries where fewer jobs are covered by collective wage agreements, the top 1 percent of earners tend to grab a bigger share of total labor income.

For example, in Belgium, where 96 percent of workers are in collectively-negotiated jobs, the highest-paid workers earn just 3.8 percent of total wages. In the U.K., with fewer than 1 in 3 jobs falling under collective-wage agreements, the one-percenters take about 9 percent of labor income.

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