On October 7 2019, a screenshot of a tweet began circulating across the internet. It read:
If you worked every single day, making $5000/day, from the time Columbus sailed to America, to the time you are reading this tweet, you would still not be a billionaire, and you would still have less money than Jeff Bezos makes in a week. No one works for a billion dollars.
If you used any social network, chances were extremely high you saw it. Maybe you saw it on Facebook, here or here or here. It’s also possible you saw a highly-viewed Imgur post (“Paycheck to paycheck”) or the very popular original tweet.
The claim of course reminded us of a fact check by TruthOrFiction.com about a viral purported comparison between a million seconds ago and a billion seconds ago:
In our analysis, the math essentially checked out except for one minor detail. Versions of the claim spread quickly in early August 2019, and the “million seconds” calculation would always work out to between eleven and twelve days. Due to the involved proportions, the “billion seconds” claim would linger in late 1988 for quite some time.
One of the iterations of the “paycheck to paycheck” claim shared the tweet screenshot alongside a comment saying that the math in the tweet was accurate:
Holy fuck. Math checks out…
5,000 x 365.25 = 1,826,250
1,826,250 x 527 = 962,433,750
From that, we inferred the year was intended to be 1492, as that was the year that explorer and colonizer Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue” before reaching the Bahamas. Of course, Columbus neither “discovered” the Americas nor even reached North America (instead exploring the coasts of what came to be known as Central and South America), but those details were not included in the ubiquitous poem.
According to a 2007 Straight Dope column , the “in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” wording may have originated with a 1919 poem:
In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue And found this land, land of the Free, Beloved by you, beloved by me.
Columbus’ checkered legacy aside, it seemed reasonable to infer from the tweet that the timeframe to work with was between 1492 and 2019. To establish baseline numbers, we referenced a “does what it says on the tin” site, howlongago.com, for the following benchmarks:
7 days ago
42 seconds ago, to be precise 😉
For ease of math, we’ll round the 526 up to 527 in the tenth month (October) of the year. The first relevant calculation is the value of a year of $5,000 a day: $1,780,000. A person earning $5,000 every day of the year would earn close to $1.8 million dollars per year. If we wanted to be pedantic, the figure would be based on 262 workdays to account for holidays and weekends, and add up to $1,310,000 — but presumably the original tweet was working on a more recognizable 365 day-long year.
Now we take the yearly figure of $1,780,000 and multiply it by 527 years since Columbus’ journey, arriving short of a billion dollars at $938,060,000. That’s 938 million dollars, and a “billion” is popularly used to mean a thousand millions:
The old UK meaning of a billion was a million million, or one followed by twelve [zeroes] (1,000,000,000,000). The USA meaning of a billion is a thousand million, or one followed by nine [zeroes] (1,000,000,000). Increasingly in [the UK] we are using the USA meaning of a billion for these big numbers, and a trillion for the old UK meaning of one followed by twelve [zeroes]. The UK government has been using the American meaning of billion since 1974 for the numbers it gives out.
So how short of a billion is the $5,000 daily earner in the tweet? $1 billion minus $938 million is $62 million. Going back to the $1,780,000 yearly salary of this individual, we can calculate how much more time would have to pass between 1492 to 2019 and beyond to earn a million dollars.
It would take the person 561.7 total years at the $1,780,000 annual rate to earn one billion dollars — so we’ll round up to 562. As of 2019, it has been 527 years since 1492, so the person would have to keep up their rate of earning another 34.7 (35) years. So the individual making $5,000 a day would be able to retire with a billion dollars after 35 years for a total of 562 years in 2054.
The tweet’s final claim was that no one actually earns a billion dollars, an arguably subjective claim based on the enormity of a billion versus a million. It also mentioned Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. An important coda is that Bezos is not worth a billion dollars by any calculation — he’s worth much, much more. In January 2019, Business Insider attempted to calculate various figures related to Bezos’ fortune, placing his net worth at $137 billion (or $137,000,000,000.)
It is important, when considering the figures in the meme and whether Bezos or anyone can “earn” that amount of money, that all calculations are based on one billion. All the years and Columbuses and $5,000 days times 527 years described one single billion.
By even the most conservative calculations, Bezos is worth more than a hundred of those:
From his annual earnings, which we determined to be $78.5 billion, we then calculated how much Bezos makes in smaller time frames.
At the annual earnings rate Business Insider calculated — again, an estimation based on the change in his Forbes net worth year-over-year — Bezos has earned $6.54 billion a month, more than $1.5 billion a week, and more than $215 million a day in the last 12 months.
Per hour, he makes a whopping $8,961,187 million — that’s roughly 315 times Amazon’s $28,466 median annual worker pay. An Amazon worker earning the $15 minimum wage would need to work about 597,412 hours, or 24 hours a day for about 68 years, just to earn what Bezos makes in one hour.
So when considering Bezos and others in the highly stratified world of the uber-rich, the question would most accurately be whether a single individual can earn one hundred times the numbers in the tweet.
The original tweet contained the claim that a person earning $5,000 per day and $1.8 million per year would take more than 527 years to earn $1 billion. That is true. Our imaginary, immortal high wage earner would have to keep up their rate of pay for another 35 years after that, finally receiving one (single) billion in the year 2054.