Top 20 Wealthiest Countries 1980-2020

Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita isn’t a perfect measure of wealth in a country, but it gives us a good approximation by using the GDP of the country’s economy divided by the number of people living there. As you can see in this time series bar chart video, the majority of the top 20 richest countries in the world are small European countries. If we compare this to our chart of the largest economies in the world by GDP, it’s quite different since it takes population into account.

There are some exceptions in the chart, including the United States and Japan, which have two of the largest economies in the world. One country that won’t be showing in this chart for a long time is China despite the fact that it is the 2nd largest economy in the world. The population is simply too large.

The following is a breakdown of some of the richest countries in the chart:

Saudi Arabia GDP per Capita

  • 1980 GDP was $164.5 billion divided by a population of 9.69 million. This puts Saudi Arabia at the top of the chart in 1980 with a GDP per capita of $37,869. Much of that GDP was made from oil exports which the Saudi Arabia economy depends on.
  • 2020 GDP was $701.47 billion divided by a population of 34.8 million. The last 40 years have seen the population more than triple and the GDP more than quadruple. Many other countries have passed them in the chart by 2020, leaving Saudi Arabia at 16th in the world with a GDP per capita of $46,362 since much of that increase in GDP is due to inflation. Also, Saudi Arabia is no longer the dominant force in the oil economy, even though oil still accounts for 42% of the GDP.

Luxembourg GDP per Capita

  • 1980 GDP was $6.23 billion divided by a tiny population of 363,450. This put Luxembourg in third place with a GDP per capita of $12,718. Luxembourg has been a very business friendly country for a long time with low corporate taxes, thus attracting banks and other industries that contribute to the unusually high GDP for a country this small.
  • 2020 GDP was $73.26 billion divided by a population of 625,978. In 40 years, the population hasn’t even doubled, yet the GDP is more than 10 times the 1980 level. This puts Luxembourg solidly on top the chart by 2020 with an incredibly high GDP per capita of $118,582. The only close competitor by 2020 is Ireland.

Ireland GDP per Capita

  • 1980 GDP was $21.77 billion divided by a population of 3.39 million. Ireland is outside of the top 20 in 1980 with a GDP per capita of $6,589.
  • 2020 GDP was $418.62 billion divided by a population of 4.9 million. In 40 years, Ireland has seen very slow population growth yet has been able to increase its GDP per capita by $95,512. How has it been able to do this? For one, it lowered its corporate tax rate to 12.5% is 2003, thus attracting large overseas businesses to build their European hubs in the country. This has especially been true of large US tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, and Apple.

Switzerland GDP per Capita

  • Switzerland is one country that has been able to stay consistently at the top of this chart for the last 40 years. Switzerland has been a center for banking for a long time and this has allowed the country to stay consistently wealthy. Switzerland has stayed in the top 5 wealthiest countries for the past 40 years.
  • 1980 GDP was $119 billion with a population of 6.3 million. Their GDP per capita was $16,418 putting Switzerland in 2nd place.
  • 2020 GDP was $824 billion with a population of 8.65 million. Like much of Europe, population growth has been very slow over the past 40 years. GDP per capita has grown to $71,297 putting Switzerland in 3rd place by 2020.

United States GDP per Capita

  • Like Switzerland, the United States hasn’t fallen out of the top 5 wealthiest countries for the past 40 years.
  • The United States is the behemoth in the chart, with a GDP of $2.86 trillion in 1980 with a population of 226.5 million. At the start of the chart, the US is in 4th place with a GDP per capita of $12,547.
  • 2020 GDP was $20.93 trillion with a population of 331.4 million. So, the US ends the chart in the same place it started, but with a GDP per capita of $63,415.

Japan GDP per Capita

  • Japan’s economy is a story of a slow and steady decline from their wealth in the 80’s and 90’s. Stagnation of population and economy has seen them fall from a high of 6th in this chart in 1997 to outside the top 20 by 2020.
  • 1997 GDP was $4.415 trillion with a population of 126 million. This puts their GDP per capita at $25,598.
  • 2019 GDP was $5.082 trillion with a population of 126.3 million. This puts their GDP per capita at $42,938 due to nominal growth in their GDP and practically 0 growth in their population.

We can get a more accurate view of wealth in a country if we also take into account purchasing power parity (PPP). The next chart in this series will use the GDP per capita combined with PPP to give a view of the wealth of each country by including the cost of living in the equation.