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Policy Hub: Macroblog provides concise commentary and analysis on economic topics including monetary policy, macroeconomic developments, inflation, labor economics, and financial issues for a broad audience.

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November 30, 2022

Labor Supply, Wages, and Inequality Conference: Day 1 Overview

The Atlanta Fed's Center for Human Capital Studies held its annual employment conference in person this year. The conference, held October 13–14, was organized by Melinda Pitts, the center director, and two center advisers, Richard RogersonOff-site link of Princeton University and Robert ShimerOff-site link of the University of Chicago. The conference's title was "Labor Supply, Wages, and Inequality," and the agenda and links to the eight papers presented can be found here. This Policy Hub: Macroblog post summarizes the four papers presented on day one of the conference. The next post will look at the four papers presented on the second day.

Raphael Bostic, president and CEO of the Atlanta Fed, opened the conference. His welcoming remarks addressed policy makers' desire to understand the changing labor market, mentioning the work done by researchers at the Atlanta Fed and encouraging the economists in the room to continue doing policy-relevant research to better inform decision makers. His welcome was followed by the first session, which featured two papers related to how the COVID-19 pandemic altered individuals' labor-supply decisions.

The first paper presented was "Has the Willingness to Work Fallen during the Covid Pandemic? Adobe PDF file format," by R. Jason Faberman, Andreas I. Mueller, and Ayșegül Șahin, and presented by Faberman. The answer to the question their title poses is "yes": desired hours fell dramatically during the pandemic and have not recovered to prepandemic levels. Using data from the US Census Bureau's Current Population Survey and the New York Fed's Survey of Consumer Expectations, the authors find that the decline was most pronounced among those with less than a college education, those whose current or most recent jobs posed more significant COVID exposure risk, and those not working or working only part-time.

An important implication of the results reported in this paper is that while the unemployment rate is again near historic lows, the labor market might be even tighter than the unemployment rate is making it appear. In other words, by adding together the desired hours of those working and not working, the potential labor supply has fallen farther than either the unemployment rate or the labor force participation rate, compared to prepandemic levels. As a result, the difficulty employers are having finding workers, or getting workers to work more hours, might not ease any time soon.

Another broader consideration is whether this decline in desired hours is a temporary blip or a fundamental shift in preferences. The latter would hold implications on several fronts: for potential growth in an economy fueled by labor; for the way policymakers might define full employment, when employment of those "wanting" work leaves a significant amount of labor resources on the sideline; and for discussion of what incentives might be brought to bear on reversing the shift in preferences. This paper joins a growing body of literature showing that the impact of this pandemic on individual behavior has been dramatic and unprecedented. Additionally, the decline in desired hours of work could prove to have lasting and profound implications for future economic growth.

Adam Blandin followed with the presentation of his paper, "Work from Home Before and After the COVID-19 Outbreak Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link," coauthored with Alexander Bick and Karel Mertens. The authors designed the Real-Time Population Survey, a national labor market survey of adults aged 18–64 that ran from April 2020 through June 2021. The authors find that the share of the US population working from home (WFH) increased from 14 percent just before the pandemic to 40 percent early in the pandemic and still represented 25 percent of all employment as of June 2021. Working with custom survey questions and a structural model, the authors attempt to determine how much of the shift to WFH was a short-term substitution to an inferior form of production driven by the exigencies of the pandemic, as opposed to firms making a one-time investment to learn how to produce with remote workers. Specific survey questions found that more than 60 percent of workers who transitioned to WFH believed they could have always done their job remotely but were required to come in by their employer. Employing a structural model with endogenous wages (that is, wages based on a number of discrete factors) based, in part, on WFH status; a COVID-period in-person production penalty; and a one-time switching cost to remote work, the authors attribute much of the shift in work location to firms adopting remote work production. Combined with survey responses, the model suggests that remote work will persist long after COVID has waned.

The second session of the first day continued the theme of labor supply but shifted away from pandemic-specific research. Eric French presented "Labor Supply and the Pension-Contribution Link Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link," coauthored with Attila S. Lindner, Cormac O'Dea, and Tom A. Zawisza. Public pensions in the United States and many other are unfunded, pay-as-you go systems with benefits determined by a formula based on earnings history. Many governments have considered proposals to reform this formula, but a key concern is whether workers would respond to changes in their future pension benefits by adjusting their labor supply. To answer this question, the authors examined a change in the Polish pension system that altered the benefit for workers younger than 50 on January 1, 1999, with neither changes in benefits for older workers nor changes in the other plan characteristics. The original formula based benefits on the highest 10 years of salary growth, and the new system took into account every year of earnings.

Using a regression discontinuity design (RDD) and all tax returns linked to the Polish population registry, the authors estimate labor supply responses occurring between 2000 and 2002. This empirical design identifies the effects of the policy change by comparing individuals who were born only a few days apart and who face a very similar labor market and economic environment but are assigned to different pension plans. They found that the net return to work fell by an additional 5.2 percent in high-growth regions relative to low-growth regions. At the same time, the RDD allowed them to estimate that employment declines between regions differed by 2.29 percent. Taken together, these figures imply that the employment elasticity with respect to work incentives is 0.44.

This elasticity is in the range of estimates we typically see in the literature. However, one novel aspect of this paper lies in the fact that the research observes labor supply changes in response to changes in benefits to be received many years in the future, whereas most of the literature estimates the labor-supply response to the contemporaneous return to work. These results provide constructive evidence that individuals' labor supply responds in a forward-looking way to incentives in the pension formula, suggesting that tightening the link between contributions and benefits has the potential to alleviate labor supply distortions caused by payroll taxes.

Rather than focusing on how workers respond to external policy changes, the final paper of the day explored how an individual's risk preference and (over)confidence alter their job search behavior and labor market outcomes. Laura Pilossoph presented the last paper of the day, "Gender Differences in Job Search and the Earnings Gap: Evidence from the Field and Lab Adobe PDF file formatOff-site link," coauthored with Patricia Corté, Jessica Pan, Ernesto Reuben, and Basit Zafar.

The authors collected data on the employment search behavior of recent (2012–19) bachelor's graduates from the Questrom School of Business at Boston University. They collected data on the standard demographics involved in job search outcomes, including timing of acceptance and both accepted and rejected offers, job search expectations, and measures of risk. They found that, on average, women accepted jobs earlier in the search process than men did, the initial accepted salary was higher for men than for women, and the willingness to accept risk is higher for males. The authors then developed a job search model that incorporated gender differences in the levels of risk aversion and overoptimism about prospective job offers. The model predicts that if women are more risk-averse than men, then they will have lower reservation wages (the lowest wage at which someone would accept a given job) and search earlier. Likewise, if men are overconfident, then they will have a higher reservation wage. In other words, the decline in the reservation wage and increased job finding are derived from female risk aversion and male learning (that is, updating expectations about job offers) or having less optimism. Controlling for the measures of risk and overconfidence reduced the gender gap in wages by 37 percent.

The findings from the field were replicated in a specially designed laboratory experiment that featured sequential job search. The lab experiment yielded very similar results, with the gender gap in wages reduced by 30 percent when accounting for risk preferences and overconfidence. The results from both analyses suggest that risk preferences place a significant role in the gender differential.

In tomorrow's post, we'll summarize the papers presented on day two of the conference.