Interview with Erik Hurst

From the Richmond Fed, it is excellent and interesting throughout, here is one good bit of many:

EF: Given the wage premium associated with a four-year degree and the availability of education financing, it seems like a real puzzle why more people are not obtaining degrees.

Hurst: I have been thinking a lot about that. What is it that’s causing so many young people, particularly young males, to not obtain skills required to be successful in today’s workforce? I have been working with Mark Aguiar and Kerwin Charles and Mark Bils to try to understand what these people’s lives look like. There’s a budget constraint that still has to hold. They have to eat. What you’re finding is that a lot of them are living in their parents’ basements or their cousin’s basement. So many are relying on family support. And a lot of them just aren’t even working at all. So when you go and take a look at the fraction of people in their 20s who haven’t worked in the prior 12 months in 2015, it’s 20 percent for men with less than a four-year college degree. In 1990, that number was 4 percent. So the first thing we are doing is documenting these facts and trying to find out what their lives look like: how they’re eating, what their living situations are like, what attachment they have to the labor force.

The second part we’re trying to think about is why. What we are considering is whether it’s possible that a leisure lifestyle is easier now in your 20s than it was in the past. In 1980, if you were in your 20s and you weren’t working, you were pretty isolated. You were sitting by yourself. You could watch a few channels on TV but no one else was out there. Now if you’re not working, you could be online on social media or you could be playing videogames in an interactive way, things that make not working more attractive than before. And those videogames and leisure goods generally are relatively cheap compared to what they were in 1980. So when you’re making your choice of working relative to your reservation wage, your reservation wage has gone up some because the outside option of not working is a lot more attractive. So that’s what we’re thinking but I don’t know how we’re going to test it.

Also, eventually these people will get older, of course, and many will have a spouse or kids. When that happens, their income requirements go up and they need jobs, but they probably haven’t been building the type of skills required to get a job. So that’s hard to understand. I have never written a paper before where people were myopic, but the behavior of a lot of people in their 20s now seems myopic.

I wish to suggest a related observation.  If one argues that some percentage of unemployment is “voluntary” in this manner, one is often met with scorn, and with a not entirely accurate redescription of the view, based on a rebuttal that a sudden outbreak of laziness is unlikely.  However if the return to higher education goes up, and the elasticity response is mediocre, sociological explanations are somehow entirely acceptable and perhaps even mandatory.  You might call this Quantity Stickiness for Me But Not For Thee.  It’s a bit like how wage stickiness is an acceptable behavioral postulate but employers’ “firing aversion” is not.

Hat tip goes to Justin Wolfers.


Comments for this post are closed