Skip to main content
June 30, 2023 | In the News

Joseph Altonji Receives Jacob Mincer Award for Lifetime Contributions to Labor Economics

Altonji Award

At this year’s conference of the Society of Labor Economists (SOLE), Yale Economist Joseph Altonji was awarded the Mincer Award for his lifetime contributions to labor economics. Awarded annually, the honor is named after Jacob Mincer, who helped develop the empirical foundations of human capital theory, and revolutionized the field of labor economics.

Professor Altonji’s research interests include labor market fluctuations, labor supply, consumption behavior, the economics of education, economic links among family members, race and gender in the labor market, wage determination, and econometric methods. He majored in economics at Yale as an undergraduate, and has been the Thomas DeWitt Cuyler Professor of Economics in the Department since 2002.

In the interview below, Professor Altonji discusses the award, his current research, and the latest innovations in the field of labor economics.

What does this award mean to you?

The award means a lot to me. The people who won it before include many of the labor economists I’ve most admired over my career. On a personal note, Jacob Mincer was my senior colleague at Columbia University. He led the labor program there, and helped me obtain funding for a couple of projects that were instrumental to my early career. He was a great economist and I learned a lot about how to do empirical research from him.

I’m also honored to join such a talented group of labor economists who’ve previously won the award, including Orley Ashenfelter—who was my PhD advisor and a terrific mentor who has supported my career at every turn—and Dale Mortensen—who won the Nobel Prize, recruited me to Northwestern, and was a mentor from whom I learned an enormous amount.

The award celebrates your lifetime contributions to labor economics. What has been your primary research focus?

I’ve tried to produce a wide body of research that pushes forward the field empirically, and that has the potential to inform policy. I’ve been fortunate to be at institutions with good resources and support for research, and with very good students and faculty colleagues. As a result, I’ve been able to stay productive.

I’ve worked on a lot of different questions. I started out on the border of labor economics and macroeconomics, on topics like labor supply: essentially the role of labor supply in aggregate fluctuations in the labor market.

I’ve also done a lot of work on the structure of wages, and looked at things like the value of seniority in a firm and the role of general experience in the labor market and job mobility in wage growth over a career. One big question for me has been how people respond to changes in their income, in terms of what they consume, as well as the extent to which families share their resources.

Since the late 80’s, I’ve been very interested in the economics of education. I’ve looked at how different education inputs—like high school curriculum, teacher student ratio, and teacher salaries—link to wages and later educational attainment in college. My work in recent years has focused on the value of specific undergraduate and graduate degrees. Explore Professor Altonji's full research portfolio Here

What have you been working on recently?

I am really interested in work I’ve been doing with John Eric Humphries and a former grad student Ling Zhong. We are looking at long-term trends in earnings and the gender gap in people with college degrees or more. We have data on birth cohorts from the early thirties through the early 80s, and we’re measuring the role of what men and women study in college, and how this affects graduate school outcomes and eventual earnings. We’re looking to assess the extent to which changes in choice of college major and graduate field have driven trends in the gender gap.

I also have a project with several co-authors where we’re looking at the determinants and the distribution of family income over an individual adult’s life, and how that’s changed from before the baby boom to today. We’re focusing on the dynamics of income: for example, if you become unemployed at age 33, what happens to your earnings and your family income? We also look at what happens when you transition in and out of marriage, who you marry, and how that affects lifetime income. The general finding is that there are big differences between men and women in how shocks in the labor market and —for example, unemployment, or wage change—affect the path of their family income. But these differences have been declining over time.

Read the full paper here: Marriage Dynamics, Earnings Dynamics, and Lifetime Family Income

What are you most excited about in the field of labor economics today?

There are so many talented people who have come into the field over the past 15 years, and they are taking advantage of greatly expanded data and empirical tools. I am incredibly impressed by all the new research going on and coming out. The data and research strategies are addressing questions that have been around for a while but that have been very difficult to get traction on. In many cases, they’re forming partnerships directly with firms and governments, which has greatly enhanced the types of questions we can look at. There has also been a new wave of innovative surveys and field experiments, which have really pushed the field forward.

It’s been great to see how much progress has been made on work related to economic policies—like minimum wage, the earned income tax credit, tax policy in general, education financing, school choice, and immigration. In so many areas, we now have a strong research base that’s able to directly inform policy. There’s just a tremendous amount of really high quality empirical work in labor economics now—It’s a really exciting time.

What do you think makes labor economics stand out at Yale?

We have incredibly strong faculty and PhD students, as well as research hubs like the Cowles Foundation and the Tobin Center that are helping push the field forward.

I’ve benefited enormously from working with PhD students over the years, and a lot of my work is co-authored with graduate students—sometimes these are papers that started when students were still here and we continue working together. At every institution I’ve been at, I’ve worked with and wrote papers with a number of students. At Yale, it’s one of the things that’s helped me the most in terms of being able to produce high quality research. We have such talented students here, and I take some pride in what they produce here and go on to do. Many have done very well and had distinguished careers in academia and government.

At Yale, we have a fairly large and engaged faculty that’s fairly broad. It’s an excellent mix of people who spill over in many different related fields. These include Orazio Attanasio, Costas Meghir, John Eric Humphries and Yasuke Narita, and then Giuseppe Moscarini, Ilse Lindenlaub in macro and labor, Comac O’Dea working on public economics, Phil Haile and Stephen Berry in industrial organization, and colleagues at SOM like Seth Zimmerman and Jason Abaluck. Something I’ve always appreciated is that we have a very research active faculty that’s very interested in advising. The faculty are also heavily involved in our weekly seminars, which include the Labor/Public Economics Prospectus Workshop and the Labor/Public Economics Workshop. Overall, it’s a very active and impressive group.

The Tobin Center has been a big boost to research in labor and public economics at Yale. A lot of that work is directly informing policy, and that has become a real focal point and a catalyst for applied research in areas of public and economics. I’ve benefited tremendously from research support from the Tobin Center, and so have my colleagues, and that’s been extremely valuable.

Anything else?

I’ve really just felt very lucky to end up in an academic career, and get paid to think about interesting and relevant questions, and work with really talented people and students. It’s been a real gift.

About the Society of Labor Economists (SOLE): Since its founding in 1995, the Society of Labor Economists has sought to promote the study of labor economics and to make more significant the contribution of labor economics and labor economists. The Society, its members and officers organize meetings, publicize work by labor economists, and aspire to provide appropriate recognition to labor economics. The inaugural Mincer award went to Jacob Mincer and Gary S. Becker in 2004. The 2023 Prize committee included: Lawrence Katz (chair), Marianne Bertrand, David Green, Claudia Olivetti, Daniele Paserman, Uta Schoenberg, and John van Reenen.