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Father of Modern Labor Economics Jacob Mincer Honored for Critical Contributions to the Field

By Lauren Marshall

(Left to right)Nobel Laureate James J. Heckman, Jacob Mincer, Klaus F. Zimmermann, director of the Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA Bonn, Germany), and Nobel Laureate Gary S. Becker.

One of the greatest economists of the 20th century, Columbia Professor Emeritus Jacob Mincer, also considered by many to be the father of modern labor economics, was honored this week by leading economists, including Nobel Laureates Gary S. Becker and James J. Heckman, at a conference organized on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Mincer helped revolutionize economics by integrating empirical tests with economic theory, helped develop the concept of human capital and pioneered the study of female labor supply taking account of household production.

In recognition of his lifetime achievements in the field, Mincer was awarded the first annual IZA Prize in Labor Economics, a $50,000 award from the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany. The conference, organized by Mincer's former students, focused on human capital and economics of the household, two topics that have greatly benefited from Mincer's work.

"The concepts of human capital and labor supply, the causes of wage differentials between men and women, were expanded by Jacob Mincer and Gary Becker through the famous labor workshop at Columbia in the 1960s," said Provost Jonathan Cole. Mincer's ideas had enormous potential for elaboration and the extraordinary students, such as Nobelist James Heckman, that worked with him expanded upon his ideas to create a major subfield of economics."

"Mincer's insights on labor supply, human capital and fertility helped lay the foundations for understanding how economic development transforms the role of women and the family," said James Heckman, Nobel laureate and professor of economics at the University of Chicago, also one of the organizers of the event. "We are all grateful to Jacob Mincer for illuminating the study of empirical economics and it is our great honor to honor him today for his splendid contributions."

Mincer, a Polish Holocaust survivor who emigrated to the United States in 1948, graduated with a Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia (1957) to become a leading member of a group of economists at Columbia and the University of Chicago, known as the Labor Workshop at Columbia and later the Columbia-Chicago School of Economics. Together, this group, which includes Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, developed the empirical foundations of human capital theory and revolutionized the field of labor economics.

In addition to bringing an empirical approach to the analysis of labor and creating the Mincer Earnings Function, still used in economics today, Mincer published a series of seminal papers in labor economics that helped define the field. In these, he developed the theory of human capital, examining how people invest in their skills to earn more later. He also presented the first empirical analysis of learning on the job as a determinant of life cycle wage growth and pioneered the study of female labor supply and the economics of the household. This work showed that accounting for household production and the price of time -- often measured as the market wage -- helps explain why female labor supply increased at a time when real wealth of society was increasing and wealthier people tended to work less. He also used the concept of household production and value of time to explain the correlation between labor supply and fertility. Mincer made seminal contributions to the development of other fields of economics that involve decisions related to household decisions, such as the economics of transportation and consumption. More recently Mincer has done important work on technology and the labor force.

"Even where Jacob Mincer did not initiate new theories, award-winning economic research benefited considerably from his contributions," said Shoshana Grossbard-Shechtman, professor of economics at San Diego State University, who organized the event. "It is distressing that many young economists are unaware of professor Mincer's pioneering role and we hope that this conference will encourage people to give credit where credit is due. Every major figure in labor economics believes that Jacob should have received more recognition from the academy."

In his almost 50-year career, Mincer published more than 50 articles and papers and wrote or contributed to five books. He was named the Buttenwieser Professor of Economics and Human Relations at Columbia in 1979, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and holds a honorary doctorate from the University of Chicago, in addition to a number of other honors and achievements.

Published: Jul 17, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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