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Changes in U.S. Wages 1976-2000: Ongoing Skill Bias or Major Technological Change?


  • Paul Beaudry
  • David A. Green


This paper examines the determinants of changes in the US wage structure over the period 1976-2000, with the objective of evaluating whether these changes are best described as the result of ongoing skill-biased technological change, or alternatively, as the outcome of an adjustment process associated with a major discrete change in technological opportunities. The main empirical observation we uncover is that change in both the level of wages and the returns to skill over this period appear to be primarily driven by changes in the ratio of human capital (as measured by effective units of skilled workers) to physical capital. Although at first pass this pattern may appear difficult to interpret, we show that it conforms extremely well to a simple model of technological adoption following a major change in technological opportunities. In contrast, we do not find much empirical support for the view that ongoing (factor-augmenting) skill-biased technological progress has been an important driving force over this period, nor do we find support for the view that physical capital accumulation has contributed to the increased differential between more and less educated workers (in fact, we find the opposite).

Suggested Citation

  • Paul Beaudry & David A. Green, 2002. "Changes in U.S. Wages 1976-2000: Ongoing Skill Bias or Major Technological Change?," NBER Working Papers 8787, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:8787
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    Cited by:

    1. Ariell Reshef, 2013. "Is Technological Change Biased Towards the Unskilled in Services? An Empirical Investigation," Review of Economic Dynamics, Elsevier for the Society for Economic Dynamics, vol. 16(2), pages 312-331, April.
    2. Susan Hayter & Bradley Weinberg, 2011. "Mind the Gap: Collective Bargaining and Wage Inequality," Chapters,in: The Role of Collective Bargaining in the Global Economy, chapter 6 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    3. Jonas Hjort & Jonas Poulsen, 2017. "The Arrival of Fast Internet and Employment in Africa," NBER Working Papers 23582, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    4. Gavilan, Angel, 2012. "Wage inequality, segregation by skill and the price of capital in an assignment model," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 56(1), pages 116-137.
    5. Richard Blundell & David A. Green & Wenchao (Michelle) Jin, 2016. "The UK wage premium puzzle: how did a large increase in university graduates leave the education premium unchanged?," IFS Working Papers W16/01, Institute for Fiscal Studies.
    6. Matthew Johnson & Michael P. Keane, 2013. "A Dynamic Equilibrium Model of the US Wage Structure, 1968-1996," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 31(1), pages 1-49.
    7. Batyra, Anna & Sneessens, Henri R., 2010. "Selective reductions in labor taxation: Labor market adjustments and macroeconomic performance," Journal of Policy Modeling, Elsevier, vol. 32(4), pages 531-543, July.
    8. Paul Beaudry & Mark Doms & Ethan Lewis, 2006. "Endogenous skill bias in technology adoption: city-level evidence from the IT revolution," Working Paper Series 2006-24, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
    9. Corsini, Lorenzo, 2008. "Institutions, Technological Change and the Wage Differentials Between Skilled and Unskilled Workers: Theory and Evidence from Europe," IRISS Working Paper Series 2008-02, IRISS at CEPS/INSTEAD.
    10. David Card & Ethan G. Lewis, 2007. "The Diffusion of Mexican Immigrants During the 1990s: Explanations and Impacts," NBER Chapters,in: Mexican Immigration to the United States, pages 193-228 National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    11. Ottaviano, Gianmarco I. P. & Peri, Giovanni & Wright, Greg C., 2015. "Immigration, trade and productivity in services:evidence from UK firms," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 62583, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
    12. Cabral, René & García-Díaz, Rocío & Mollick, André Varella, 2016. "Does globalization affect top income inequality?," Journal of Policy Modeling, Elsevier, vol. 38(5), pages 916-940.
    13. Christian Dustmann & Albrecht Glitz, 2015. "How Do Industries and Firms Respond to Changes in Local Labor Supply?," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 33(3), pages 711-750.
    14. Asplund, Rita & Napari, Sami, 2011. "Intangible capital and wages: An analysis of wage gaps across occupations and genders in Czech Republic, Finland and Norway," Discussion Papers 1248, The Research Institute of the Finnish Economy.
    15. Ken Henry & Terry O'Brien, 2003. "Globalisation, Poverty and Inequality: Friends, Foes or Strangers?," Australian Economic Review, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, vol. 36(1), pages 3-21.
    16. Susan Hayter, 2015. "Unions and collective bargaining," Chapters,in: Labour Markets, Institutions and Inequality, chapter 4, pages 95-122 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    17. Paul Beaudry & David A. Green & Benjamin M. Sand, 2016. "The Great Reversal in the Demand for Skill and Cognitive Tasks," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 34(S1), pages 199-247.
    18. Weiss, Matthias, 2008. "Skill-biased technological change: Is there hope for the unskilled?," Economics Letters, Elsevier, vol. 100(3), pages 439-441, September.
    19. Ashley Lester, 2006. "Inequality And The Dual Economy: Technology Adoption With Specific And General Skills," CAMA Working Papers 2006-01, Centre for Applied Macroeconomic Analysis, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.
    20. Mollick, André Varella, 2012. "Income inequality in the U.S.: The Kuznets hypothesis revisited," Economic Systems, Elsevier, vol. 36(1), pages 127-144.

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J3 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs
    • O3 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Innovation; Research and Development; Technological Change; Intellectual Property Rights

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