IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Changes in the Return to Skills and the Variance of Unobserved Ability


  • Guido Matias Cortes

    () (Department of Economics, University of Manchester, UK; The Rimini Centre for Economic Analysis, Italy)

  • Manuel Alejandro Hidalgo

    () (Department of Economics, Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Spain)


Changes in the variance of wages among groups of workers with common observable characteristics are often interpreted as reflecting changes in the return to unobservable skills. This interpretation relies on the crucial and highly restrictive assumption that the variance of these unobservable skills remains constant over time. We propose a new identification strategy which relaxes this assumption using longitudinal data, and requires only two observations per individual. Using data from the Current Population Survey's Merged Outgoing Rotation Group sample over the period 1982-2012, we find that relaxing the assumption of constant within-group skill variance is crucial. Contrary to the conclusion drawn when this assumption is imposed, we find that the return to skills has fallen over our sample period, and that increases in within-group wage inequality are driven by increases in the dispersion of unobservable skills, particularly among college graduates.

Suggested Citation

  • Guido Matias Cortes & Manuel Alejandro Hidalgo, 2015. "Changes in the Return to Skills and the Variance of Unobserved Ability," Working Paper series 15-45, Rimini Centre for Economic Analysis.
  • Handle: RePEc:rim:rimwps:15-45

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    Other versions of this item:

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Richard Blundell & Howard Reed & Thomas M. Stoker, 2003. "Interpreting Aggregate Wage Growth: The Role of Labor Market Participation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(4), pages 1114-1131, September.
    2. Chay, Kenneth Y. & Lee, David S., 2000. "Changes in relative wages in the 1980s Returns to observed and unobserved skills and black-white wage differentials," Journal of Econometrics, Elsevier, vol. 99(1), pages 1-38, November.
    3. David Card & Thomas Lemieux, 2001. "Can Falling Supply Explain the Rising Return to College for Younger Men? A Cohort-Based Analysis," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 116(2), pages 705-746.
    4. Hendricks, Lutz & Schoellman, Todd, 2014. "Student abilities during the expansion of US education," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 63(C), pages 19-36.
    5. Blundell, Richard & Graber, Michael & Mogstad, Magne, 2015. "Labor income dynamics and the insurance from taxes, transfers, and the family," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 127(C), pages 58-73.
    6. Jonathan Heathcote & Kjetil Storesletten & Giovanni L. Violante, 2010. "The Macroeconomic Implications of Rising Wage Inequality in the United States," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 118(4), pages 681-722, August.
    7. Guido Matias Cortes, 2016. "Where Have the Middle-Wage Workers Gone? A Study of Polarization Using Panel Data," Journal of Labor Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 34(1), pages 63-105.
    8. Lance Lochner & Youngki Shin, 2014. "Understanding Earnings Dynamics: Identifying and Estimating the Changing Roles of Unobserved Ability, Permanent and Transitory Shocks," NBER Working Papers 20068, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    9. Manuel Hidalgo-Pérez & Benedetto Molinari, 2015. "Learning New Technology: the Polarization of the Wage Distribution," Working Papers 15.01, Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Department of Economics.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • J31 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Wages, Compensation, and Labor Costs - - - Wage Level and Structure; Wage Differentials
    • J24 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demand and Supply of Labor - - - Human Capital; Skills; Occupational Choice; Labor Productivity
    • E24 - Macroeconomics and Monetary Economics - - Consumption, Saving, Production, Employment, and Investment - - - Employment; Unemployment; Wages; Intergenerational Income Distribution; Aggregate Human Capital; Aggregate Labor Productivity

    NEP fields

    This paper has been announced in the following NEP Reports:


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:rim:rimwps:15-45. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (Marco Savioli). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.