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Genes, Education, and Labor Market Outcomes: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study

Recent advances have led to the discovery of specific genetic variants that predict educational attainment. We study how these variants, summarized as a linear index — known as a polygenic score — are associated with human capital accumulation and labor market outcomes in the Health and Retirement Study (HRS). We present two main sets of results. First, we find evidence that the genetic factors measured by this score interact strongly with childhood socioeconomic status in determining educational outcomes. In particular, while the polygenic score predicts higher rates of college graduation on average, this relationship is substantially stronger for individuals who grew up in households with higher socioeconomic status relative to those who grew up in poorer households. Second, the polygenic score predicts labor earnings even after adjusting for completed education, with larger returns in more recent decades. These patterns suggest that the genetic traits that promote education might allow workers to better accommodate ongoing skill biased technological change. Consistent with this interpretation, we find a positive association between the polygenic score and non-routine analytic tasks that have benefited from the introduction of new technologies. Nonetheless, the college premium remains the dominant determinant of earnings differences at all levels of the polygenic score. Given the role of childhood SES in predicting college attainment, this raises concerns about wasted potential arising from limited household resources.

The appendix for this paper may be found here.

Authors: 
Nicholas W. Papageorge, John Hopkins University
Kevin Thom, New York University
Publication Date: 
October, 2018
HCEO Working Groups: 
Publication Status: 
Document Number: 
2018-076
File Description: 
First version, September 24, 2018