Aug. 16, 2005
Teen height predicts adult earnings
ANN ARBOR, Mich.—It pays to be a tall teen.
While prior research has shown that tall adults earn more money, what matters most is how tall a person was as a teen-ager, says a University of Michigan economist.
"The fact that shorter people are penalized in the labor market does not imply that they are penalized for being short," said Dan Silverman, U-M assistant professor of economics. "Much of the wage disadvantage experienced by shorter people can be explained by a characteristic other than adult height, namely height in adolescence.
"Two adults of the same age and height who were different heights at age 16 are treated differently in the labor market—the person who was taller as a teen earns more. Being relatively short through the teen years—as opposed to adulthood or early childhood—essentially determines the (wage) returns to height."
Using data from the U.S. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and Britain's National Child Development Survey, Silverman and colleagues Nicola Persico and Andrew Postlewaite of the University of Pennsylvania found that each additional inch of height at age 16 is associated with a 2.7 percent increase in wages among white American men and a 2.6 percent increase among white men in Britain—regardless of occupational choice.
But when controlling for youth height, the estimated effect of adult height on wages is virtually zero, they say. Moreover, the teen "height premium" does not diminish much when variables such as family resources, good health, native intelligence and self-esteem are taken into account.
The study, published in the Journal of Political Economy, included an analysis of men's heights at ages 7, 11, 16 and 33. But only age 16 height influenced future wages, the results show.
"Among all recorded heights, only age 16 height is estimated to have an economically large and statistically significant effect on adult wages," Silverman said. "No other height makes an appreciable contribution to the height premium.
"Since the effect of adult and preteen heights on wages is nearly zero, the adult height-wage disparity is not due to a taste for tall workers. Rather, the different outcomes for taller and shorter workers appear to reflect a characteristic correlated with teen height."
According to Silverman and colleagues, participation in extracurricular and other social activities as a teen-ager may play a significant role in the teen height premium. Playing high school sports is associated with nearly a 12 percent increase in adult wages and participation in every additional club other than athletics correlates to about a 5 percent increase in wages.
Those who were relatively short when young are less likely to participate in social activities like athletics, school clubs and dating that help teens hone their social skills—skills that eventually will help them secure good jobs as adults, they say.
"One must be cautious, however, in interpreting these results," Silverman said. "If one were to assume that there are valuable skills that are acquired through participation in clubs and athletics, what precisely is acquired? Likely candidates are the interpersonal skills acquired through social interactions, social adaptability from working in groups, and discipline and motivation that result from participation.
"Also, we don't know that it is discrimination within athletics and other extracurricular activities that accounts for shorter teen's lower participation. It may be that earlier treatment has made these youths more sensitive to slights and, as a result, they withdraw from such interactions."
Contact: Bernie DeGroat
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