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Higher wage growth for job switchers: more evidence of a taboo against raising wages?

Higher wage growth for job switchers: more evidence of a taboo against raising wages?

Yesterday the Atlanta Fed published a note touting the wage growth for those who quit their jobs and transfer to a different line of work, writing that:

Although wages haven’t been rising faster for the median individual, they have been for those who switch jobs. This distinction is important because the wage growth of job-switchers tends to be a better cyclical indicator than overall wage growth. In particular, the median wage growth of people who change industry or occupation tends to rise more rapidly as the labor market tightens.

The following graph was posted in support of this point:
Essentially the Atlanta Fed is highlighting the orange line as a “better cyclical indicator.”
Is it? There’s no doubt that wage growth among job switches declined first in the last two expansions. But I would want to see a much longer record before being that confident.
Because what I see in the above graph is a decline among job keepers (the green line) that is only matched by those declines presaging the onset of the last two recessions. Meanwhile the orange line, while still rising, has flattened.
In fact I think the Atlanta Fed’s graph mainly shows evidence of what I highlighted last week as an emerging “taboo” against raising wages — i.e., a stubborn refusal to raise wages even if it would lead to even higher output and gross profits for a net gain.
Once again the JOLTS data gives us a good proxy.  If wage growth is increasing at a “normal” rate compared with previous expansions, there shouldn’t be an inordinate need to change jobs in order to get a raise, i.e., a rate higher than previous expansions. Thus the ratio of job changers who quit vs. the number of actual hires should be equivalent to similar stages in those expansions. If, on the other hand, employers have become inordinately stingy, quitting is almost essential to get ahead, in which case the ratio of quits to hires should be higher than normal.
Here is what the data shows:
For the last several years, Quits have been in the range of 58%-60% of hires, the highest since 2001, and specifically higher than the 56%-58% peak of the last expansion.
In other words, it looks like what the Atlanta Fed’s graph is showing is that employees are reacting to the taboo against raising wages by quitting their jobs and moving to employers in fields that are already paying more.

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Minimum Wage Effects with Non-Living Wages

I’m teaching “Economics for Non-Economists” this semester. This is an interesting experiment, and is strongly testing my belief that you can teach economics without mathematics so long as people understand graphs and tables. (It appears that people primarily learn how to read graphs and tables in mathematics-related courses. Did everyone except me know this?)

Since economics is All About Trade-offs, our textbook notes that minimum wage increases should also mean some people are not employed. Yet, as I noted to the students, in the past several decades, none of the empirical research in the United States shows this to be true. (From Card and Kreuger (1994) to Card and Kreuger (2000) to the City of Seattle, in fact, all of the evidence has run the other way, as noted by the Forbes link.)

Part of that is intuitive. If you’re running a viable business and able to generate $50 an hour, it hardly makes sense not to hire someone for $7.25, or even $9.25, to free up an hour of your time. The tradeoff is that your workers make more and your customers can afford to pay or buy more. Ask Henry Ford how that worked for him.

The generic counterargument (notably not an argument well-grounded in economic theory) was summarized accurately by Tim Worstall in one of his early attempts to hype the later-superseded initial UW study for the Seattle Minimum Wage Study Team.

[T]here is some level of the minimum wage where the unemployment effects become a greater cost than the benefits of the higher wages going to those who remain in work.

This seems intuitive in the short-term and problematic in the long term, even ignoring the sketchiness of the details and the curious assumption of an overall increase in unemployment (or at least underemployment) if you assume a rising Aggregate Demand environment. To confirm the assumptions would seem to require either a rather more open economy than exists anywhere or a rather severe privileging of capital over labor.*

On slightly more solid ground is the assumption that minimum wage should be approximately half of the median hourly wage. But then you hit issues such as median weekly real earnings not having increased much in almost forty years, while a minimum wage at the median nominal wage rate suggests that the Federal minimum wage should be somewhere between about $12.75 and $14.25 an hour. (Links are to FRED graphics and data; per hour derivations based on the 35-hour work week standard for “full-time.”)

So all of the benchmark data indicates that reasonable minimum wage increases will have virtually no effect, and none on established, well-managed businesses. The question becomes: why would that be so?

One baseline assumption of economic models is that working full-time provides at least the necessary income to cover basic expenses. Employment and Income models assume it, and it’s either fundamental to Arrow-Debreu or you have to assume that people either (a) are not rational, (b) die horrible deaths, or (c) both.

If you test that assumption, it has not obvkiously been so for at least 30 years:

The last two increases of the Carter Administration slightly lag inflation, but they are during a period of high inflation as well; the four-year plan may just have underestimated the effect of G. William Miller. (They would hardly be unique in this.)

By the next Federal increase, though—more than nine years of inflation, major deficit spending, a shift to noticeably negative net exports, and a couple of bubble-licious rounds of asset growth (1987, 1989) later—the minimum wage was long past the possibility of paying a living wage, so any relative increase in it would, by definition, increase Aggregate Demand as people came closer to being able to subsist.

The gap is greater than $1.50 an hour by the end of the 1991 increase. The 1996-1997 increase barely manages to slow the acceleration of the gap (to nearly $1.70), leaving the 10-year gap in increases to require three 70-cent increases just to get the gap back down to $1.86 by their end in 2009.

Nine years later, almost another $1.50 has been eroded, even in an inflation-controlled environment.

Card and Kreuger, in the context of increasing gap between “making minimum wage” and “making subsistence wage,” appear to have discovered not so much that minimum wage increases are not negatives to well-run businesses so much as that any negative impact of an increase, under the condition that the minimum wage does not provide for subsistence income, will be more than ameliorated by the increase in Aggregate Demand at the lower end.

My non-economist students had very little trouble understanding that.

*The general retort of “well, then, why not $100/hour” would create a severe discontinuity, making standard models ineffective in the short term and require recalibration to estimate the longer term. Claiming that such a statement is “economic reality,” then, empirically would be a statement of ignorance.

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Can Nudging Become A New Road To Serfdom?

Can Nudging Become A New Road To Serfdom?

Last weekend I attended a conference at NYU Law School on “Behavioral Economics and the New Paternalism, organized by Austrian economist Mario Rizzo and classical liberal law professor Richard Epstein. It included economists, lawyers, philosophers, and a couple of psychologists.  While there was a range of views present a theme for many and especially of the organizers was bashing the ideas about “libertarian paternalist” nudging advocated by Richard Thaler, winner of the most recent economics Nobel Prize, and Cass Sunstein.  In particular, Rizzo and participant Glen Whitman have written a book charging the nudgers with advocating a creeping totalitarianism with their advocacy of governments nudging people to do what governments think is best for them.  While there were no full-blown Thaler defenders at the conference, the more philosophically oriented attendees rose to the bait and argued against the anti-nudgers, with an especial sharp debate happening between Epstein and Robert Sugden a philosophical economist from East Anglia in England.

Pethaps the most substantial anti-nudge and also critical of behavioral economics paper came from George Mason law professor, Todd Zywicki.  While he overdid it a bit he argued with some good reason  that most legal decisions in the US relying on claimed behavioral economics foundations, especially on matters involving credit and consumer finance issues, have been seriously flawed.  They have either relied on misinterpretations or else mere assertions that have not been empirically demonstrated.  He raised a point of more general interest in charging that there has been a problem of “citation cascades,” where a string of decisions have been based on people citing people citing other people in a cascade that eventually boils down to an initial claim that has no clear basis.  He noted several of these where the original argument was mere speculation in a paper by Thaler for which no empirical support was provided, but then people quoted his opinion as proof and then quoted each other quoting him, and so on.

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What Happened to the Political Price for Lying?

by Jeff Soplop

What Happened to the Political Price for Lying? (Part one of two)

James Comey’s recent interview on ABC has resurrected questions about the importance of honesty in public officials. One of the key themes of Comey’s interview, and apparently his soon-to-be-released book, is that Donald Trump is “morally unfit” to be president because, among other things, he lies constantly.

Certainly Comey’s statements reflect a broad public despair about how untrustworthy the institution of the presidency is, as shown in the following chart from the Pew Research Center.

Figure 1


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Is the US economy booming? April 2018 update

Is the US economy booming? April 2018 update

Back in January, I asked if the economy was “booming.” There’s no official definition, but based on my recollection of the two periods I have lived through that felt like booms, the1960s and late 1990s, the two times in my life that the feel of an economic boom was palpable, I answered in the negative. I considered a number of indicators of well-being, to see what stood out in those two periods, and concluded that

The five markers of an economic Boom are the following:

1. An unemployment rate under 4.5%
2. YoY industrial production growth of at least 4%
3. YoY real wage growth of at least 1%
4. YoY real aggregate wage growth of at least 4%
5. Increasing YoY inflation.

In January, only the first and last markers were present. Let’s update now that the first quarter iv over.

Unemployment rate under 4.5%

This remains at 4.1%

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A thought for Sunday: The Abyss always looks back, Presidential polling edition

A thought for Sunday: The Abyss always looks back, Presidential polling edition

A point I have made about economic forecasting a number of times is that one can be an excellent forecaster, so long as one is a bug on the wall. Once a significant number of people begin to follow *and act upon* the forecast, to that extent it must necessarily lose validity.

Take for example the yield curve, much in the news this year. So long as everyone ignores or excuses a yield curve inversion, it is an excellent indicator for the period of 12-24 months ahead. But if everyone *acted* on a yield curve inversion, by, e.g., canceling investments or increasing savings, it would turn into a botched “nowcast” instead. That which people might have started doing a year later, they would be doing now, when the conditions don’t yet necessitate it.

Simply put, people will act upon forecasts. The more previously reliable or certain the forecast, the more people will act on it — and thereby change the result.

This past week’s publication of former FBI Director James Comey’s book shows how the same principle applies to Presidential election polling.  Here’s the passage that has been getting a lot of scrutiny:

It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have it the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls.

Leave aside for now that it was not for Comey to decide whether or not Clinton would be “an illegitimate president” — that’s what we have criminal juries and Impeachment for —  or that he simultaneously withheld from voters that Trump’s campaign was *also* under investigation at the time. The fact is that he was led by polling and poll aggregators who claimed that a Clinton victory was a near certainty to take an action that he probably would not otherwise have done.  And that action caused a near-immediate decline in Clinton’s poll numbers by about 4%, while early voting was actually going on in many states. All because Comey knew that Clinton’s election was “in the bag.”

In a similar vein, why was Barack Obama so passive in the face of the intelligence community telling him that Russia was trying to intervene in the election by, e.g., planting “fake news” stories? He was President. He did not need Mitch McConnell’s permission to address the nation in as non-partisan a fashion as possible. He didn’t act because he knew that Clinton’s election was “in the bag.” Isn’t that what Biden was sent to Europe to reassure all of our allies about?

There’s also been some detailed analysis indicating that there were enough Sanders to Jill Stein voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to swing the outcomes in those States and thereby alter the election outcome. I think it’s a near certainty that these people felt comfortable casting such protest votes because they knew that Clinton’s election was “in the bag.”

To paraphrase the title of this post: when you look into the Future, the Future always looks back.

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A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning

A Teachable Moment: The Importance of Meta-Learning

Today’s New York Times has a fine article by Manil Suri about math education and the development of reasoning skills.  Its concluding point is that, while the general contribution of the first to the second is weaker than you might think, math instruction can be improved by bringing the math-reasoning tests themselves into the classroom.  I’m pretty confident that Suri is right, since I’ve seen positive results from doing something similar in economics and related areas.

When preparing to introduce a new topic in econ, for instance, I’ll often start by taking stock of what lots of people without an economics background think they know about it.  This might mean looking at surveys or some excerpts from news or other websites.  It often involves drawing out this information from the class itself.  For instance, I’ll divide students up into groups of five or so in which they can say to each other what they believe, or even suspect, about the topic, and then have the groups report in a general way what these views were.  (I try to use methods that don’t identify potentially mistaken concepts with specific people, to avoid any sense I’m trying to belittle anyone.)  Then we will go on to learn about the question, keeping in mind the misconceptions we’ve found and trying to locate the points at which “pop economics” veers off from the real stuff.*

There are many reasons for doing this.  One is frankly political: a lot of the political babble in this country is framed by erroneous economic thinking, such as nearly all the fretting over “the national debt”.  (Every time I bring this up in the context of the income accounting identities I see expanding eyeballs all across the classroom.)  Another is pedagogical: if you don’t put effort into deconstructing pre-existing beliefs as well as developing new knowledge, what you will see on papers and exams is a weird mishmash of the two.  It took me too many years to figure this out.  But a third is the insight Suri also came to, that using an external point of reference to step outside oneself and observe one’s own learning process provides a powerful boost to learning of all sorts.  The misunderstandings of pop econ provide a baseline from which students can measure their progress; they illuminate what they are learning and how.

The name for this is meta-learning (or deutero-learning in cybernetic-speak).  It is foregrounded by activities that help students get outside the technique or concept immediately in front of them and see their learning of it as the object of attention.  Like all forms of learning, it is best approached inductively and in context: rather than give lectures on meta-learning, provide exercises that call attention to it in situ.  I incorporated material to support meta-learning in my textbooks, more in the second (macro) than the first (micro), since I was learning (and meta-learning!) as I went along.

I’ve come to think that explicit incorporation of meta-learning may be the single most important innovation to transform teaching.  For those of you who have this a day (or night) job, give it a try.

*Just to be clear, “real” economics is not mean “sanctified by the mainstream”, just conceptual approaches that can be supported by careful reasoning and empirical data.  Some mainstream econ is rather closer to the pop variety than to legitimate analysis.

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Eviction Data Base shows we have a housing crisis

I am posting this NPR Fresh Air radio article here because it talks about a part of our society that has not been talked about much.  When it comes to discussion of taxation, social programs, how our economy works, the basic premise of free market misses an awful lot.

From the page:

For many poor families in America, eviction is a real and ongoing threat. Sociologist Matthew Desmond estimates that 2.3 million evictions were filed in the U.S. in 2016 — a rate of four every minute.

“Eviction isn’t just a condition of poverty; it’s a cause of poverty,” Desmond says. “Eviction is a direct cause of homelessness, but it also is a cause of residential instability, school instability [and] community instability.”

Desmond won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for his book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. His latest project is The Eviction Lab, a team of researchers and students at Princeton University dedicated to amassing the nation’s first-ever database of eviction. To date, the Lab had collected 83 million records from 48 states and the District of Columbia.

“We’re in the middle of a housing crisis, and that means more and more people are giving more and more of their income to rent and utilities,” Desmond says. “Our hope is that we can take this problem that’s been in the dark and bring it into the light.”

One stat that stood out: The average age of the homeless is 9 years old.  That is how many homeless are children.

Incomes have remained flat for many Americans over the last two decades, but housing costs have soared. So between 1995 and today, median asking rents have increased by 70 percent…So when we picture the typical low income American today, we shouldn’t think of them living in public housing or getting any kind [of] housing assistance for the government, we should think of folks who are paying 60, 70, 80 percent of their income and living unassisted in the private rental market. That’s our typical case today.

What is understood after listening is again, as a nation we are penny wise and pound foolish.  Somehow, some way we have to get this nation to understand it is less expensive to take care of people than it is to let them live in disparate poverty.

Stabilizing a home has all sorts of positive benefits for a family. The kid gets to finish school. The neighborhood doesn’t lose a crucial neighbor. The family gets to root down and get to understand the value of a home and avoid homelessness. And for all of us, I think [we] have to recognize that we’re paying the cost of eviction because whatever our issue is, whatever keeps us up at night, the lack of affordable housing sits at the root of that issue. …



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Is raising wages becoming a taboo?

(Dan here…I have highlighted NDd’s conclusion. This is a long post but worth thinking about…)

So in conclusion, while I have no doubt that the “monopsony” argument is measuring something real, I am more and more inclined to believe that raising wages is simply becoming an ideological taboo among businesses, a higher priority than maximizing net profits after costs.


by New Deal democrat

Is raising wages becoming a taboo?

Yesterday I noted that, while the problem of lower labor market participation among the working age population hasn’t *entirely* resolved, it is getting close to resolving due to the surge in entry into the jobs market in the last two years. As the graph below shows, not only has the prime age population grown by about 2 million in the last 2.5 years (blue), but nearly an additional 2 million (1.5% of 125 million) have entered the labor force (red):
But,while in accord with the last two expansions, nominal wage growth bottomed out once the U6 underemployment rate fell to roughly 9%, for nonsupervisory workers, it has languished at about 2.5%:
This is less than the roughly 4.5% peaks in the past 3 expansions.
One explanation is in the first graph above itself. All else being equal, even accounting for population growth, there are 2,000,000 more candidates for jobs in the prime age labor force than there were 30 months ago. More competition for jobs should act to hold down compensation.
But recently another explanation has been written about at length: monopsony in the labor market. In more plain english, this is a monopoly or at least oligopoly on the demand side for labor. Increased market power to hold down wages, it is argued, is having that exact effect:

[I]n recent years, economists have discovered another source: the growth of the labor market power of employers — namely, their power to dictate, and hence suppress, wages…..[I]n many areas of rural America, [where] large-scale employers that dominate their local economies[, w]orkers can either choose to take the jobs on offer or incur the turmoil of moving elsewhere. Companies can and do take advantage of this leverage.

Yet another source of labor market power are so-called noncompete agreements …. These agreements prohibit workers who leave a job from working for a competitor of their former employer.

Almost a quarter of all workers report that their current employer or a former employer forced them to sign a noncompete clause…..[S]tudies have found that employer concentration has been increasing over time and that this concentration is associated with lower wages across labor markets.

….{Monopsonistic f]irms [which pay less than “competitive” wages] bear the loss in workers (and resulting lowered sales)  in exchange for the higher profits made off the workers who do not quit.

While the evidence appears compelling that employer market power is having *an* effect of holding down wages, I am not sure at all that it is the *primary* driver of low wages.
At least two other explanations for employers refusing to raise wages come to mind:
  1.  employer skittishness about the durability of a strong economy.
  2.  raising wages has become a taboo
Let me explain each.
Suppose I am an employer in competition with others. Suppose further, however, that I am skeptical that the current “good times” are going to last. After all, since 2000 there have only been about 4 years at most (2005-07 and 2017) where the economy has seemed to be operating at close to full throttle.  If I raise wages now, I will attract more workers, but then when the good times end, I will be stuck with a higher paid workforce than my competitors who haven’t raised wages. If I think that “bad times” are likely to exist more often than “good times” in the foreseeable future, then I might hold back on increasing my labor costs during the good times, leaving some additional profits on the table, because that will be more than offset by having relatively lowers costs during the bad times.
By an economic taboo, I mean a decision to leave profits on the table because they conflict with an even higher priority held by the employer (e.g., I refuse to higher a clearly more qualified black job applicant because I am a racist). Let’s suppose that I am an employer who *does* believe that the good times are likely to last, BUT I also believe that people who come to work for me ought to be grateful to earn, say $10 per hour, and because of my firm ideological belief, I am not going to budge. If I am alone in my ideological belief, I will suffer. But if my ideological belief is shared on a widespread basis by my competitors and other businesses, I am *not* at a competitive disadvantage. Thus depressed wages may persist because raising wages has become a taboo.
So, how can we tell if the primary driver of employer decisions not to raise wages is monopsony, skittishness, or taboo?
The JOLTS survey appears to give us a good look at the likely answer. JOLTS measures job openings, actual hires, and quits, among other things. Let me show you how.
To begin with, if skittishness about the durability of a strong economy is the primary driver of lower wages, I would not expect those employers to even go looking for new employees to hire at higher wages. In other words, there wouldn’t be an elevated number of job openings compared with actual hires, because skittish employers simply aren’t in the market.
On the other hand, both in the cases of monopsony power and taboo, I *would* expect to see elevated job openings, as in either case those employers *do* want to hire new workers — they just want to hire those workers at what they define as their “fair” price, And that is exactly what we see in the JOLTS data during this expansion compared with the last one:
That is pretty compelling evidence that it is not economic skittishness that is driving low wage growth.
Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari appears to agree:

“Almost everywhere I go, businesses tell me they can’t find workers. I always ask them the same question: ‘Are you raising wages?’ Usually, the answer is ‘no.’ When you want more of something but won’t pay for it, that’s called ‘whining,’” he told the ninth Regional Economic Indicators Forum (REIF), founded and co-sponsored by National Bank of Commerce.  “Until you’re paying more, I know you’re not serious.”

So, how can we decide between the other two hypotheses? The Wall Street Journal (via Fundera) seems to think that smaller firms are offering bigger wage inducements:

The WSJ says small businesses across the country are increasing their wages at a faster rate than medium-size or even large firms. All industries with businesses made  up of 49 or fewer employees saw a pay bump of just over 1%.

But the evidence is anecdotal, not hard data.
 Again, the JOLTS survey seems to provide an answer in two parts.
First, as mentioned in the monopsony piece above, such firms should have “higher profits made off the workers who do not quit.”
So let’s look at the “Quits rate” in the JOLTS survey:
Workers are quitting their jobs at virtually the same rate in this expansion as during the last one, during which wage growth was higher. There simply isn’t a bigger pool of “workers who do not quit.”
A second thing we ought to find, if monopsony is the primary driver of low wage growth, is that  bigger firms with market power ought to have unfilled job openings at a much higher rate than firms in small, more competitive labor markets. This is backed up by a scientific study:

[I[n a competitive labor market, such “shortages” [of hiring compared with job openings as measured in the JOLTS report] should dissipate as employers competitively bid up wages to fill their vacancies. But counter to this prediction, Rothstein (2015) finds no evidence that wages have grown faster in sectors with rising job openings. Instead, the failure of hiring and wage growth to keep pace with the rise in job openings is consistent with the incentives faced by firms in an imperfectly competitive labor market; it suggests that companies have a strong interest in hiring workers at their offered wages, but have resisted bidding up wages in order to expand their workforces (Abraham 2015).

As it happens, we are able to able to infer a comparison in Rothstein’s metric between large and small firms.
Above I showed job openings (blue) vs. actual hires (red) in the JOLTS survey. The National Federation of Small Business conducts a similar survey among its members. Here are their graphs of job openings and actual hiring from their most recent report:
Small business owners clearly started singing “Happy Days are Here Again” on the day after the 2016 Presidential election.  And their job openings soared.
But their actual hires didn’t. They are adding jobs at the same level as they did in 2014 and 2015. They are behaving as if they have a taboo against raising wages.
So in conclusion, while I have no doubt that the “monopsony” argument is measuring something real, I am more and more inclined to believe that raising wages is simply becoming an ideological taboo among businesses, a higher priority than maximizing net profits after costs.

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Unresolved Issues In Happiness Economics From The Conference Honoring The Retirement Of The Field’s Founder

Unresolved Issues In Happiness Economics From The Conference Honoring The Retirement Of The Field’s Founder

That would be Richard A. Easterlin, age 92, retiring this spring from the U. of Southern California after being there since 1981, following an earlier stint at U. of Penn, where he got his PhD under Simon Kuznets.  Kuznets in turn got his from Wesley Clair Mitchell, who was in turn the student of Thorstein Veblen, and it was mentioned (by me actually) at this conference that happened over this past weekend at USC that Easterlin’s work has emphasized the issue of social comparisons that was strongly developed by Veblen in his 1899 Theory of the Leisure Class.  This applies not only to his famous Easterlin Paradox, the starting shot shown in his long ignored 1974 book chapter that started happiness economics, but also in his earlier Easterlin Hypothesis on demography in economic history.  As it was, this conference focused on happiness economics, with several leading figures in the field present.  I shall note some matters that were disputed at the conference and remain open.

Probably the most hotly disputed is the matter of the relationship between age and happiness (more frequently labeled “social well being” or “life satisfaction”).  The current more or less conventional  view is that this is on average a U-shaped relation, at least in the US, with people happy at 20 but with this declining to about 45 or so, and then rising after that.  There are serious problems with measuring this, especially the fact that we do not have full panel data following individuals throughout their lives so as to avoid the bias induced by the fact that happier people tend to live longer than unhappy ones, which skews results at the upper age end for simple cross-section studies.  A more recent finding from European nations suggests this may be more of an M-shape, with happiness actually rising a bit from 20 into the late 20s or so, declining to about 45, rising to about 70, but then either plateauing or even declining slightly after that.

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