What is labor economics?

Labor economics is the study of the labor force as an element in the process of production. The labor force comprises all those who work for gain within the labor market, whether as employees, employers, or as self-employed, but also the unemployed, who are seeking work. Labor economics involves the study of all that affects these workers before, during, and after their working lives, for example, childcare, education, pay and incentives, fertility, discrimination, their non-work time, and pension reforms.

Labor markets function through the interaction of workers and employers and can be bounded geographically within countries or regions, or be global. Labor economics also concerns itself with the mobility of workers within and across such markets and within and across their employers.

At times of crises labor economics can also help us to understand, and provide solutions to, the problems caused by economic shocks such as recessions or global pandemics like that caused by Covid-19.

This page gathers together a selection of articles to introduce some of the key issues in labor economics. 

  • Do labor costs affect companies’ demand for labor? Updated

    Overtime penalties, payroll taxes, and other labor policies alter costs and change employment and output

    Daniel S. Hamermesh, February 2021
    Higher labor costs (higher wage rates and employee benefits) make workers better off, but they can reduce companies’ profits, the number of jobs, and the hours each person works. The minimum wage, overtime pay, payroll taxes, and hiring subsidies are just a few of the policies that affect labor costs. Policies that increase labor costs can substantially affect both employment and hours, in individual companies as well as in the overall economy.
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  • The impact of monitoring and sanctioning on unemployment exit and job-finding rates Updated

    Job search monitoring and benefit sanctions generally reduce unemployment duration and boost entry to employment in the short term

    Duncan McVicar, June 2020
    Unemployment benefits reduce incentives to search for a job. Policymakers have responded to this behavior by setting minimum job search requirements, by monitoring to check that unemployment benefit recipients are engaged in the appropriate level of job search activity, and by imposing sanctions for infractions. Empirical studies consistently show that job search monitoring and benefit sanctions reduce unemployment duration and increase job entry in the short term. However, there is some evidence that longer-term effects of benefit sanctions may be negative.
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  • The determinants of housework time Updated

    Boosting the efficiency of household production could have large economic effects

    Leslie S. Stratton, May 2020
    The time household members in industrialized countries spend on housework and shopping is substantial, amounting to about half as much as is spent on paid employment. Women bear the brunt of this burden, driven in part by the gender wage differential. Efforts to reduce the gender wage gap and alter gendered norms of behavior should reduce the gender bias in household production time and reduce inefficiency in home production. Policymakers should also note the impact of tax policy on housework time and its market substitutes, and consider ways to reduce the distortions caused by sales and income taxes.
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  • International trade regulation and job creation Updated

    Trade policy is not an employment policy and should not be expected to have major effects on overall employment

    Trade regulation can create jobs in the sectors it protects or promotes, but almost always at the expense of destroying a roughly equivalent number of jobs elsewhere in the economy. At a product-specific or micro level and in the short term, controlling trade could reduce the offending imports and save jobs, but for the economy as a whole and in the long term, this has neither theoretical support nor evidence in its favor. Given that protection may have other—usually adverse—effects, understanding the difficulties in using it to manage employment is important for economic policy.
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  • Equal pay legislation and the gender wage gap Updated

    Despite major efforts at equal pay legislation, gender pay inequality still exists—how can this be put right?

    Solomon W. Polachek, October 2019
    Despite equal pay legislation dating back 50 years, American women still earn 18% less than their male counterparts. In the UK, with its Equal Pay Act of 1970, and France, which legislated in 1972, the gap is 17% and 10% respectively, and in Australia it remains around 14%. Interestingly, the gender pay gap is relatively small for the young but increases as men and women grow older. Similarly, it is large when comparing married men and women, but smaller for singles. Just what can explain these wage patterns? And what can governments do to speed up wage convergence to close the gender pay gap? Clearly, the gender pay gap continues to be an important policy issue.
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  • Measuring income inequality

    Summary measures of inequality differ from one another and give different pictures of the evolution of economic inequality over time

    Ija Trapeznikova, July 2019
    Economists use various metrics for measuring income inequality. Here, the most commonly used measures—the Lorenz curve, the Gini coefficient, decile ratios, the Palma ratio, and the Theil index—are discussed in relation to their benefits and limitations. Equally important is the choice of what to measure: pre-tax and after-tax income, consumption, and wealth are useful indicators; and different sources of income such as wages, capital gains, taxes, and benefits can be examined. Understanding the dimensions of economic inequality is a key first step toward choosing the right policies to address it.
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