The Incubator of Human Capital: The NBER and the Rise of the Human Capital Paradigm
The human capital construct is deep in the bones of economics and finds reference by many classical economists, even if they did not use the phrase. The term “human capital,” seldom mentioned in economics before the 1950s, increased in usage starting in the 1960s. By the early 2000s, about 20% of all books concerned with economics mentioned the phrase human capital. In the early 1980s, about 15% of NBER working papers referenced human capital whereas just 6% of all economics articles did. Today the figure for the NBER exceeds 25% and is 20% among all economics articles. The concept of human capital is part of almost every field of economics. The NBER played an outsized role in the rise of the concept of human capital mainly because of its emphasis on empiricism. We explore how the NBER was an incubator of human capital research and the ways human capital theory transformed and broadened its research agenda.
Presented at the NBER Conference on “Historical Labor Markets and Inequality,” April 1, 2023. A previous version of this paper was presented at the session “NBER and the Evolution of Economic Research, 1920-2020,” 2020 AEA Meetings in San Diego CA. We thank our discussants: Kevin Lang at the 2023 event and James Heckman at the 2020 meetings. Stanley Engerman provided constructive comments. Jennifer Walsh located Library of Congress codes for the NBER volumes; Alice Wu and Christina Zhao helped with the final data compilations. We dedicate the paper to Martin Feldstein, whose vision brought the NBER into the modern age and made 1050 Massachusetts Avenue the meeting place for economists and an incubator of human capital. The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Forthcoming: The Incubator of Human Capital: The NBER and the Rise of the Human Capital Paradigm, Claudia Goldin, Lawrence F. Katz. in Historical Labor Markets and Inequality, Bailey, Boustan, and Collins. 2023