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Beauty and the Worker - Part 8

Without any additional evidence on the general population, there is no sure way of deciding this issue. Either possibility may be correct. My best guess, though, absent any reason to believe that labor markets have changed in one direction or the other, is that the effects of beauty today are not much different from those that prevailed in the United States in the 1970s.

The effects of looks on earnings might well change over the business cycle, as the economy moves between recession and full employment. From the employer's side of labor markets, having more unemployed workers available allows greater choice about workers' characteristics. In bad times, Cathy and Deb might have more scope to indulge their desires for beautiful workers. In discussing race in labor markets, we generally believe that unemployment gives employers more latitude to discriminate. If looks are treated the same way, beauty might help a good-looking worker more during a recession, when there is more competition from other job seekers. Its effects will be less when workers are scarce and employers cannot afford to be so choosy.

No study has looked at this question generally. But among law school graduates who entered the labor market when jobs for new attorneys were very plentiful, the impact of differences in looks on their earnings was small. Among attorneys who sought work when jobs were less readily available, earnings were more strongly affected by differences in their beauty. This single comparison is not definitive, but it does suggest that the effects of beauty on earnings might rise in recessions.

IS BEAUTY THE REAL CAUSE?

There are a lot of other factors that might affect earnings and that could not be accounted for in most of these studies. One concern is that beauty may just reflect self-esteem. Perhaps people's self-confidence manifests itself in their behavior, so that their looks are rated more highly, and their self-esteem makes them more desirable and higher-paid employees. The Canadian study included a set of questions that psychologists use to measure self-esteem. Self-esteem and looks were positively related — but the correlations in these data were quite weak: The typical good-looking person was only slightly more likely to express substantial self-esteem than the typical bad-looking person. Adjusting earnings for the effects of self-esteem, workers who expressed greater self-esteem did earn more. But this additional adjustment did not change the estimated effects of looks on earnings in the Canadian data that had information on this characteristic.

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