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Beauty and the Worker - Part 14

Older people in the labor market are on average rated as less good-looking than their younger co-workers. Nonetheless, older people, generally up through age fifty-five or so, tend to earn more than younger people in the same occupation, industry, and location. The question, though, is: If we adjust for these differences and many others, does the impact on earnings of differences in appearance grow, stay the same, or decline as people age and gather more work experience? In succinct terms, how do the beauty premium and ugliness penalty in the labor market vary with age?

What might we expect the answer to this question to be? While average looks decline with age, the dispersion of looks — the variation around the declining average — doesn't change very much. It is just that there are more below-average people, and fewer above-average looking people. Thinking about this issue forces us to dig more deeply into the roots of the beauty premium in labor markets. Early in their jobs, workers are to some extent unknown quantities to their employers. The employer has interviewed them, examined their resumés, tested them, etc.; but their willingness to work hard, their attitudes, and how they get along with their fellow employees and customers are less well known to the employer. The employer, in screening them, may rely on their looks as an indicator of success along these other dimensions. Later on, once the employee has established a record of interacting with customers, other workers, and the boss, looks might become less important. The degree of uncertainty about the worker's true productivity should diminish over time. If that is true, then the impact of beauty on earnings will diminish with age and experience.

On the opposite side, early in a career good looks may give the worker access to more opportunities to build skills, meet customers, impress the boss favorably, and so on, than would be given to a worse-looking co-worker. The beautiful worker would have the chance to build her skills, perhaps with only small investments of her time. Skills are created through beauty in this case, but the enhanced skills are manna from heaven, in the sense that the worker has done nothing to create her additional earning power. Rather, the skills are thrust upon her by virtue of her good looks. In this case the effect of looks on earnings would rise with age, and it is a real effect, resulting from the growing skills that a worker's beauty generates over her career.

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