February 7, 2021, Christopher D. Carroll ConsAndLaborSupply
Consider a consumer who has a utility function
where is leisure (mnemonic: for laZiness) and is consumption. Normalize the maximum possible labor supply to ; actual labor supply is , so that
The wage earned for working one unit of time is , and labor income is the wage rate multiplied by the amount of labor supplied,
Suppose the consumer has a ﬁxed amount to spend in period on consumption and leisure,
where can diﬀer from income because this might be a single period in a multi-period problem.
The price of leisure is (your income is lower by this amount for every extra unit of time you spend not working) and the price of consumption is 1, so the ﬁrst order condition from the optimal choice of leisure says that the ratio of the marginal utility of leisure to the marginal utility of consumption should be
To see this formally, note that the consumer’s goal is to
subject to a budget constraint
so (6) becomes
for which the FOC is
This is just the classic condition that says that the ratio of prices of two goods should equal the ratio of their marginal utilities, which applies in any standard microeconomic problem. For a quantitative comparison of how this condition manifests itself in the U.S. and Europe, see Zweibel (2005).
Now, assume there is an ‘outer’ utility function which depends on a Cobb-Douglas aggregate of consumption and leisure
The inner function has the property that for , which implies utility can be written
Over long periods of time as wages have risen in the U.S., the proportion of time spent working has not changed very much (an old stylized fact recently reconﬁrmed by Ramey and Francis (2006)). Similarly, across countries with vastly diﬀerent levels of per capita income, or across people with vastly diﬀerent levels of wages, the amount of variation in is small compared to the size of the diﬀerence in wages.
These facts motivate the choice of utility function; King, Plosser, and Rebelo (1988) show that other choices of utility functions produce trends, but no such trends are evident in the data. To see why the trends are produced, think about a model in which the lifetime lasts only a single period, with a lifetime budget constraint .
We can solve for the level of consumption over the lifetime as
implying that leisure is
which is a constant (i.e. the amount of leisure does not trend up or down with the level of wages). Obviously this is what motivates the choice of an ‘inner’ utility function that is Cobb-Douglas: For such a function, people will choose to spend constant proportions of their resources on consumption and leisure as wages rise.
Now consider a two period lifetime version of the model in which each period of life is characterized by a utility function of the same form and the lifetime optimization problem is
subject to a lifetime budget constraint
From now on, assume that the ‘outer’ utility function is . This implies that .
so the lifetime optimization problem becomes
Now we want to compare this to the two period lifetime model with no labor supply decision. In that model, the proﬁle of consumption was unrelated to the proﬁle of labor income over lifetime. (‘Fisherian Separation’ held). In this model, the Fisherian Separation proposition is that the proﬁle of is unrelated to proﬁle of wages ; however, the lifetime proﬁle of leisure spending is identical to the lifetime proﬁle of consumption spending,
so leisure moves in the opposite direction from wages, which means labor supply moves in the same direction as wages. This makes intuitive sense: You want to work harder when work pays better.
To make further progress, assume and deﬁne wage growth as . Assume that young people tend to work about half of their waking hours (remember vacations, weekends, etc!).
Note that under these assumptions we can rewrite (22) as
Empirically, wages in the U.S. tend to grow between youth and middle age by a factor of (depending on occupation and education), so , but labor supply is about the same for 55 year olds as for 25 year olds, .
Suppose for analysis that . Then (23) becomes
so the theory says middle aged people work more than young people by . This is of course absurd - it implies that middle aged people would barely have time to breathe because they were working so hard.
One objection to this analysis is that it assumed , which implies that consumption when young equals consumption when middle aged. In fact, on average consumption grows by about the same amount as wages between youth and middle age. So perhaps the right assumption is . Under this assumption, we obviously have , matching the empirical fact.
However, there is predictably diﬀerent wage growth across occupations and education groups. Write , where now will diﬀer for people in diﬀerent occupations indexed by , and plausible values range from (manual laborers) to (doctors), leaving the average value of across the two groups at . It is an empirical fact that the magnitude of variations in labor supply across these groups is rather small, both in youth and in middle age.
Assuming , rewrite (22) for each occupation as
For , if we have
implying - manual laborers would work zero hours. However, if so that
so doctors would be working much harder when middle aged than when young. Thus, the theory says that if labor supplies are equal when young (which is approximately true), they should diﬀer drastically by middle age (which is not remotely true). That is, lifetime labor supply does not seem to respond very much to predictable variation in lifetime wages. This is described in the literature as a “small intertemporal elasticity of labor supply.”
King, Robert G., Charles I. Plosser, and Sergio T. Rebelo (1988): “Production, Growth, and Business Cycles, I: The Basic Neoclassical Model and II: New Directions,” Journal of Monetary Economics, 21(2/3), 195–232 and309–341.
Zweibel, T. Herman (2005): “180 Trillion Leisure Hours Lost To Work Last Year,” The Onion, 41, Available here.