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Laureate 2010. Richard Easterlin

IUSSP Laureate 2010

The 2010 IUSSP Laureate Award was granted to Richard A. Easterlin in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the advancement of population sciences. The award ceremony took place during the PAA Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas on Thursday, April 15.Richard Easterlin



Professor Easterlin has a long and distinguished academic record.  He received his undergraduate degree in Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and a master’s degree from the same institution.  While studying for an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Easterlin made the fortuitous decision to switch to economics.  Business’s loss and our profession’s gain.  He was a Professor of Economics at Penn for thirty years before moving to the University of Southern California where he remains as University Professor and Professor of Economics.  Professor Easterlin has held visiting positions at Cal Tech, Warwick, Texas A&M, Washington, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford.  His many academic honors include: Member, National Academy of Sciences; Honorary doctorate, Lund University; Irene B. Tauber Award, PAA; Fellow, Econometric Society; Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences; President of the Population Association of America; and President of the American Economic History Association.  He has also served on the Board of Editors of the American Economic Review and the Journal of Economic Literature.  Professor Easterlin has been a member of the IUSSP since 1962 and has participated in many IUSSP activities.


Early on, Professor Easterlin accepted Simon Kuznet’s view that “the touchstone of achievement is insight into empirical reality.”  This basic belief has shaped everything Professor Easterlin has done since his graduate days.  In a 1997 article he described his research approach: “I see the point of departure of research as some empirical problem… One is likely to have some theoretical preconceptions about causation, but the first step is to establish the facts, both quantitative and qualitative.  These facts will inform the investigator more fully about what needs to be explained, and may also suggest new possibilities regarding causation.  Economic theory enters by providing a systemic framework for theorizing, but other disciplines may suggest relevant causal factors that need to be included, and supply relevant facts.  Simple empirical methods provide an initial check on the consistency of the theory and data; more rigorous methods are used largely to formalize one’s conclusions. Qualitative evidence….should be consistent with the model.”  This approach is not very common in economics (although there are signs of change) but Professor Easterlin has very fruitfully stuck to it throughout his career.


This approach characterizes Professor Easterlin’s two most well known contributions to population science: the “Easterlin hypothesis” and the “synthesis framework”.  In his earliest work on U.S. fertility, he accepted, as did all economists, that preferences were fixed and that fertility was a function of prices and income.  However, he concluded that the data were inconsistent with such an explanation.  For the answer, he turned to sociology (since his graduate school days, he is often to be seen in the company of sociologists, historians, and demographers) and the concept of economic socialization and reference group theory (he was also influenced by the work of demographers on fertility preferences).  He came to the heretical notion that preferences were not fixed and from that to the notion of “relative income”(one’s assessment of earnings prospects in relation to an internalized norm of one’s desired living level).  Behavior was affected by relative income, not by absolute income as a friend and colleague of Professor Easterlin’s from his NBER days (Gary Becker) believed.  This insight led to a compelling explanation of the baby boom and prediction of the baby bust in Professor Easterlin’s classic 1961 paper in the American Economic Review, “The American Baby Boom in Historical Perspective”. The “Easterlin hypothesis” was born.  Over the years he and other scholars applied the concept to the study of many other behaviors (marriage, divorce, education, homicide, suicide, etc).  The most notable presentation of the wide applicability of the Easterlin hypothesis to a myriad of behaviors was in Professor Easterlin’s remarkable 1978 PAA Presidential address.  There has been a huge literature testing the Easterlin hypothesis and refining and extending it.  Professor Easterlin contributed to this literature perhaps most notably in 1987’s Birth and Fortune where he laid out many refinements to the original hypothesis.


Professor Easterlin’s second notable contribution to population sciences, the “synthesis framework” (with Eileen Crimmins building on earlier work with Wachter and Pollak), had a similar genesis.  When he first sought to explain the demographic transition, he like other economists sought the answer in a model of conscious choice. This approach was inconsistent with a large literature in demography that suggested that prior to the transition most couples did not consciously regulate fertility.  Rather than reject this evidence as “unimportant”, Easterlin and his collaborators incorporated it into their model.  From here, Professor Easterlin realized that social norms and physiological relationships could be important in explaining the demographic transition.  Most economists rejected the notion of desired family size.  Professor Easterlin did not and incorporated desired fertility (a demographic concept) into his model. Thus was born the “synthesis framework” that took into account systematic changes in preferences and the existence of natural fertility (supply-side considerations).  This supply-demand framework suggested that the determinants of fertility shift from supply to demand in the course of the demographic transition.  The framework has been applied to help explain the demographic transition in many countries.


Although these two contributions are the most well known, Professor Easterlin has made a number of other significant contributions to population sciences. Among these are his work on long swings in population and the economy, the determinants of health and mortality, and happiness.  Professor Easterlin assembled a large number of time series on population, output, investment, labor force, building permits, etc and investigated them for regularities.  The consistency of movements in the series with theoretical expectations convinced him of the reality of long swings and led to the formulation of a broad model of economic-demographic interactions during long swings.  In his work on health and mortality he turned to the historical record to reject a model of based solely on household choice.  Professor Easterlin argued that the assumptions of such a model were not valid until the middle and latter parts of the nineteenth century.  His work emphasizes the importance of the growth of epidemiological knowledge and the public health movement.  This work forms the core of his 1996 book Growth Triumphant in which he explores the relationship between the mortality revolution and economic growth. In this work, as in much of what he has done and continues to do, Professor Easterlin has drawn on the work of demographers, public health scholars, historians, and anthropologists.  Early in his career, Professor Easterlin worked on happiness, not a topic common in modern economics, or, indeed, elsewhere.  He has returned to this topic in recent works and again added fresh insights.  The accepted wisdom was that higher income leads to greater subjective welfare (happiness).  But Professor Easterlin used the relative income concept to argue that aspirations rise as an economy develops, so that the positive effect of income growth on material welfare will be negated by the adverse effect of increased aspirations.  In related work, Professor Easterlin and Eileen Crimmins have investigated value formation among youth and its relation to behavior.


Currently Professor Easterlin is studying subjective well-being over the life cycle, applying the demographers' technique of cohort analysis to social survey data.  The aim is to clarify the role in determining well-being of circumstances such as living levels, family life, health, job conditions, and personality, and the reasons for the so called "Easterlin Paradox": at a point in time, there is a positive association between subjective well-being and size of income, but over time there is no improvement in subjective well-being as income increases.


Along with this distinguished research contribution, Professor Easterlin’s record as a teacher has been equally distinguished. He has inspired and continues to inspire generations of students from both developed and developing countries to widen their thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries and to integrate concepts from other disciplines – anthropology, economics, history, sociology – to better understand human behavior. Many of the world’s leading demographers have passed through Professor Easterlin’s classroom and have been influenced by his thinking.


Professor Easterlin is very deserving of this award for his many path-breaking contributions to population sciences, his dedication to opening the field of population sciences to all disciplines, his direct and indirect influence on generations of population sciences scholars, and his efforts to bring the lessons of population research to as wide an audience as possible.