The Influence of Early-Life Economic Shocks on Aging Outcomes: Evidence from the U.S. Great Depression



We show that earnings over the life cycle and health and productivity around retirement age vary with exposure to economic conditions in early life. Using state-year-level variation from the most severe and prolonged economic downturn in American history – the Great Depression – combined with restricted microdata from the Health and Retirement Study, we find that changes in macroeconomic indicators during the in utero period and early childhood are associated with changes in accumulated earnings, human capital, metabolic syndrome, and physical limitations decades later. After evaluating changes in endogenous fertility responses and mortality rates for Depression-era birth cohorts in the U.S. Census and Vital Statistics Death Records, we conclude that these effects likely represent lower-bound estimates of the true impacts of the economic shock on aging outcomes. Our results could help inform the design of retirement and healthcare systems and pinpoint the long-term costs of business cycles.

The paper found that:

  • Fluctuations in wages and unemployment during the Great Depression impacted the long-term health and productivity of children born in the 1930s.
  • Exposure to the Great Depression during the in utero period had the strongest effects on aging outcomes.
  • The effects of the Great Depression also impacted earnings productivity in midlife.

The policy implications of the findings are:

  • Declines in productivity in midlife and at older ages due to prenatal exposure to the Great Depression may have reduced contributions to the Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) system.
  • Worse health conditions in advanced ages due to prenatal exposure to the Great Depression may have increased the demands on OASDI programs and the healthcare system.
  • U.S. safety net programs, including food stamps, TANF, EITC, and Medicaid, may play a significant role in mitigating the future long-term adverse effects of the COVID-19 recession on the aging outcomes of children born during this time.

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