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18 August 2005
Tall Teenagers Earn More As Adults
by George Atkinson

Past research has shown that a man's height can influence his success at attracting a partner and indicate how much money he will earn. But a new study, appearing in the Journal of Political Economy, suggests that what matters most is how tall he was as a teenager.

University of Michigan economist Dan Silverman says teenage height is the deciding factor. "The fact that shorter people are penalized in the labor market does not imply that they are penalized for being short," he said. "Much of the wage disadvantage experienced by shorter people can be explained by a characteristic other than adult height, namely height in adolescence. Two adults of the same age and height who were different heights at age 16 are treated differently in the labor market - the person who was taller as a teen earns more. Being relatively short through the teen years - as opposed to adulthood or early childhood - essentially determines the [wage] returns."

Silverman used data from two previous surveys and found that each additional inch of height at age 16 is associated with a 2.7 percent increase in wages among white American men and a 2.6 percent increase among white men in Britain - regardless of the work they were involved in. Surprisingly, the teenage height influence on earnings does not vary much when variables such as family resources, health, native intelligence and self-esteem are taken into account.

The study analyzed men's heights at the ages 7, 11, 16 and 33, but it was found that only the height at age 16 influenced future wages. "Among all recorded heights, only age 16 height is estimated to have an economically large and statistically significant effect on adult wages," Silverman said.

He added that the results did not represent a preference for tall workers. Rather, they reflected the activities that might be undertaken by teenagers. Participation in extracurricular and other social activities as a teenager may play a significant role in the "teen height premium". Involvement in high school sports is associated with nearly a 12 percent increase in adult wages and participation in other additional clubs other than athletics correlates to about a 5 percent increase in wages. Men who were relatively short as adolescents are less likely to participate in social activities like athletics, school clubs and dating - skills that eventually will help them secure good jobs as adults.

But Silverman is cautious about the results. "If one were to assume that there are valuable skills that are acquired through participation in clubs and athletics, what precisely is acquired? Likely candidates are the interpersonal skills acquired through social interactions, social adaptability from working in groups and discipline and motivation that result from participation. We don't know that it is discrimination within athletics and other extracurricular activities that accounts for shorter teen's lower participation. It may be that earlier treatment has made these youths more sensitive to slights and, as a result, they withdraw from such interactions," he concluded.

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