October 1992, the Royal Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize
in Economic Sciences to Gary S. Becker, University Professor of
Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago. Becker was
cited at the time for “extending the domain of microeconomic analysis
to a wide range of human behavior and interaction, including non-market
behavior.” A big part of the research for which Becker was recognized
was his work on human capital, and specifically the return on investment
of education and training. His 1964 book Human
Capital was a landmark study and for all practical purposes
first put the concept on the map as a subject worthy of economic
discussion. Since then, he has both continued his research, expanding
and refining the topic even more, and also stimulated hundreds of
books, articles, and treatises of other scholars and commentators
who have replied to, challenged, or extended his original thinking.
It would not be overstating the case to say he spawned an intellectual
industry of debate about the most fundamental topic now in the New
We were delighted
to have the opportunity to talk about human capital, more relevant
than ever, with this founding father of the topic. Follows are some
excerpts of the LiNE Zine interview, conducted with Gary in late
February at the University of Chicago.
LiNE Zine : It’s been
almost forty years since your first work on human capital and almost
a decade since your Nobel Prize. How has your thinking evolved or
changed on this topic since then?
Becker: Well, the first edition of my book was 1964,
and there were subsequent editions in the 1970’s and 1990’s. Of
course I’ve learned much since then. We were really dealing with
virgin territory in the early days; I suffered a lot of criticisms
for applying the notion of capital to people, to human beings. We
had to overcome a lot of initial opposition.
Looking back, some
factors have become more important recently and in a few other cases
I see that I didn’t really give certain factors enough attention.
The New Economy
seems to have increased the value of education. In the early 1970’s,
it looked as if the returns for a person’s investment in education
were going down. Dick Freeman, a very good economist at Harvard,
wrote a book called The Over-Educated Americans, arguing
that we were getting too much education, and that the pay-off wasn’t
there. But just about the time that this book came out, the trend
started to reverse itself. For the last twenty-five years we have
had a remarkable expansion in the returns on that kind of investment,
especially college education, and in the 1990’s, even more so, on
In the New Economy
and our technologically more advanced world, skills conferred by
college education have become more important. Although other factors
may be at work, there are remarkable returns to be seen now, and
it’s observable in all groups: men and women, whites, African Americans,
The second area
which has benefited from more recent work is on the macroeconomic
aspect of education and other human capital investments—that is
the contribution of education to economic growth. The research began
with my teacher and colleague Theodore Schultz who also won the
Nobel Prize in economics, but it has received further emphasis in
the last fifteen years or so years. There have been studies of over
one hundred countries and there’s hardly a country that has achieved
rapid economic growth without significant investments in elementary
and secondary schools, and finally in higher education. (The one
exception has been oil-rich countries like Arab sheikdoms whose
growth has been based on natural resources).
LiNE Zine: Gary, what do you see as the role of technology
and its place in either facilitating or extending the ability of
human capital to be a critical source of value? Is technology really
becoming more important, or is that overblown?
Becker: I think technology—computers, Internet, other
technologies—are important in many different ways. First, of course,
modern economies depend upon modern technology; you couldn’t have
a modern economy with the technologies of the 19th century.
Secondly, these technologies themselves are produced by people with
lots of human capital; you need human capital to build and then
make effective use of these technologies. One reason that less-developed
countries haven’t adapted more advanced technologies is that they
do not have the human capital that allows them to effectively utilize
the technology. Finally, the new technologies are going to significantly
impact the acquiring of this capital. Education and training and
knowledge will experience revolutionary change through distance
learning. Today, most learning in schools still takes place in the
same way that it did in the time of Socrates: a group of people
gather together with a teacher who conveys knowledge.
The problem here
is that it is costly to gather people together in the same room
in the same university. So people are now asking, “why not try to
utilize the technology so I can learn at work or at home and pursue
courses and degrees in this more remote fashion?” And by the way,
good distance learning is not a video where you just see a professor
lecturing. It’s got to be more interactive: graphics, back and forth
questions, chats with other people involved in the learning experience,
and the like. We’re just at the beginning of understanding the possibilities.
LiNE Zine: Given your interest in market economics, what
do you make of the evolving phenomenon of so-called human capital
markets on the Internet? Or the idea of making skills more portable,
as in current discussions about knowledge workers each having their
own “skills passports”?
Becker: Well, I see this beginning to happen, and I’d
mention two dimensions of the evolution. First we can expect to
see more employment exchanges in which jobs and people are being
matched on the Internet, matching the right skill to the right demander.
That will increase in scale. The second dimension is about the sourcing
of skills from lower cost economies; that is only going to grow.
Since India is producing some very good software engineers, why
not farm out the work there, and have them communicate through the
Internet with other people working for the same company? Some may
be in South America, others may be in the United States or China.
The division of labor will become more and more worldwide and virtual.
LiNE Zine: Given the kind of trends you see and we’ve
been discussing, what are the new management imperatives? What should
senior executives be thinking about in managing and developing human
Becker: Well, a few thoughts—but understand
I’ve never had to meet a payroll! First, the need to keep updating
skills. Given the rate of change in technological progress, there’s
an ongoing need for investment. Skills don’t last a lifetime. They
depreciate. Any company has to recognize that not only is the human
capital of their employees a major asset, it is also a depreciating
asset that needs continuing investment. A finance officer with an
MBA in finance from say twenty years ago will not know much about
options markets, derivatives, options pricing, and the like. These
people need refresher courses, to learn new techniques about the
risk management of their company’s resources. It’s the same in every
area: marketing skills, IT skills, how the Internet operates—everyone
needs to keep updating skills.
LiNE Zine: You made a now famous distinction between so-called
generalized knowledge and company-specific knowledge in your work
on human capital. Do you still stand behind the different kinds
of knowledge, and how does that difference affect planning today?
Becker: That distinction is now either explicit or implicit
in most literature in the human capital area, and still has a lot
of common sense behind it. There are some skills that people acquire
that they can use in many companies, while other skills or knowledge
is really highly specific to a particular company or maybe to only
a small set of companies. For example, for me, the culture at the
University of Chicago is very different from the culture of competitors
like Stanford or Harvard; if I were to leave Chicago, I would lose
that knowledge and I would have to acquire something comparable
at another university. These differences can be found in pretty
much all companies now, and the distinction also applies to particular
technologies and the knowledge required to apply them. Some technologies
are transferable as one moves from company to company; others are
specific to how a particular company is organized and run. If you
leave that company, that knowledge becomes obsolete. We can observe
that when workers leave a particular company, their earnings will
often be less; their company-specific skills are not as valuable,
and thus they have to start over with new skills in a new company.
LiNE Zine: Does that distinction imply that companies
should make much greater investment in the company-specific kinds
Becker: Yes, I would argue that most investments in learning
for employees should be in company-specific knowledge. If workers
acquire a general knowledge while employed, they’ll benefit more
than the company if and when they leave; accordingly, workers themselves
should pay for that knowledge through lower wages initially. Companies
should be willing to pay for company-specific knowledge because
it helps lock the worker into the organization. He or she will earn
less from that knowledge in another company.
LiNE Zine: Do you believe that in the future workers will
be paying for their own general knowledge or taking a lower wage
because they are essentially becoming more mobile with those skills?
Becker: Absolutely. Ever since my original work, study
after study has shown that workers are willing to invest in acquiring
general knowledge by accepting lower earnings. And as we said before,
we also see workers taking a hit when they move from one company
to another when they have acquired company-specific skills.
LiNE Zine: A lot of the work that began with yours has
equated human capital with knowledge and skills. Two professors,
Chris Bartlett of Harvard Business School, and Sumantra Ghoshal
of London Business School, have been working on a new management
theory of human capital—and they define it as also including so-called
social capital (value from relationships) and emotional capital
(value from engagement and commitment). What do you make of this
fuller definition of human capital?
Becker: I certainly think social capital is important;
I’ve worked on that myself and just came out with a book called
Economics. Yes, social capital is a form of human capital.
When I spoke about corporate culture before I was really talking
about social or corporate capital—how people are connected with
a company. Social capital as a concept has become very popular in
recent years; but it is very difficult to quantify, and emotional
capital would be even more so. But they do seem important because
they do affect the productivity of individual workers and certainly
of companies overall.
LiNE Zine: Gary, any closing remarks or advice for our
readers, looking ahead to the future?
Becker: I would start out with some obvious things that
are still sometimes forgotten: the basic resource in any company
is the people. Remember Bill Gates’ famous comment that if you took
away the top thirty employees at Microsoft, it would be a pretty
ordinary company. And what’s true for companies are true for nations
as well. In the New Economy, the reliance on people hasn’t fallen,
but has increased. We are much more a human capital based economy
than the economy was even thirty years ago.
The most successful
companies and the most successful countries will be those that that
manage human capital in the most effective and efficient fashion—investing
in their workers, encouraging workers to invest in themselves, provide
a good learning environment, and yes, include social capital as
well as skills and training.
I also think the
best companies will set up human capital accounting systems. Companies
don’t have to do that under present tax law because you can expense
all your expenditures on human capital, but in order for a company
to know more about just what human capital is costing and what the
payoff is, they want to track and assess the return on investment.
I can also foresee them publicly reporting what they spend and invest
in this area. In this age when human capital is such an important
form of capital, how could they not want to do that?
Gary S. Becker, winner
of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economic Science in 1992, is a Professor
of Economics and Sociology at the University of Chicago and a Senior
Fellow at the Hoover Institution and University. He is recognized
for his expertise in human capital, economics of the family, and
economic analysis of crime, discrimination, and population.
Brook Manville is
the Publisher of LiNE Zine. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright (c) 2000-2004
LiNE Zine (www.linezine.com)
Zine retains the copyright in all of the material on these web pages
as a collective work under copyright laws. You may not republish,
redistribute or exploit in any manner any material from these pages
without the express consent of LiNE Zine and the author. Contact
for reprints and permissions. You may, however, download or print
copyrighted material for your individual and non-commercial use.