The Unexpected Compression: Competition at Work in the Low Wage Labor Market

Discussion Paper

David Autor, Arindrajit Dube, and Annie McGrew

April 2024

Labor market tightness following the height of the Covid-19 pandemic led to an unexpected compression in the US wage distribution that reflects, in part, an increase in labor market competition. Rapid relative wage growth at the bottom of the distribution reduced the college wage premium and counteracted approximately one-quarter of the four-decade increase in aggregate 90-10 log wage inequality. Wage compression was accompanied by rapid nominal wage growth and rising job-to-job separations—especially among young non-college (high school or less) workers. At the state-level, post-pandemic labor market tightness became strongly predictive of price increases (price-Phillips curve), real wage growth among low-wage workers (wage-Phillips curve), and aggregate wage compression. Simultaneously, the wage-separation elasticity—a key measure of labor market competition—rose among young non-college workers, with wage gains concentrated among workers who changed employers and industries. Seen through the lens of a canonical job ladder model, the pandemic increased the elasticity of labor supply to firms in the low-wage labor market, reducing employer market power and spurring rapid relative wage growth among young non-college workers who disproportionately moved from lower-paying to higher-paying and potentially more-productive jobs.