The Cumulative Advantage of a Unionized Career for Lifetime Earnings

Zachary Parolin, Tom VanHeuvelen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Studies on labor union earnings premiums generally investigate their size through point-in-time estimates. This study posits, by contrast, that point-in-time estimates of the union premium overlook the cumulative earnings advantages of long-term, persistent union membership. Using a sample of men from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics from 1969 to 2019, the authors investigate how lifetime union membership contributes to earnings advantages. They find, first, that unionization throughout one’s career is associated with a $1.3 million mean increase in lifetime earnings, larger than the average gains from completing college. Second, the lifetime earnings gains are channeled entirely through higher hourly wages and occur despite earlier-than-average retirement for persistently unionized men. Third, the union wage premium is not constant throughout a worker’s career; instead it increases with more years of union membership. The cumulative advantages of union membership for workers’ economic well-being are far greater than point-in-time estimates suggest.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)434-460
Number of pages27
JournalILR Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2023

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • inequality
  • life course theory
  • panel data
  • stratification
  • union wage effects
  • unions


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