The productive career of Robert Solow

Robert Solow is 95 and continues to actively think and work on problems the world faces.

A profile of the economist and his productive career.

Last summer, as he turned 95, the economist Robert M. Solow sat at home poring over a draft outline of “The Work of the Future,” an MIT report about technology, jobs, and economic growth. Solow has been studying these topics since he returned from fighting in World War II—and won a Nobel Prize in 1987 for demonstrating that technological innovation generates a huge portion of economic growth.

True, Solow’s eyes bother him these days, and he reads less than he once did. His wife, Barbara, herself an economic historian, died in 2014, after nearly 70 years of marriage. And the economics colleagues he worked alongside for decades at MIT—and with whom he built a powerhouse department from scratch—are no longer around either.

“I’m the only one who’s still inhaling and exhaling,” Solow says wryly, sitting on his living-room couch.

But Solow, an Institute Professor emeritus, is doing quite a bit more than that. He reads academic literature, including papers about productivity, and follows economic trends, world events, and policy debates. His “wickedly devious sense of humor,” as his Institute Professor colleague Daron Acemoglu puts it, remains intact. Having joined MIT in 1949, Solow is a macroeconomist whose career almost predates the word “macroeconomics.” Yet here he is seven decades later, rigorously examining the draft materials of the new work report.

Solow serves on the Work of the Future Task Force’s advisory board, and near the project’s start in late 2017, he and MIT sociologist Susan Silbey wrote a memo offering guidance for the report’s authors—MIT economist David Autor, MIT engineer and historian David A. Mindell, PhD ’96, and Elisabeth Reynolds, PhD ’10, director of MIT’s Industrial Performance Center. They pointed out that despite ongoing speculation about what robots, AI, and automation will do to work, the more pressing job issues in the United States right now are the loss of middle-class careers and the rise of inequality. While the task force’s brief was broad, and the report does examine technological developments, Solow and Silbey stressed the importance of policy decisions in shaping these workplace trends.


One Response to “The productive career of Robert Solow”

  1. Oleg Komlik Says:

    Related: Robert Solow’s sarcastic economics

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