Work Complexity and Cognitive Functioning at Midlife: Cross-Validating the Kohn-Schooler Hypothesis in an American Cohort

Hauser, Robert, and Carol Roan
Working paper no. 2007-08


In an influential body of work extending across more than three decades and drawing on data from the United States, Poland, Japan, and the Ukraine, Melvin Kohn, Carmi Schooler, and their associates have found that cognitive capacities are affected by experiences on the job, specifically that working at a complex job improves cognitive functioning. These findings anticipate and parallel recent research on the relationships among social integration, leisure-time activities, and cognitive functioning among the elderly. This paper tests the Kohn-Schooler hypothesis using different measures, models, and data. Specifically, we estimate models of the reciprocal influence of work complexity and cognitive functioning at ages 53-54 among women and men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Even when adolescent academic ability test scores and high school rank have been controlled, we find moderate effects of the complexity of work on abstract reasoning ability at ages 53-54, and these effects are robust to reasonable assumptions about the unreliability of measurement of adolescent academic ability. Moreover, the effects of work complexity on abstract reasoning ability are virtually the same among women and men.