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Four things the Game of Life finally learned about the economy

Flickr user Morgan

If you played the Game of Life growing up, you might remember that it had virtually no resemblance to real life — you had no choice but to get married, you get a thousand dollars for having a kid, and you have an outrageously good chance at becoming a millionaire.

The game still is a fantasy world — if it were too much like real life, it would barely be worth playing — but as I found out when I was writing about economics-themed board games with Dylan Matthews last month, Life has finally started in a few key ways. Here are a few of the key ways the game has entered the real world.

1) College is a great choice, but it's expensive (and it's no guarantee of a high salary)

When I played Life growing up, there was one sure-fire way to lose: to skip college. At the start of the game, you had two paths to choose from — business, which got you a small salary but put you five or six spaces ahead of the other players, or college.

In the real world, it's true that college both was and is a great investment — college graduates have much lower unemployment and on the whole have much higher salaries than high school grads...but it is also one huge investment (in Life, $100,000). And occasionally, people without four-year degrees get relatively high-paying jobs. In the latest versions of Life, there's finally more than one option for the "business" route, and it occasionally earns you the same as a college grad. Now all the game needs is to have a two-year degree route to include more of those jobs.

2) People change jobs all the time

There's no good data out there about how many career changes the average person goes through in a lifetime, but it is definitely true that Americans have long hopped from job to job — today they spend a median of 4.6 years in a job, which is in fact longer than in 1983. And tenure at current jobs has also gone down, as a recent report from the Center for American Progress shows. The share of male workers at their jobs for 10 years or more has slid steadily across age groups.

Worker Tenure

(Center for American Progress)

And likewise, today when you play Life, you can partway through the game go to night school and change careers...not quite the same as just jumping to another firm, but it's a move in that direction. And, as with the college option, this also costs money ($100,000, to be exact).

3) Retirement isn't a choice between destitution and being a millionaire

Back in the 1960s version of Life, you finished the game by either moving on toward millionaire or retiring to the "Poor Farm."

And in the 1960s, being elderly and poor was far more common than it is today. The poverty rate for the elderly was sky-high in the early 1960s. More than one in four people 65 and over were in poverty as of 1967. Use the (more accurate) supplemental poverty measure, and it was nearly half. Today, elderly poverty is less than one-third what it was in the 1960s, by either measure.

poverty elderly

What has driven that down? In large part, the expansion of Social Security benefits that took place in the 1960s.

And whether the people at Hasbro had these trends in mind or not when they changed it, the game has finally made retirement look a little less destitute. In today's game you either move on to be a millionaire or you retire to "Countryside Acres," which we're assuming is a middle-of-the-road retirement facility. To be fair, today's Social Security recipients aren't exactly rich (the average benefit is around $1,300 a month), and a lot of them might not be able to afford a nice retirement home, but they're certainly a lot better off than they would have been a few decades ago.

4) Virtue isn't enough to make you wealthy

If you want a real view of how we used to think about wealth and economics, look back at the very first Life game, which was to be more precise called the Checkered Game of Life. And it's dark.

Life board game


Yes, you can get struck by Cupid's arrow and move to the matrimony square and hope to eventually land on wealth. Or you can succumb to gambling, idleness, or intemperance and find yourself in ruin, disgrace, or jail. Also, there's a square for suicide.

But the broader message is that being virtuous leads you to massive wealth and success. For many Americans, that just isn't true. Social mobility is lower in the US than in most other developed countries. Not only that, but a landmark 2014 study showed it has barely budged in decades, as measured in intergenerational persistence (one measure of mobility).

social mobility 2

And the major factors that influence mobility include quality of schools, whether you live in a two-parent house, and the type of neighborhood you grow up in. Falling into disgrace or intemperance probably doesn't help, but it's mentioned nowhere in the academic literature.