Dale T. Mortensen dies at 74; Northwestern professor won economics Nobel

Longtime Northwestern University professor Dale T. Mortensen, who shared the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences with two other Americans for their work explaining how unemployment can remain high despite a large number of job openings, has died. He was 74.

Mortensen died Thursday at his home in Wilmette, Ill., said his personal assistant and close family friend, Sue Triforo.

Northwestern President Morton Schapiro paid tribute to Mortensen, saying “his groundbreaking work is especially relevant to policymakers attempting to address unemployment today.”


Mortensen won the Nobel along with Peter A. Diamond of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Christopher Pissarides of the London School of Economics for their independent research on search theory.

A member of the Northwestern faculty since 1965, Mortensen found in his research into the difficulties of matching supply and demand in the labor market that rigidities can cause unemployment as job-seekers look for the best work at the highest pay.

“The matching problem, whether found in the labor, housing, or the marriage market, is one of forming complementary pairs in a world in which individual workers and jobs are heterogeneous,” he wrote in an autobiography for the Nobel Prize website. “It takes time and resources to accomplish this task, and the duration of unemployment experienced by individual workers as well as the length of time that an existing job is vacant reflect this fact.”

Besides his pioneering approaches to investigating the labor market, Mortensen had a way of breaking down complex economic ideas into terms anyone could relate to.

He even quoted the late Chicago author and fellow Pulitzer prize winner Studs Terkel while thanking the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Nobel Foundation.

“Work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, for daily meaning as well as daily bread,” Mortensen said, quoting Terkel, who was known for recording the stories of ordinary Americans.

Dale Thomas Mortensen was born Feb. 2, 1939, in Enterprise, Ore., and grew up mainly in the Hood River Valley of north-central Oregon, where his father worked in forestry.

He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Willamette University in Salem, Ore., and a doctorate in economics from what is now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.He also was an accomplished musician.

Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Beverly, their son and two daughters, and eight grandchildren.