From 1929 to 1945 he worked for the Dutch statistical office and briefly served as consultant to the League of Nations (1936–1938). In 1945 he became the first Director of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis and left this position in 1955 to focus on education. He spent one year as a visiting professor at the Harvard University and then returned to the Dutch Economic Institute (the successor of the Netherlands School of Economics). In parallel, he provided consulting services to international organizations and governments of various developing countries, such as United Arab Republic, Turkey, Venezuela, Surinam, Indonesia and Pakistan.
Tinbergen developed the first national comprehensive macroeconomic model, which he first developed in 1936 for the Netherlands, and later applied to the United States and the United Kingdom.
Tinbergen was a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Science and of the International Academy of Science. In 1956 he founded the Econometric Institute at the Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam together with Henri Theil, who also was his successor in Rotterdam. In 1960 he was elected as a Fellow of the American Statistical Association. The Tinbergen Institute was named in his honour. The International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) awarded its Honorary Fellowship to Jan Tinbergen in 1962. In 1968, he received an honorary doctorate from Sir George Williams University, which later became Concordia University.
Jan Tinbergen was the eldest of five children of Dirk Cornelis Tinbergen and Jeannette van Eek. His brother Nikolaas "Niko" Tinbergen would also win a Nobel Prize (for physiology, during 1973) for his work in ethology, while his youngest brother Luuk would become a famous ornithologist. Jan and Nikolaas Tinbergen are the only siblings to have both won Nobel Prizes. Between 1921 and 1925, Tinbergen studied mathematics and physics at the University of Leiden under Paul Ehrenfest. During those years at Leiden he had numerous discussions with Ehrenfest, Kamerlingh Onnes, Hendrik Lorentz, Pieter Zeeman, and Albert Einstein.
For many, Jan Tinbergen became known for the so-called 'Tinbergen Norm' often discussed long after his death. There is no written work of Tinbergen in which he himself states it formally. It is generally believed to be the principle that, if the ratio between the greatest and least income exceeds 5, it becomes disadvantageous for the societal unit involved. Tinbergen himself discussed some technicalities of a five-to-one income distribution ratio in an article published in 1981. Apart from specifics about a five-to-one ratio, it is true in general that Tinbergen's grand theme was income distribution and the search for an optimal social order.
Tinbergen's work on macroeconomic Models was later continued by Lawrence Klein, contributing to another Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences. For his cultural contributions, he was given the Gouden Ganzenveer in 1985.
Tinbergen’s econometric modelling lead to a lively debate with several known participants including J.M. Keynes, Ragnar Frisch and Milton Friedman. The debate is sometime referred to as the Tinbergen debate.